Marcellus Shale drillers still tout water impoundments after record fine

Water fills a football field-sized reservoir on the Curran farm in Mt. Pleasant Township in this July 2007 file photo.

When the state Department of Environmental Protection upgraded design standards for Marcellus Shale water impoundments in early 2011, Range Resources had just completed construction of eight centralized frack ponds in the previous two years using now-outdated technology.

The ambitious construction timeline by Range in 2009 and 2010 to aid the burgeoning natural gas drilling industry resulted in leaks and other problems at all of the company's centralized water impoundments in Washington County and the largest-ever fine levied by the DEP against a Marcellus Shale driller.

Despite the $4.15 million fine against Range on Sept. 18 – and a similar fine now being pursued by DEP against EQT for a leaking impoundment in Tioga County – companies plan to continue to use open-air wastewater pits to hold and eventually recycle the millions of gallons of water needed for hydraulic fracturing.

The DEP and drilling companies contend new leak detection technology and better-designed liners will help to prevent the string of problems that the first generation of impoundments experienced at the beginning of the Marcellus Shale boom.

“We have tremendous confidence in these new construction standards,” said Scott Perry, the deputy secretary for DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management office. “They are basically built the same way as a landfill, but it's holding wastewater as opposed to municipal trash.”

That was illustrated when CNX, the natural gas drilling division for Consol, went on a building spree from March 2012 until this April by constructing seven of its eight centralized impoundments during that span. A Sept. 9 file review by the Observer-Reporter of CNX's impoundment files at DEP's regional office in Pittsburgh found no major issues or any violations at its eight centralized sites.

Perry said the original standards set in 2008 required only a rudimentary leak detection system that functioned similar to a French drain and just one liner. The new DEP standards require two thicker liners, a clay basin between those liners, electronic leak detection systems and sump pumps that pour any stray water back into the impoundment, Perry said, which appears to be accomplishing its intended goal of fewer accidents. It's also evolving technology that Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition lobbying group, said is being pioneered in Pennsylvania.

“These technological advancements reflect our industry's deep commitment to continuous innovation and operational efficiencies aimed at protecting and enhancing our environment,” Windle said.

But the new standards don't go far enough for state Rep. Jesse White, who has been pushing legislation for the past two years to outlaw impoundments. He said he wasn't surprised by last month's fine against Range because he thinks there are more advanced and better options, such as aboveground storage tanks, for drillers to hold massive quantities of water. White also said that while he is pushing to ban the use of impoundments, he doubts legislative or regulatory changes will come anytime soon.

“Invariably, they pretty much all leak eventually,” White said. “It doesn't make much sense, if you think about the science of it.”

Others agree, including Tioga County-based Hydro Recovery, which recycles flowback water using glass-lined steel tanks that can store up to 2.2 million gallons of water each. One such facility, proposed in Hanover Township, would use a double-lined tank with water-depth sensors and a leak detection system.

“It's much easier to see a leak if it's aboveground than below-ground,” company spokeswoman Teresa Irvin McCurdy said. “Below ground, you won't be able to tell until it seeps through an area. We've just found the type of tanks that we use have become the safest, just because there's less of a chance of leaks.”

Range Resources has two aboveground tank pads approved in Robinson and Mt. Pleasant townships, but they have not been constructed. Company officials have said they prefer to use impoundments and are looking forward to building more facilities using the new design standards.

The first impoundment was built in Washington County in mid-2007 and designed only to hold freshwater on-site near a drilling rig. But as the drilling industry blossomed, Range and other companies began constructing larger centralized impoundments that could service multiple nearby drilling sites. The idea was to employ a more efficient way to store and recycle flowback water, while cutting down on the number of tanker trucks traveling to and from drill sites.

The 18 centralized water impoundments in Washington and Greene counties are just a fraction of the overall number of frack pits in the area. Many more are considered on-site impoundments that service one drill site at a time before they're decommissioned.

But many of Range's centralized impoundments started developing problems not long after they were permitted in 2009 or 2010. A file review by the Observer-Reporter staff on Aug. 19 showed a wide range of problems at Range's nine facilities that ranged from liner holes that led to leaks, fluid spilled from tanker trucks hooking up to pipe connectors and line breaks that released flowback water onto a nearby farm.

A leak reported in April at the Jon Day impoundment caused by a tear in the liner contaminated groundwater with chloride, prompting environmental cleanup crews to remove up to 15,000 tons of soil over the past seven months from the site in Amwell Township. And the Yeager impoundment, also in Amwell, is the subject of multiple lawsuits by nearby property owners who claim the site contaminated their drinking water supply.

The DEP's oil and gas manager in Pittsburgh, Eric Gustafson, ordered a “top to bottom review of all of these impoundments” when he assumed the position in July, DEP spokesman John Poister said. Poister added that the investigation is continuing, and the drillers are “on alert that if you have a problem then you are going to have a problem with us.”

Range President and CEO Jeff Ventura in an interview Monday at the Observer-Reporter called the problems “regrettable and unacceptable” and pledged the company would work to improve its production process.

The company is attempting that now by announcing a fifth generation impoundment design that has multiple safeguards to prevent or better detect leaks, Range engineer Tony Gaudlip said. New impoundments will include thicker liners with a bentonite clay basin between both that will swell and plug a hole if a leak occurs, Gaudlip said. The system will also include a leak detection layer that includes plastic webbing with electronic censors to pinpoint a leak should one occur.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella acknowledged that it will take “time” to regain trust after the accumulating problems with their impoundments that led to the record fine.

“They have to see us doing the right thing,” Pitzarella said. “It's not about lip service when we say we're disappointed and want to restore faith with the public.”

Staff writers Scott Beveridge and Emily Petsko contributed to this story.

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