As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.
Holding oil and gas companies accountable for the environmental health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), or “fracking,” has been challenging in the US because current regulations do not require drilling operators to disclose exactly what chemicals are used. However, many of the chemicals used for fracking have been identified and come with serious health consequences. The primary known compounds of concern include BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and associated pollutants such as tropospheric ozone and hydrogen sulfide. BTEX chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans, and can lead to other serious health problems including damage to the nervous, respiratory, and immune system. While some of these BTEX chemicals can occur naturally in groundwater sources, spills and transport of these chemicals used during fracking can be a major source of groundwater contamination.
Exposure to pollution caused from fracking activity can lead to many negative short-term and long-lasting health effects. Reported health effects from short-term exposures to these pollutants include headaches, coughing, nausea, nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Recent studies have also found an association between pregnant women living in close proximity to fracking sites and low-birth weights and heart defects. Additionally, a recent study conducted in the rural area of Eagle Ford, Texas found that pregnant women living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of fracking operations that regularly engaged in “flaring,” or the burning of excess natural gas, were 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those without exposure.
Figure 1. Summary of known health impacts associated with unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD).
Exposure to radioactive materials is also a serious concern. During the fracking process as high-pressured water and chemicals fracture the rock formations, naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium are also drawn out of the rocks in addition to oil and natural gas. As the oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, the radioactive material primarily comes back as a component of brine, a byproduct of the extraction process. The brine is then hauled to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the ground. Exposure to radioactivity can lead to adverse health effects such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, fatigue, and cancer.
With fracking also comes construction, excessive truck traffic, noise, and light pollution. This has led to a rise in mental health effects including stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disruptions.
A 2020 report published by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General contains numerous testimonials from those impacted by fracking, as well as grand jury findings on environmental crimes among shale gas operations.
How can I be exposed?
Exposure to the hazardous materials used in fracking can occur through many pathways including breathing polluted air, drinking, bathing or cooking with contaminated water, or eating food grown in contaminated soil. Especially vulnerable populations to the harmful chemicals used in fracking include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions.
Considerations Around Scientific Certainty
While it is clear that fracking adversely impacts our health, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the exact exposure pathways and the extent that fracking can be associated with certain health effects. A compendium published in 2019 reviewed over 1,500 scientific studies and reports about the risks of fracking, and revealed that 90% found evidence of harm. Although there have been various reports of suspected pediatric cancer clusters in heavily fracked regions, there are minimal longitudinal scientific studies about the correlation between fracking and cancer. The primary reason for this is because the time between the initial exposure to a cancer-causing substance and a cancer diagnosis can take decades. Because fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is a relatively new development, this is an area of research health scientists should focus on in the coming years. While we know that drilling operations use cancer-causing chemicals, more studies are needed to understand the public’s exposure to this pollution and the extent of excess morbidity connected to fracking.
Figure 2. FracTracker’s photo album of air and water quality concerns
Fracking has caused detrimental impacts on local air quality, especially for those living within 3-5 miles of UOGD operations. Diesel emissions from truck traffic and heavy machinery used in the preparation, drilling, and production of natural gas release large amounts of toxins and particulate matter (PM). These small particles can infiltrate deeply into the respiratory system, elevating the risk for asthma attacks and cardiopulmonary disease. Other toxins released during UOGD operations include hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic gas that may be present in oil and gas formations. Hydrogen sulfide can cause extensive damage to the central nervous system. BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) chemicals and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also released during fracking operations, and have been known to cause leukemia; liver damage; eye, nose and throat irritation; and headaches. While oil and gas workers use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from these harmful toxins, residents in surrounding communities are exposed to these hazardous conditions without protection.
Regional air quality concerns from UOGD include tropospheric ozone, or ‘smog’. VOCs and other chemicals emitted from fracking can react with sunlight to form smog. While ozone high in the atmosphere provides valuable protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, ozone at ground level is hazardous for human health. Ozone may cause a range of respiratory effects like shortness of breath, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma and chronic respiratory disease symptoms.
Expanding beyond local and regional impacts, fracking and UOGD has global implications. With increasing emissions from truck traffic, construction, and high rates of methane leaks, fracking emissions will continue to worsen the climate change crisis. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide (on a weight basis) over a 20 year period. Fracking wells can leak 40-60% more methane than conventional natural gas wells, and recent studies have indicated that emissions are significantly higher than previously thought.
Unhealthy air quality also presents occupational exposures to oil and gas workers through frac sand mining. Frac sand, or silica, is used to hold open the fractures in the rock formations so the oil and gas can be released during the drilling process. Silica dust is extremely small in diameter and can easily be inhaled, making its way to the lower respiratory tract. Silica is classified as a human lung carcinogen, and when inhaled may lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, respiratory failure, and lung cancer.
