State:Fracking Waste Tainted Groundwater, Soil at Three Washington County Sites

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Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Article courtesy of Don Hopey | August 6, 2014 | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Shared as educational material

Leaks of fracking waste water from three impoundments in Washington County have contaminated soil and groundwater, prompting the state to issue a violation notice at one site and increase monitoring and testing at another.

John Poister, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said the problems at three of Range Resources Inc.’s nine Washington County impoundments have raised concerns and increased regulators’ scrutiny. The impoundments store flowback and waste water from multiple Marcellus Shale well drilling and fracking operations.

“We have had some discussions with Range about its impoundments,” Mr. Poister said. “We are looking at them and discussing things with them.

“But in terms of saying all Range impoundments are bad, we can’t say that. But we are likely stepping up our inspections, and actually have done so already.”

In response to complaints by Cecil officials, the DEP said it is ordering additional testing and monitoring around the Cecil 23 impoundment, previously known as the Worstell impoundment. A Range monitoring well measured chloride levels at 500 milligrams per liter, twice the acceptable level, during the second week of July.

Mr. Poister said it will take 30 to 45 days to get the results of the additional testing, which will try to determine if there is a “plume” of contamination in the groundwater.

Township manager Don Gennuso said the township sent letters last week to about 50 residents along Swihart Road, most of whom use private water wells, informing them of the findings. It urged them to inform the DEP if their well water developed a foul odor or taste and to immediately get their water tested.

“At no time was the township board or its residents notified of the potential contamination,” Mr. Gennuso said. “I know they don’t want to scare people, but we really need in to be informed.”

On July 24, the DEP issued a “notice of violation” to Range as a result of contamination of a stream and ground water near its 3-million-gallon Yeager impoundment on McAdams Road in Amwell.

That impoundment was put into service in 2010 and is in the process of being closed. It has been the subject of ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, and nearby residents have filed lawsuits, claiming their health was damaged by air and water pollution.

Also in Amwell, cleanup is continuing at Range’s John Day impoundment, where a contractor is excavating an estimated 15,000 tons of chloride-contaminated soil. The DEP has issued the company an open-ended violation notice.

Elevated chloride levels typically indicate fracking fluids or flowback waste water has been released into the soil, the DEP said in a July 24 letter to Range detailing the violations at the Yeager impoundment.

Mr. Gennuso said the three impoundments were constructed incorrectly because their leak-detection systems are beneath dual liners instead of between them, meaning leaks in the upper liner aren’t detected until the ground is contaminated.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, declined to answer questions about the individual impoundments, but issued a general statement saying the company is “committed to safely and responsibly developing our natural resources, which includes effective water management.”

The statement said company monitoring systems identified small discharges of “brine water,” which were reported to the DEP and “appropriately, resulted in regulatory action.”

According to the statement, Range and the DEP have not found any health or safety impacts resulting from soil and groundwater contamination, and “the limited environmental impacts can and have been mitigated.”

“Protecting health and safety of the communities where we work is a core commitment for us,” the statement said.

According to the DEP letter about Yeager, the company reported in May that a hole penetrated the liners of the impoundment, and other holes were found during earlier company inspections. The company’s own assessment noted that five areas of elevated chloride levels were found near the holes, which allowed waste water to escape into the soil in possible violation of the state Solid Waste Management Act.

The DEP notice of violation said Range also failed to monitor chlorides as required, did not provide required impoundment construction records and allowed impoundment fluids to escape. The company faces civil penalties for the alleged violations of the state Oil and Gas Act, the Clean Streams Law and the Dam Safety and Encroachment Act.


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