DIMOCK RESIDENTS WORKING TO PROTECT WATER FROM A NEW THREAT: FRACKING WASTE
Senator Katie Muth and Dimock, Pennsylvania residents are working to stop Eureka Resource’s permit to release effluent from a proposed fracking wastewater treatment plant. Elsewhere in Dimock, many residents still cannot drink their well water which was fouled by Cabot Oil and Gas over a decade ago, as the company (now Coterra Energy), continues to operate in Susquehanna County. This is part 1 of a 2 part series on Dimock.
On Monday, March 28th, Senator Katie Muth filed an appeal with the Environmental Hearing Board for the permit of a new fracking wastewater treatment plant in Dimock, the Pennsylvania town notorious for its fracking-contaminated water.
Eureka Resources’s Susquehanna Facility would accept toxic wastewater from fracked wells in the region for treatment. Part of the treated wastewater would be sold for reuse, but a portion of it would also be discharged into a small tributary, under a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. This is the permit that Senator Muth, along with residents, are appealing.
The appeal states:
“This appeal is centered around the failed oversight of taxpayer funded regulators and the potentially fraudulent approval of an oil and gas wastewater treatment facility that will directly discharge toxic substances into a swale and small waterway utilized by cattle for drinking water and for household use such as laundry and shower water. The proposed location will be in a community plagued with legacy pollution from negligent oil and gas companies who continue to exploit the land and natural resources for profit and decimate ground water and private wells used for resident drinking water supplies for over twelve years. Further, the proposed facility would be located right next to an oil and gas flowback site with several serious unregulated and unabated pollutional incidents.”
It goes on to say that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) did not notify the public of the harms associated with Eureka’s Susquehanna Facility and “failed to follow the NPDES permit review process required by US EPA Region III and approved a permit that the Department does not have the authority to approve.”
Fracking waste background
Despite the fact that fracking waste contains carcinogens, heavy metals, and radioactive materials, it is exempt from regulations under the hazardous waste sections of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This is the result of a decision made by the US EPA over thirty years ago, influenced by an industry trade group. As a result, fracking waste is injected underground and sent to landfills and treatment plants with insufficient tracking, testing, and management. Given the enormous volume of waste the industry produces (in 2019, Pennsylvania’s fracked wells produced over 2.7 billion gallons of liquid waste), handling and disposing of it all creates a major burden for the industry and a major health risk for communities.
Effluent released into a small “tributary”
The facility would discharge wastewater, with chemicals like acetone, barium, and benzene, into a small tributary, tributary 29418, that connects to Burdick Creek. The appeal describes this discharge point as “a mix of swale, wetland, and a frequently dry creek bed.” Even if the mantra “dilution is the solution to pollution,” were true, there’s not much water here to dilute.
The water is funneled beneath Route 29 and comes out the other side on a pasture, where dairy cows drink from it.
The farmer, Matt Neenan, who operates the dairy farm is described in the appeal:
“Mr. Neenan described that his only real goal is to continue to work his land and pass it along debt free to the next generation, so they can have it better than Mr. Neenan, and make it better than Mr. Neenan ever could. Mr. Neenan wants to continue to see Agriculture thrive and the natural resources and the waters of the Commonwealth remain free from pollution. If Eureka is allowed to discharge through Mr. Neenan’s land, and potentially take the water from his farm, from the well and streams where his cows drink and produce milk from, Mr. Neenan will have nothing left.”
The area where Eureka Resource’s will discharge, which residents say dries up during parts of the year. Photo by Erica Jackson, March 19, 2022.
Burdick Creek is a beloved creek that passes through farms and backyards before flowing into Meshoppen Creek and eventually the Susquehanna River (see Figure 1).
The appeal states, “Of critical importance among water resources are private water wells, which are the primary sources of water for numerous landowners in the path of the Project.”
There is also already a contaminated site next to the planned facility that handles oil and gas waste operated by Coterra (see Figure 1). The A & M Hibbard Centralized Treatment Facility, according to the appeal, has experienced “storage tank failures and leaks, and failures to contain flowback waste on site, leading to soil contamination and a designated Act 2 Brownfield status.”
Eureka Resources’ Susquehanna Facility and impacted waterways
Figure 1) Map of Eureka Resource’s Susquehanna Facility and the waterways that would be impacted by its effluent. Data Sources: PA DEP and PASDA, retrieved March, 2022.
What would happen to waste at this site?
The Susquehanna Facility will also treat wastewater for reuse. The Susquehanna Independent reported that the Dimock plant would produce 94,000 barrels of treated water a day, which is 3.9 million gallons (or nearly 6 olympic size swimming pools). The treated water would be resold to the oil and gas, agriculture, and other industries.