Many states allow this brine to be reused on roads for dust control and de-icing. Regulations vary from state to state, but many areas do not require any level of pretreatment before reuse.
Not only does fracking affect water quality, but it also depletes the quantity of available fresh water. Water use per fracking well has increased dramatically in recent years, with each well consuming over 14.3 million gallons of water on average. For more information about increasing fracking water use, clickhere.
In addition to air and water contamination, UOGD operations can also harm soil quality. Harmful chemicals including BTEX chemicals and heavy metals like mercury and lead have contaminated agricultural areas near fracking operations. Exposure can occur from eating produce grown on contaminated soil, or by consuming animals that consumed contaminated feed. These contaminants can also alter the pH and nutrient availability of the soil, resulting in decreased crop production and economic losses. Children are also at high risk of exposure to contaminated soil due to their frequent hand to mouth behavior. Lastly, the practice of frac sand mining can make land reclamation nearly impossible, leaving irreparable damage to the landscape.
Figure 3. Toledo Refining Company Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.
Report Your Environmental and Health Concerns
If you think that your health or environment have been negatively impacted by fracking operations, contact:
For an emergency requiring immediate local police, fire, or emergency medical services, always call 911 first
A Digital Atlas Exploring the Environmental Impacts of a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Extraction in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed
Fig. 1. Appalachia Midstream SVC LLC , Cherry Compressor Station in Cherry, Sullivan County, PA. (FLIR camera footage by Earthworks, July 2020)
An Introduction to the Loyalsock Creek Watershed
Nestled in Pennsylvania’s scenic Endless Mountains region, the Loyalsock Creek flows 64 miles from its headwaters in Wyoming County near the Sullivan County line, to a peaceful confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River at Montoursville, east of Williamsport in Lycoming County. The lively, clear water drains 495 square miles, journeying through thick forests of the Allegheny Plateau over a landscape prized for rugged outdoor recreation, bucolic wooded respites, and quaint villages.
Local place names reflect the Munsee-Lenape, Susquehannock, and Iroquois peoples who called the area home at the time of early colonial settlement. The name Loyalsock stems from the native word Lawi-sahquick, meaning “middle creek.”
A favorite for angling, swimming, and whitewater paddling, the waterway supports a notorious resident – the aquatic eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) crowned the Loyalsock “River of the Year,” a program honoring the state’s premier rivers and streams and encouraging their stewardship.
Fig 2. Loyalsock Watershed Overview Map. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)
Click on the section title to jump to that section
A Wealth of Public Lands and Recreational Opportunity
Nearly one third of the Loyalsock watershed consists of state-owned public lands, including the 780-acre Worlds End State Park; 37,519 acres of state game lands; and, 65,939 acres of the Loyalsock State Forest. The State Forest encompasses two Natural Areas, Tamarack Run (201 acres) and Kettle Creek Gorge (774 acres), as well as a 1935-acre portion of Kettle Creek Wild Area.
Worlds End State Park was originally purchased by the state in 1929 in an attempt to allow the area to recover from clear-cutting. The land was significantly improved due to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. There is some uncertainty about the historical name of the region, and as a result, the park was renamed Whirl’s End in 1936, but reverted to Worlds End in 1943.
The area is a deep gorge cut by water rushing over millions of years through the Loyalsock Creek, over sedimentary formations known as the Sullivan Highlands. The gorge reaches 800 feet deep in some locations, where the fossilized remnants of 350-million-year-old lungfish burrows can be found.
Current amenities include 70 tent camping sites, 19 cabins, as well as group camping options accommodating up to 90 campers. A small swimming area on Loyalsock Creek is open in the summer months, and the Creek is also used for boating and fishing.
The Kettle Creek Gorge Natural Area follows the path of Falls Run, which as the name suggests, contains numerous majestic waterfalls, including Angel Falls, which drops around 70 feet. The Natural Area is buffered by the Kettle Creek Wild Area. Kettle Creek is a Class A Wild Trout stream, meaning that natural populations of trout are sufficient in quantity and size to support fishing activities.
Fig. 3. A view of Loyalsock Creek from the High Rock Trail in Worlds End State Park. (Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, August 2019)
Fig. 4. Tubing on Loyalsock Creek. (Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, August 2019)
Relaxing on the Water
The Loyalsock watershed contains 909 miles of streams, with more than 395 miles (43%) classified as high quality (358 miles) or exceptional value (37 miles). The watershed contains 10,573 acres of wetlands, including 4,844 acres of forested wetlands, 3,261 acres of riverine wetlands, 1,013 acres of freshwater ponds, 761 acres of lakes, and 694 acres of emergent wetlands.
Another popular recreation spot within the Loyalsock watershed is Rose Valley Lake, a 389-acre artificial reservoir managed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The lake contains a variety of fish, including bigmouth bass, bluegill, and walleye. Boating is restricted to electric motors and unpowered craft, making the area an idyllic getaway.
