The oil and gas industry is creating brownfields through spills of fracking fluids and wastewater. Of the sites we looked at, impoundment pond and containment structure failures were common causes of these spills.
The clean-up process for contaminated commercial and industrial sites could be improved by policies that eliminate loopholes in oil and gas regulation.
In this analysis, FracTracker dives into how toxic fracking chemicals and waste products enter our environment through accidents, spills, and equipment failures. The details of these incidents were revealed through Act 2 final clean up reports, and they show a frustrating reality that many Pennsylvania communities face: when multiple industries have spent decades polluting an area, companies are able to pass blame around and escape accountability.
The clean up reports we looked at were submitted through the Land Recycling Program, which oversees the cleanup of contaminated commercial and industrial sites, also called brownfields. We submitted public records requests for oil and gas sites that had final clean up reports approved by the state in 2022.
Most of the sites were unconventional well pads where diesel, fracking wastewater, or other fracking chemicals spilled on the earth, and the majority of them took place in 2021.
At one site in Wyoming County, 9,000 gallons of produced water spilled while operators were transferring the fluid into a tank. Produced water is a naturally occurring brine that comes out of the ground along with oil and gas, and can contain heavy metals and high levels of naturally occurring radioactive material. At another site, a dump truck overturned onto a ditch on a residential property, releasing solidified drill cuttings (rocks and soil contaminated with fracking chemicals and produced water) onto a residential property.
Background on Pennsylvania’s Land Recycling Program
The Land Recycling Program is designed to incentivize companies to clean up land they have contaminated by establishing clean up standards, reducing their liability, standardizing reporting requirements, and providing financial assistance through grants and low-interest loans. Under the Land Recycling Program, a company must prove that their site meets one or more of the following remediation standards:
- The statewide health standard, which establishes cleanup levels for certain contaminants in soil or groundwater for residential and non-residential exposure;
- The site-specific standard, which develops cleanup levels specifically for an individual site based on the contaminants, exposures, and conditions unique to that site
- The background standard, which compares levels of contaminants to background levels of that contaminant in the general area of the site, that may or may not be related to any release of contamination at the site (must meet the standard for each contaminant in each environmental medium)
The Land Recycling database does not include many details on the sites, or categorize them by industry, making it difficult to determine how many of the contaminated sites are associated with oil and gas. There were 368 sites in total that completed their remediation efforts in 2022, and we submitted a right-to-know request with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the final reports of 23 of them that were connected with oil and gas extraction.
As of August, 2023, there are 1,536 sites in progress, and we found over 200 of them to be associated with oil and gas extraction, transportation, or processing based on their names and locations. The map below shows these in-progress sites, categorized by whether or not they are likely to be associated with oil and gas extraction, transportation, or processing. Please note that this categorization is an estimate and may contain errors.
This map shows sites that are involved in Pennsylvania’s Land Recycling Program, which oversees the cleanup of contaminated commercial and industrial sites, also called brownfields.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view. Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
View Full Size Map | Updated 8/22/2023 | Map Tutorial
How do fracking chemicals enter our environment, and at what volume?
The most common causes for those 23 sites were holes and failures in impoundment liners and secondary containment structures. Many well pads have large impoundment ponds on them or nearby to hold freshwater, fracking fluid, or produced water. The size of the spills were unknown for most of the incidents, but spills that did include a volume, ranged from 15 to over 9,000 gallons.
- Elevated conductivity fluids are fluids that have a higher electrical conductivity than normal, meaning they’ve likely been contaminated by drilling fluids or fracking wastewater
- Produced water refers to a naturally occurring brine that’s extracted from the ground along with oil and gas. In Pennsylvania, where gas is extracted from the Marcellus Shale play, produced water contains naturally occurring radioactive material, making these types of spills highly concerning.
- Drilling fluid and drilling mud helps the well-drilling process, and can contain heavy metals, petroleum products, and other substances that are carcinogenic and/or harmful to human health and ecosystems. Furthermore, some of the chemicals used in fracking fluid are trade secrets, hindering testing and remediation efforts.
- Recycled water is fluid that has already been used for fracking, but returns to Earth’s surface and is used to frack new wells
- Drill cuttings are rocks and soil excavated during drilling that are contaminated by fracking chemicals and produced water
What is the clean up process?
Site clean ups generally involve excavating the impacted area and taking impacted soil and water to a disposal site. The company hired to do the remediation work then conducts soil, and if applicable, ground or surface water monitoring, to test for the presence of different contaminants. Most of the clean ups tested for chemicals included on the DEP’s memo titled “Program Clarification, Common Constituents for Oil and Gas Related Spills and Releases,” which depending on the type of fluid spilled involves testing for some combination of the following chemicals: Aluminum, Arsenic, Barium, Boron, Chloride, Chromium, Copper, Iron, Lead, Lithium, Manganese, Selenium, Strontium, Vanadium, and Zinc.
Some incidents, such as the Rag Apple Well site where diesel fuel was released, required additional testing, including for contaminants listed on the DEP’s parameters for spills of diesel fuel (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Isopropylbenzene, Methyl tert-butyl ether, Naphthalene, 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, and 1,3,5 Trimethylbenzene). Other sites required testing for Target Compound List semi-volatile organic compounds and the Target Compound List volatile organic compounds. In 2023, the Land Recycling Program instituted new guidelines for certain PFAS chemicals (perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid [PFOS]) in groundwater.