Eureka, which operates three other wastewater sites in northeastern Pennsylvania, advertises that its patented treatment method can be used to distill and crystalize minerals from wastewater, including salt, calcium chloride, and lithium. Eureka sells the salt produced at these sites for use in swimming pools, calcium chloride for oil and gas drilling mud, and lithium for batteries.
Treating fracking waste
In the past, Pennsylvania’s wastewater treatment plants, including public sewage plants, have failed to remove pollutants from fracking wastewater. In 2013, the state found elevated levels of fracking-related contaminants like bromide and chloride, as well as radium-226, downstream of discharge sites. While disposal of fracking waste water at public sewage plants was banned in 2016, illegal dumping and discharge from centralized waste treatment facilities like Eureka’s—where radioactivity is not completely removed from the waste stream—is highly concerning. Eureka Resources has racked up violations over the years for issues including unlawful dumping of solid waste. Eureka’s Standing Stone Plant has also violated effluent limits on multiple occasions.
According to Eureka’s water discharge permit, the company is permitted to release chemicals labeled as toxic by the EPA under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and benzene. In addition to their toxic designation, some of these chemicals, such as benzene, are human carcinogens. Radium-226 and Radium-228 are listed on the permit as chemicals that must be reported and monitored.
Residents also worry about the impact of truck traffic in their community, where trucks serving the fracking industry routinely cause damage to roads and have led to multiple fatal accidents. Trucks would access the plant near a curve on Route 29, which some neighbors feel is unsafe. It’s reported that the site will see an estimated 35 trucks in and out of the facility a day and a maximum of 50.
In addition to farmland, Burdick creek flows through backyards and forested land, where a rare, all-white red-tailed hawk lives. It’s a common interest amongst neighbors and a symbol of the vibrant ecosystem people like Victoria Switzer are fighting to protect. Victoria lives along Burdick creek, between the proposed Susquehanna facility and a water withdrawal site utilized by the fracking industry. She points out that the industry could take water straight from Eureka’s Susquehanna Facility, but instead it seems that the creek is being used to filter the effluent.
The local ecosystem is no stranger to fracking pollution. Contamination from Coterra (formerly Cabot) oil and gas wells led to a water crisis in Dimock and one of the most high-profile fracking contamination cases. Many residents in Dimock rely on bottled water or treatment systems, unable to use their well water, 13 years since the PA DEP banned certain oil and gas operations in the nine square miles surrounding Dimock. There is no public water system in the town, despite one being heavily debated after the aquifer was contaminated.
Attorney General investigation
On June 15, 2020, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro charged Coterra, called Cabot Oil and Gas at the time, for environmental crimes after a two year investigation.
The Grand Jury’s investigation concluded that Coterra was responsible for contaminating drinking water in Dimock that harmed residents. AG Shaprio stated, “They put their bottom line ahead of the health and safety of Pennsylvanians. The Grand Jury repeatedly found evidence of a company that placed profit over our laws.”
Coterra’s attorney waived a preliminary hearing for the case, allowing the charges to move to the Susquehanna County Court for a potential trial. In the meantime, the company continues to drill in the state. The Eureka wastewater treatment plant would accept waste trucked from Coterra oil and gas wells, as well as other operators in the area. All of Coterra’s Pennsylvania wells are in the northeastern part of the state, with 1,603 active, unconventional wells in Susquehanna County, according to the PA DEP (Figure 2).
Figure 2) Unconventional oil and gas wells operated by Coterra. Data Source: PA DEP, downloaded March 2022.
Since the Attorney General filed charges, Cabot has permitted 167 wells. At least 4 Notices of Legal Presumption (which notify oil and gas operators of instances in which they are presumed liable for water supply pollution) were sent to Coterra by the DEP in 2020, according to a public records request.
Figure 3) Permitted and drilled (determined according to spud date) of Coterra unconventional wells. Data Source: PA DEP, downloaded March 2022.
The Take Away
Eureka’s Susquehanna facility is a new risk for the water of Dimock. Despite the toxics listed in its permit and its track record of violations, the company advertises that its process produces “pure water” by regulatory standards. Senator Muth’s appeal states:
“The fact that Eureka is publicly celebrating its processes that result in pure drinking water while many, many residents in Dimock and surrounding areas have none is not only illegal, it is grotesque.”
For now, the town awaits a decision on the appeal. Stay tuned for the second part of this article about what’s at stake by Dimock resident Victoria Switzer.
References & Where to Learn More
- Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Waste: Report and Interactive Map by Earthworks and FrackTracker Alliance. September 10, 2019.
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: Eureka Resource’s LLC NPDES permit. Issued January 18, 2022.
- The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, Case #2022015. Ameded Notice of Appeal March 28, 2022.
- AP News: ‘Irreversible:’ No easy fix for water fouled by gas driller. February 18, 2022.
- PA DEP: Oil and gas well permit issue report.
- PASDA: Water Management Plans, Marcellus Shale.
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