There are 238 miles of trails in the watershed, accommodating a variety of uses, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiles. Some notable examples include:
over 90 miles of snowmobile trails in the Loyalsock State Forest and Worlds End State Park;
most of the 64-mile-long Loyalsock Trail, showcasing numerous waterfalls;
the Double Run Ski Trail, providing cross-country opportunities in the Loyalsock State Forest;
and the 19-mile Loyalsock State Forest Bridle Trail for equestrian pursuits.
The Loyalsock Watershed also contains the entirety of state Game Lands #134 and #298, as well as parts of six others, including Game Lands #12, #13, #36, #57, #66, and #133. Not only hunting locations, these tracts preserve habitat for importantbird and mammal species, provide opportunities forbirding, and offer a variety of outdooreducation resources.
There are also privately-owned recreational opportunities in the region. A portion of the historicEagles Mere Country Club has provided golf and other activities for over 100 years. Eagles Mere Lake, just south of the watershed boundary,provides recreation opportunities for members of the privately-held Eagles Mere Association. At the south of the lake is the regionally-famous Eagles MereTobaggan Slide, where riders race down a specialized track at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, when winters are cold enough for sufficient ice conditions – a fleeting situation due to climate change.
A few miles to the east of Eagles Mere lies a cluster of lakes that surround the borough of Laporte, in Sullivan County. The largest of these lakes is Lake Mokoma, administered by the Lake Mokoma Association. Participation in the Association is limited to those who own residences or vacation homes in Sullivan County.
Fig. 5. Hiking trail in the Loyalsock State Forest. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
Fig. 6. An interactive map of recreation opportunities in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)
Figures 7-9. Aerial imagery of unconventional oil and gas infrastructure in the Loyalsock State Forest. (Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk. June, 2020)
On November 17, 2009, Inflection Energy began drilling the Ultimate Warrior I well in Upper Fairfield Township, Lycoming County. In quick succession came Pennsylvania General Energy, Chesapeake Appalachia, Chief Oil & Gas, Anadarko E&P, Alta Resources (ARD), and Southwestern Production (SWN), all of which drilled a well by the end of 2010. It was a veritable invasion on the watershed, one that ushered in a dramatic change from a mostly agrarian landscape, to one with heavy industrial presence.
Residents have to deal with constant construction of well pads, pipelines, compressor stations, and staging grounds. Since each drilled well requires thousands of truck trips, enormous traffic jams are common, with each idling engine spewing diesel exhaust into the once clean air. The noise of drilling and fracking continues into the night, and bright flaring of gasses at wells and other facilities disrupts sleep schedules, and may contribute to serious health issues as well.
Fig. 10. An interactive map of the impacts of the unconventional oil and gas industry to the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. Note: Pipelines may be only partially depicted due to data limitations. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)
Fracking is a nuisance and a risk in the best of times, but the Marcellus boom in the Loyalsock watershed has been notably problematic. The most frequent violations in the watershed are casing and cementing infractions, for which the “operator conducted casing and cementing activities that failed to prevent migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh groundwater.” This particular violation has been reported 47 times in the watershed, although there are dozens of additional casing and cementing issues that are similarly worded (see appendix). Erosion and sediment violations have also been commonplace, and these can have significant impacts on stream system health.
Improperly contained waste pits have leached toxic waste into the ground. A truck with drilling mud containing 103,000 milligrams per liter of chlorides – about five times more than ocean water – was driving down the road with an open valve, spewing fluids over a wide area. Some spills sent plumes of pollution directly into streams.
Fig. 11. Diesel truck traffic carrying fracking equipment in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 12. Diesel exhaust spewing from fracking equipment. (Barb Jarmoska)
Fig. 13. Fracking is a heavily industrial activity. Many of these sites in the Loyalsock Creek watershed are immediately adjacent to homes. (Barb Jarmoska)
Fig. 14. Open pits used to be permitted for temporary storage of oil and gas waste. Here, the liner is not properly covering the bottom-right corner, sludge is piled up past the liner in the top-right corner, and temporary fencing is failing in numerous locations. (Barb Jarmoska)
In short, it has been a mess. Altogether, there have been 631 violations issued for 317 unconventional wells drilled in the Loyalsock, an average of two violations per well.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issues violations on pipelines as well, but we are unable to match pipeline violations to a specific location, so there is no way to know which ones occurred in the Loyalsock watershed.
We also know that pipeline construction is a process filled with mishaps. Specifically, there is a technique for drilling a pipeline segment underneath existing obstacles – such as streams and roads – known as horizontal directional drilling (HDD). These HDD sites frequently bleed large quantities of drilling mud into the ground or surface water. When these leaks surface, these spills are known euphemistically as “inadvertent returns.” Sometimes, the same phenomenon occurs but the fluid drains instead to an underground cavity, referred to as “loss of circulation.” We do not have data on either category for pipelines in the Loyalsock watershed. However, the DEP has published inadvertent returns for the Mariner East II route to the south, and when combining spills impacting the water and ground, these occur at a rate of about two spills for every three miles of installed pipe. Many of these releases are measured in thousands of gallons.