While companies must prove that they meet attainment for these chemicals, there are exceptions that permit chemical concentrations to exceed permitted levels, for example, if background levels of that contaminant are high, or if it passes the “75%/10X rule” (if 75% percent of all samples meet the standard, with no individual sample exceeding ten times the standard).
It’s also important to note that the industry uses trade secret chemicals, in their operations, impeding remediation efforts. The DEP’s list also excludes radium (226Ra + 228Ra), which is found in produced waters.
How fracking chemicals impact water
Six of the sites note impacts to water.
At the Mazzara well pad in Wyoming County, an estimated 220 barrels (9,240 gallons) of brine were released in 2013, and over half of that infiltrated the well pad where it traveled through a family’s backyard and basement, and then a sump pump discharged the wastewater into a garden. This resulted in impacts to stormwater and groundwater. To remediate this spill, the well pad’s operator, Carrizo-Marcellus, collected 45,147 barrels (1,896,174 gallons) of potentially impacted water, and Resource Environmental Management Inc, led efforts to monitor contaminated stormwater in trenches/sumps around the property and groundwater. They found elevated levels of conductivity and contaminants, and while concentrations diminished overtime, it took until 2019 for most of the contaminants to demonstrate attainment for water standards. The monitoring wells continued to show elevated levels of Iron and Manganese, however, but those exceedances were deemed naturally occurring.
The report notes that the road where this incident occurred has a history of road spreading (likely to melt ice or suppress dust), using substances that contain the same contaminants present in produced water, and that background testing reflected use of road salt. Oil and gas wastewater itself has been used as a readily-available dust suppressant in the state. This makes us question the effectiveness of comparing monitoring samples to background levels of contaminants, which may pose a public health risk already.
In McKean County in 2015, bubbling was observed on a well pad called Potato Creek 1H, and a subsequent investigation revealed elevated conductivity levels on this pad and three other SM Energy well pads. This led investigators to believe that plumes of brine were migrating vertically underground, impacting the Potato Creek 1H, Potato Creek 2H, Potato Creek 3H, and Potato Creek 6 gas well pads. Further adding to the issue, Potato Creek 2H was storing flowback water in an impoundment that was originally constructed for freshwater with a single liner and no leak detection or monitoring wells, and nearby, a 2-acre site located on a former coal strip mine that burned insulation off telephone wire to obtain copper wiring was found to have been also impacting the environment.
Groundwater sampling revealed that Aluminum, Lead, Iron, Manganese, Vanadium, and Chloride exceeded groundwater standards at Potato Creek 1H. However, the report states that many of these contaminants eventually achieved attainment through the 75%/10X rule or by meeting standards during the last eight quarters of groundwater sampling performed at the site. Once again, Iron and Manganese failed to meet groundwater standards, but were eliminated of as Constituents of Concern, by “presenting evidence of a pre-existing prevalence of Iron and Manganese in the groundwater at the Well Site and North-Central Pennsylvania that is unrelated to the release of production brine.” The report states they are naturally occurring in groundwater, and that the well site is surrounded by gas wells, including unpermitted and abandoned wells that could be contributing to elevated concentrations of contaminants, and that the groundwater in the area would be difficult to develop due to shallow petroleum reservoirs and drilling in the area.
The Potato Creek 3H site contained a similar note about eliminating Iron and Manganese as Constituents of Concern, and adds that “since there is no current use of groundwater at the well site or reason to believe it will be used in the future…there is no completed exposure pathway from groundwater that would pose a risk to human health.”
According to Penn State Extension, Iron and Manganese have secondary drinking water standards because “they cause aesthetic problems that make the water undesirable to use in the home and a bitter metallic taste that can make the water unpleasant to drink for both humans and farm animals.” Research on oil and gas wastewater list both chemicals as contaminants of interest related to human health.
We did not see evidence of testing for radionuclides such as radium in these reports, despite the evidence that waterways that have come into contact with fracking waste exhibit higher levels of these chemicals.
What happens to Brownfield waste?
As mentioned above, remediating these sites generates tons of waste. The Potato Creek 3H well pad incident in McKean County generated 1,715 tons of contaminated soil that had to be disposed of at McKean County Landfill in Kane, Pennsylvania.
Despite the presence of toxic and radioactive substances, oil and gas waste enjoys a loophole from the Solid Waste Management Act that classifies it as residual waste and not hazardous, meaning it can be taken to municipal landfills. Pennsylvania’s House Bill 1353 and Senate Bill 645, which were introduced in 2021, would repeal the loophole and classify fracking waste as hazardous. But as it stands now, disposing of fracking waste poses another opportunity for it to impact our health.
The waste from these sites went to landfills across the state and in Ohio, shown in the map below.
Clean up efforts would be strengthened by policies that eliminated the loopholes in oil and gas regulation. This is especially critical in heavily-industrialized parts of the state, where companies can escape accountability through the cloud of contamination occurring in Pennsylvania communities. With over 200 oil and gas sites going through the remediation process currently, it’s clear that accidents like these are happening far too often, and we need elected officials to take steps like those outlined in a 2021 Grand Jury report on the oil and gas industry to better protect us.
You can stay alert to clean ups happening in your area through the DEP and your local government. Companies must notify the municipal government and the public when they are going to remediate a site through this program using the background or statewide health standards. The remediator notifies the public by publishing a summary of their notice of intent to remediate and notice of submission of the final report in the local newspaper.
When the remediator is using a site-specific cleanup standard, they must meet those same requirements, and there is a 30-day public and municipal comment period. During the comment period, the municipality can request to be involved in the development of the remediation and reuse plans.
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