DEP ground water contamination investigation continues

WELLSBORO – The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil and Gas Program continues its investigation of a leaking flowback fluid impoundment at EQT’s Phoenix Pad S in Duncan Township, Tioga County that occurred in May 2012.

According to DEP Community Relations Coordinator Dan Spadoni, work practices and procedures at the impoundment caused the leak.

According to the Environmental Integrity Project, representing several environmental groups, the impoundment leaked because there were over 100 holes and tears in the liner.

DEP issued a notice of violation to EQT in June 2012.

Since that time, DEP’s Oil and Gas and Environmental Cleanup and Brownfields programs have been working with EQT and its consultants to properly characterize and remediate the release, according to Spadoni.

According to a the Environmental Integrity Project, the impoundment leaked about 5 million gallons of flowback waste into Rock Run, a “Class-A Wild Trout” water, caused significant groundwater contamination, and resulted in vast swaths of dead and stressed vegetation.

The wastewater contained pollutants such as barium, copper, manganese, chloride, strontium, arsenic, iron, lithium and lead at levels that exceed state and federal health-based and environmental standards, according to the EIP, which represents PennEnvironment, the Responsible Drilling Alliance, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Clean Water Action, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and PennFuture.

On behalf of the environmental groups, EIP asked the Pennsylvania attorney general, DEP secretary and EPA Region 3 to thoroughly investigate EQT and the site, develop a comprehensive and protective cleanup plan, impose appropriate penalties, and if warranted, assess natural resource damages.

“Despite voluntary efforts to clean up the contamination, the latest sampling data publicly available in September 2013 indicates that high levels of manganese still exist and that the pH of Rock Run and its tributaries has not returned to normal,” a letter the group sent to the government environmental agencies claims.

“Likewise, levels of arsenic, barium, chloride, iron, manganese, lead, lithium and strontium detected in groundwater, nearby springs and wetlands still exceed safe levels.”

According to Spadoni, EQT issued a notice of intent to remediate following cleanup standards established under Act 2 in September 2012.

Since then, all contaminated soil has been excavated and properly disposed.

EQT continues to perform quarterly sampling of groundwater monitoring wells installed as part of the investigation, and of Rock Run and its tributaries, monthly sampling of the seeps and springs, and to collect discharges from seeps and springs in that area.

The collected water is taken off-site for disposal.

“These activities will continue until the department determines that all regulatory requirements have been attained,” Spadoni said.

The Oil and Gas Program intends to assess a civil penalty to EQT for the spill.

However, in order to properly calculate a penalty, the complete characterized extent of the contamination, the duration of pollutional discharges and the cooperation level of the operator’s response need to be taken fully into account.

“Due to the significant nature of this release, that process has been lengthy and is on-going,” Spadoni added.

“The public and the environment cannot be safeguarded against harm in the absence of timely and appropriate enforcement against fracking operators who violate state and federal environmental laws,” said Mary Greene, EIP senior managing attorney. “Voluntary cleanup programs play an important role in environmental management but are not a substitute for penalties and enforceable compliance orders in the face of serious violations.”

“As this episode reminds us, the greatest threat that unconventional gas activities pose to groundwater isn’t necessarily from hydraulic fracturing operations. The dangers inherent in storing, transporting, and disposing of the huge volumes of waste produced by fracking are great – and in this case call for a strong enforcement,” said Mark Szybist, staff attorney for PennFuture.