Unfortunately, drilling and all related activity continue in the Loyalsock Creek watershed. As the industry has proven incapable of conducting these activities in an unsullied manner that is protective of the environment and the health of nearby residents, we can expect the litany of errors to continue to grow.
A Brief Timeline of Infractions
In 2016, a major incident was reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a federal agency under the Department of Transportation (DOT). On October 21, a Sunoco pipeline ruptured, spilling 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Run, a tributary of Loyalsock Creek. The eight-inch pipeline burst when high winds and heavy floods triggered mudslides, sweeping away at least two homes and leaving flooded roads impassable. Water suppliers and national and state agencies advised locals to conserve water, and the DEP and water supplier American Water shut down intake valves until they had measured contamination levels in three water supplies serving thousands of people downstream, including populations in Lewisburg, Milton, and Gamble Township.
Limited access to the area delayed identifying the source of the rupture, though Sunoco shut off the pipeline that runs from Reading to Buffalo, NY. When waters receded, Sunoco officials replaced the broken pipe, which they said was broken by debris from a washed out bridge ten feet upstream. The pipeline was buried five feet below the creek, but heavy rains exposed it.
Agency authorities later found that heavy rains had flushed out much of the pollution, though they recorded the highest levels in the Loyalsock Creek. While this is obviously a weather-related event, local residents questioned the placement of a hazardous liquids pipeline crossing at such a volatile location, noting that the same pipeline had been exposed, (although not breached), just five years earlier.
Sunoco tops the list of U.S. crude oil spills. Sunoco and their subsidiaries reported 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents between 2002 and 2017, incidents that released over 87,000 barrels of hazardous liquids, according to Greenpeace USA and Waterkeeper Alliances’ 2018 report on Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) & Sunoco’s History of Pipeline Spills. Sunoco and its subsidiary ETP are developing the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Mariner East pipeline, and the Permian Express pipeline, sites that have already seen construction errors causing leaks and spills.
The area suffered another heavy spill in 2017, when a well operated by Colorado-based Inflection Energy leaked over 63,000 gallons of natural gas drilling waste into a Loyalsock Creek tributary. The spill occurred when waste was being transferred from one container to another, a neglect of the contracted worker who had fallen asleep. DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the waste – called “flowback” – was filtered and treated, but this brine can contain chemicals, metals, salts, and other inorganic materials that can pollute soil and groundwater. Carol Parenzan, at the time serving as Middle Susquehanna’s Riverkeeper, said many residents are supplied by well water, and were not alerted of the spill until a local began investigating and calling local and state authorities.
Fig. 16. At the Chesapeake Appalachia LLC Manning Well Site and Lambert Farms Well Site, the emissions sources appear to be engines or combustion devices. (FLIR camera footage by Earthworks, July 2020)
One of Earthworks’ trained and certified thermographers visited the Loyalsock watershed and surrounding area in mid-July with a FLIR optical gas imaging (OGI) camera. This industry standard tool can make visible pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment–including 20 volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogens benzene and toluene, and methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Water is the lifeblood of the Loyalsock watershed, as it is in any basin. However, in the Loyalsock, water is of particular importance. As we have seen, recreation opportunities in the area are defined by water, including fantastic fishing streams and lakes, meandering trails passing many waterfalls, various boating sites, and inviting swimming holes. For one reason or others, most visitors come to the Loyalsock to enjoy these natural aquatic locations.
Perhaps the most important water assets are underground aquifers. The majority of the watershed is rural, and private wells for potable household water are typical. Even the municipal water supply for the Borough of Montoursville is fed by groundwater, including five wells and an artesian spring.
For a region so dependent on surface water for tourism, commercial activities, and groundwater for drinking supplies, the arrival of fracking is a significant concern. Unfortunately, spills and other violations are common at well pads and related infrastructure, with over 631 violations in the watershed since 2010.
Even pipelines that are not yet operational can have impacts on the waterways in the Loyalsock Creek watershed. In September 2012, for example, a “significant amount” of sediment and mud spilled into the Loyalsock Creek during the construction of Central New York Oil and Gas’ Marc I pipeline project. Such incidents introduce silt and clay into waterways, fine sediments that have the potential to deplete aquatic fauna. These types of episodes have received considerably more attention since this event, and it turns out that they are quite common during pipeline construction. For example, the Mariner East pipeline has had hundreds of these so-called inadvertent returns, many of which directly affected the waters of the Commonwealth.
Fig. 17.Trucks withdrawing water for drilling-related activities at the Forksville Heritage Freshwater Station, operated by Chief Oil & Gas. Photo from FracTracker mobile app report.
Fig. 18.The average amount of water used per well in the Loyalsock Watershed has increased over time. In recent years, several wells exceeded 30 million gallons (FracTracker Alliance, 2020).
In addition to contamination concerns, unconventional oil and gas wells are extremely thirsty operations. FracTracker has analyzed wells in the watershed using the industry’s chemical registry site FracFocus. Of the 274 wells in the watershed reporting to FracFocus between January 2011 and April 2020, 38 did not include a value for total water usage. These wells were all fracked on or before September 13, 2012, when the registry was still in its early phase and its use was not well standardized. Two wells fracked in 2018 by Pennsylvania General Energy had very low water consumption figures, with one reporting 2,100 gallons, and the other reporting 6,636 gallons. These two reports appear to be erroneous, and so these wells were removed from our analysis.
Of the remaining 234 wells in the data repository, one reported using less than one million gallons, although it came close, with 925,606 gallons. Another 63 wells used between one and five million gallons, 137 wells used between five and ten million gallons, 25 wells used between ten and 20 million gallons, and eight used more than 20 million gallons. The average consumption was 7,739,542 gallons, while the maximum value was for Alta Resources’ Alden Evans A 2H well, which used 34,024,513 gallons of water.
The well’s operator has a tremendous impact on the total amount of water usage reported on FracFocus in the Loyalsock watershed.
However, it is worth noting that time factors into this analysis. None of the three companies averaging less than five million gallons of water per well – including Anadarko, Atlas, and Southwestern – have records after 2014, and water consumption has increased dramatically since then. Still, Alta’s average of nearly 24.7 million gallons per well stands out, with more than twice the amount of water consumed per well, compared to the next highest user.
Altogether, the wells on the FracFocus registry in the Loyalsock watershed consumed over 1.8 billion gallons of water, enough water to supply nearly 36,000 households for a year, assuming an average of 138 gallons per household, per day. This is a real need in the United States, as a 2019 report by DigDeep and US Water Alliance estimated that there were two million people in the U.S. without running water in their homes.
Average Gallons per Well
Anadarko Petroleum Corporation
Atlas Energy, L.P.
Chesapeake Operating, Inc.
Chief Oil & Gas
Inflection Energy (PA) LLC
Pennsylvania General Energy
Seneca Resources Corporation
Fig. 19.Total amount of water usage reported by oil and gas operators in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracFocus, 2020)
Fig. 20. An interactive map of oil and gas related water sites in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)
Between January 2011 and April 2020, two conventional wells and 297 unconventional wells combined to produce 7,017,102 barrels (294.7 million gallons) of liquid waste, and 340,856 tons (681.7 million pounds) of solid waste.
Fig. 21. Liquid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in barrels. Note that 2020 includes data from January to April only. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)
Fig. 22. Solid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in tons. Note that 2020 includes data from January to April only. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
This averages out to 23,469 barrels (985,680 gallons) and 1,140 tons (2,279,973 pounds) per well drilled in the basin, and most of these wells are active and continue to produce waste. Many of these wells have generated waste quantities in great excess of these averages.
Unlike gas production, which tends to drop off precipitously after the first year, liquid waste production remains at an elevated level for years. For example, the Brooks Family A-201H well, the well reporting the largest quantity of liquid waste in the basin, produced 1,499 barrels in 2017, 28,847 barrels in 2018, 35,143 barrels in 2019, and 23,829 barrels in the first four months of 2020. The volumes from this well increase substantially each year.
For all wells in the watershed reporting liquid waste between 2018 and 2019, waste totals decreased by almost 42%. While a significant decrease, these 237 wells still generated 829,267 barrels (34.8 million gallons) of waste in 2019, and some have been generating waste since at least 2011. Wells will continue to produce waste until they are permanently plugged, but unfortunately, there are plans for more drilling in the watershed. There are 17 active status wells that have been permitted and not yet drilled. Important to remember is that fracking waste is often radioactive, and laden with salt, chemicals, and other contaminants, making it a hazardous product to transport, treat, or dispose.
Fig. 23. Cumulative liquid waste totals produced by oil and gas wells in Loyalsock Creek watershed between January 2011 and April 2020. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
Fig. 24. An interactive map of oil and gas waste generated in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed between January 2011 and May 2020. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
On a sunny Friday in June 2020, a group of 18 FracTracker staff members and volunteers gathered in the Loyalsock watershed to document activities and infrastructure related to unconventional oil and gas activities. FracTracker’s Matt Kelso used a variety of data from the DEP to prepare maps depicting an array of infrastructure, including 317 drilled wells on 110 different pads, five compressor stations, a compressed natural gas truck terminal, and 24 water facilities related to oil and gas extraction – including five surface water withdrawal sites and 19 storage reservoirs. He then divided an area of about 496 square miles into five sections, and at least two participants were assigned to explore each section.
Using the FracTracker mobile app, cameras, and other documentation tools, the group was able to verify the location of 91 infrastructure sites, including well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, water withdrawal sites and reservoirs, as well as significant truck traffic. As they made their way over the rural back roads, many participants were struck by the juxtaposition of a breathtaking landscape and peaceful farmlands with imposing, polluting fracking sites.
The day was also documented by Rachel McDevitt from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a reporting project of NPR member stations, as well as the filmmakers Justin Grubb, Alex Goatz, and Michael Clark from Running Wild Media.
With the geolocated photos and site descriptions documented on this day, FracTracker was able to compile this story atlas to serve as an educational tool for concerned residents of the Loyalsock.
You can find these reports and many more by downloading the FracTracker app on your iOS or Android device, or by going to the web app at https://app.fractracker.org/.
Fig. 25. FracTracker’s Executive Director Brook Lenker addresses the gathering of volunteers, media members, and FracTracker staff at Canfield Island Heritage Trail Park on documentation day. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 26 FracTracker’s Matt Kelso explains the maps he made of different sections in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 27 Running Wild Media’s filmmaker captures the introduction to the documentation day by FracTracker staff. These filmmakers tagged along for additions to a film about the eastern hellbender, to be released in spring 2021. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 28. A compressor station is seen across a field of wildflowers, somewhere in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 29. Volunteers stand outside gated infrastructure in the watershed on the documentation field day. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 30. A pipeline path cutting through forest in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Fig. 31. Grass has grown to cover a pipeline path traversing a hillside in the Loyalsock. (FracTracker Alliance, June, 2020)
Barb Jarmoska is a lifelong environmental and social justice activist with property adjacent to the Loyalsock State Forest that has been in her family for five generations. She has witnessed a dramatic and devastating transformation of the pristine area surrounding her home as the fracking industry moved into what they consider the Marcellus Sacrifice Zone.
This is Barb’s account, in her own words:
“For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple,” wrote poet Mary Oliver. I understand those words, they are part of my lifetime of lived experience in the Loyalsock watershed.
I am a retired special-ed teacher and a business owner – a mother and a grandmother – and someone who treasures and reveres the rapidly dwindling wild places in Penns Woods.
Where my front yard ends, the Loyalsock State Forest (LSF) begins. Access to my property is via a no-outlet gravel road that dead-ends in the Forest.
In 1933, my grandfather bought 20 acres with an old cabin and barn bordering what is now the LSF.
As a child, I didn’t miss indoor plumbing or air conditioning in that cabin beside the Loyalsock Creek where we spent our summers. I now live on the land year-round, in a home I built in 2007, before I had ever heard the words Marcellus Shale. I have indoor plumbing now, but still no desire for air conditioning, preferring to rely on open windows and big shade trees.
The memories my family has made on this land are priceless, and my grandchildren are the fifth generation to run in the meadow, swim and fish in the creek, climb the trees, and play in the nearby woods of the PA Wilds. In our increasingly transient society, roots this deep are precious and rare.
My appalled, angry, and admittedly frightened response to the gas industry invasion of the Loyalsock watershed began in 2010, when a parade of trucks spewing diesel fumes rumbled up the no-outlet road I live on, enroute to leased COP tracts in the LSF.
That dirt trail that we loved to hike was the first thing to go. Dump trucks carrying fist-sized gravel and heavy equipment transformed the forest trail into a road – gated off and posted with trespass warnings carrying severe penalties. In my neighborhood, as in so many places in the watershed, land that legally belongs to the citizens now carries grim warnings of the consequences of trespassing.
When the drilling and fracking equipment passed my driveway, the ground shook. Oftentimes, I had to wait 15 or 20 minutes just to leave – or come home. There was a flag car pretty much permanently blocking my driveway for a while. I also walked out for the mail one day and found a porta-potty had been set up on my land. No one thought to ask permission. They just put it on my property – a few yards from my mailbox.
Life in my Loyalsock watershed neighborhood has forever changed at the hands of industry permitted to remove millions of gallons of water for fracking from the Loyalsock – the beautiful Creek that carries the designation “Exceptional Value”. Named PA’s River of the Year in 2018, the Loyalsock Creek begins in the endless mountain region of the PA Wilds, and travels 64 miles on its way to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
The beloved Loyalsock Creek provides recreation for hundreds of fishermen, kayakers, inner-tubers, swimmers, and summer cabin dwellers – offering clear water that to this day supports abundant fish, amphibians, birds, and wildlife – clear water the gas industry now pumps out by the millions of gallons, to be mixed with toxic chemicals and forced at great pressure through boreholes a mile deep and miles long, to release methane trapped in the Marcellus Shale.
In 2018, about two miles from my home, an estimated 55,000 gallons of “produced water” spilled from a well pad ironically named TLC. This toxic fluid ran downhill into a tributary and directly into the Loyalsock Creek. On its approximately two-mile path, the chemicals flooded a little tributary that runs through a rural neighborhood where children play in the water. Frightened residents gathered to question DEP about the safety of their private drinking water wells, and they expressed concern over the tadpoles and frogs, and in the deeper, shady pools – native trout they were used to seeing.
Pennsylvania lawmakers could obey the Constitution, protect the watershed, and choose a way forward that leads to a future of renewable energy and well-paying green jobs for Pennsylvania citizens, as well as the promise of a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.
Time is running out.
I look at my grandchildren and believe that such a shift of consciousness and political will is truly their last, great hope.
Keep It Wild
-By Barb Jarmoska
What Does the Future Hold?
On its own, climate change brings with it a wave of new and/or intensified challenges to PA’s state forests, parks, and natural areas. Flooding and erosion, insect-borne illnesses, invasive species, and changes to plant and animal life are ongoing issues the state’s natural resource managers have to consider as the climate changes. These interactive stressors will continue to disrupt ecosystem function, processes, and services; result in the loss of biodiversity and shifts in forest compositions; and negatively impact industries and communities reliant on Penns Woods.
Over the past 110 years, PA’s average temperature has increased nearly two degrees Fahrenheit, and the Commonwealth has also seen a gradual uptick in annual precipitation, but a decline in and shorter span of snow cover. As ranges shift, the state will see the distribution and abundance of native plants and animals change, a pattern that will continue to accelerate.
Penns Woods are home to over 100 species of trees. Oak/hickory forests contain primarily oaks, maples, and hickories, with an understory of rhododendrons and blueberry bushes. Northern hardwood forests are composed of black cherry, maples, American beech, and birch, with understories of ferns, striped maple and beech brush. But the composition of PA’s forests are changing. Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute compared colonial-era data to recent U.S. Forest Service data, and found that maples have increased by as much as 20%, but beeches, oaks and chestnuts – important foliage for wildlife – have declined. The presence of pine trees has been more volatile, seeing increases in some areas, and decreases in others.
Overall, PA’s forests are becoming more unsustainable, conditions compounded by misaligned harvesting, suburban sprawl, insect infestations, and disease. These impacts trickle down to the wildlife that call Penns Woods home. PA’s Natural Heritage Program has begun to compile this Environmental Review List, to identify threatened and endangered species, species of special concern, and rare and significant ecological features.
One of the most notable among these is North America’s largest salamander, the eastern hellbender, designated PA’s official amphibian in April 2019. This salamander is a great indicator of clean and well-oxygenated water, as it requires fast-flowing, freshwater habitat with large rock deposits to thrive. Originally dispersed across the Appalachians from Georgia to New York, the eastern hellbender’s population has suffered greatly from the impacts of pollution, erosion and sedimentation, dams, and amphibious fungal disease.
These salamanders can reach lengths up to two feet, and live for as long as 50 years, so their presence is a key indicator of long-term stream and riparian health. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has monitored their habitats throughout PA since 2007. Though named the state’s official amphibian, this title does not incorporate its special protection.
Fig. 33. An aerial view of the Loyalsock Creek. (Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, June 2020)
In its recent Loyalsock State Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP), PA DCNR states that “Natural gas development…especially at the scale seen in the modern shale-gas era, can affect a variety of forest resources, uses, and values, such as:
• recreational opportunities,
• the forest’s wild character and scenic beauty, and
• plant and wildlife habitat.”
Despite extensive areas marred by well pads and other fracking infrastructure, the Loyalsock watershed retains resplendent beauty and pastoral character. Natural resources have endured spills, leaks, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, and increases in impervious buildout related to the gas industry. While a global pandemic and cascading company debts have diminished extraction activities, the region remains vulnerable to future attempts to drill more — on both private and public lands.
Indicative of the omnipresent threats, Pennsylvania General Energy Company, LLC (PGE) intends to develop a substantial pipeline corridor across the Loyalsock Valley. According to PA DEP public records, the project includes the construction of the Shawnee Pipeline, with over 15,000 linear feetof an existing eight-inch diametergas pipeline to be replaced with a 16-inch pipeline. It will be supplemented by the Shawnee Pipeline Phase 2, encompassing an additional 189 linear feet of gas pipeline.
Arranged to accompany the pipelines is a temporary waterline to extend from planned pump stations on both sides of the Loyalsock Creek, to a proposed impoundment site within Loyalsock State Forest.
The company envisions cofferdams and trenches to cross the Loyalsock Creek. Other streams and wetlands will also be traversed, further degrading and endangering these vulnerable resources. Visible scarring from the pipeline cut is a major concern adding to the diminishment of the valley’s lush, green slopes. Methods exist to minimize the visibility of such development, but no one knows if PGE will follow those practices, or if regulators will require this of them. Some believe the project portends more fracking — with ceaseless demands for more water, and endless production of noxious waste and climate-killing emissions.
Only a few miles northeast of the watershed, New Fortress Energy is constructing a 260-acre complex near Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, to convert fracked gas into liquified natural gas, or LNG. The LNG will be dangerously transported by truck and rail to a planned export facility in Gibbstown, New Jersey, to send these private exploits overseas. A local group, Protect Northern PA, has formed to encourage a more sustainable path forward for the area, one that values people and the planet. The New Fortress Energy plant, if completed, would create inertia for extended extraction across the Marcellus Shale.
But hope abides in the Loyalsock. Hikers flock to enchanted trails, revelers rejoice on graveled shores. The place exudes an invisible elixir called stewardship, rippling through the air, nourishing receptive hearts and minds. Brandished for free, it shares this necessary ethos, seeking more followers.
Thank you to all of the inspiring and steadfast environmental stewards who have contributed to the creation of this digital atlas:
Dick Martin from PAForestCoalition.org;
Barb Jarmoska, Harvey M. Katz, and Ralph Kisberg from Responsible Drilling Alliance;
Ann Pinca from Lebanon Pipeline Awareness;
Paul V. Otruba and Victor Otruba from Environeers;
Justin Grubb, Alex Goatz, and Michael Clark from Running Wild Media;
and Rachel McDevitt from StateImpact
Leann Leiter from Earthworks
Staff at FracTracker Alliance
Project funding provided by The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds
This testimony was provided by Shannon Smith, FracTracker Manager of Communications & Development, at the July 23rd hearing on the control of methane & VOC emissions from oil and natural gas sources hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
My name is Shannon Smith and I’m a resident of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. I am the Manager of Communications and Development at the nonprofit organization FracTracker Alliance. FracTracker studies and maps issues related to unconventional oil and gas development, and we have been a top source of information on these topics since 2010. Last year alone, FracTracker’s website received over 260,000 users. FracTracker, the project, was originally developed to investigate health concerns and data gaps surrounding Western Pennsylvania fracking.
I would like to address the proposed rule to reduce emissions of methane and other harmful air pollution, such as smog-forming volatile organic compounds, which I will refer to as VOCs, from existing oil and gas operations. I thank the DEP for the opportunity to address this important issue.
The proposed rule will protect Pennsylvanians from methane and harmful VOCs from oil and gas sources, but to a limited extent. The proposed rule does not adequately protect our air, climate, nor public health, because it includes loopholes that would leave over half of all potential cuts to methane and VOC pollution from the industry unchecked.
Emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane and VOC pollution harm communities by contributing to the climate crisis, endangering households and workers through explosions and fires, and causing serious health impairments. Poor air quality also contributes to the economic drain of Pennsylvania’s communities due to increased health care costs, lower property values, a declining tax base, and difficulty in attracting and retaining businesses.
Oil and gas related air pollution has known human health impacts including impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, depression, and genetic impacts like low birth weight.
One indirect impact especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is the increased incidence and severity of respiratory viral infections in populations living in areas with poor air quality, as indicated by a number of studies.
Given the available data, FracTracker Alliance estimates that there are 106,224 oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. Out of the 12,574 drilled unconventional wells, there have been 15,164 cited violations. Undoubtedly the number of violations would be higher with stricter monitoring.
There is a need for more stringent environmental regulations and enforcement, and efforts to do so should be applauded only if they adequately respond to the scientific evidence regarding risks to public health. These measures are only successful if there is long-term predictability that will ultimately drive investments in clean energy technologies. Emission rollbacks undermine decades of efforts to shift industries towards cleaner practices. So, I urge the DEP to close the loophole in the proposed rulemaking that exempts low-producing wells from the rule’s leak inspection requirements. Low-producing wells are responsible for more than half of the methane pollution from oil and gas sources in Pennsylvania, and all wells, regardless of production, require routine inspections.
I also ask that the Department eliminate the provision that allows operators to reduce the frequency of inspections based on the results of previous inspections. Research does not show that the quantity of leaking components from oil and gas sources indicates or predicts the frequency or quantity of future leaks.
In fact, large and uncontrolled leaks are random and can only be detected with frequent and regular inspections. Short-term peaks of air pollution due to oil and gas activities are common and can cause health impairments in a matter of minutes, especially in sensitive populations such as people with asthma, children, and the elderly. I urge the Department to close loopholes that would exempt certain wells from leak detection and repair requirements, and ensure that this proposal includes requirements for all emission sources covered in DEP’s already adopted standards for new oil and gas sources.
Furthermore, conventional operators should have to report their emissions, and the Department should require air monitoring technologies that have the capacity to detect peaks rather than simply averages. We need adequate data in order to properly enforce regulations and meet Pennsylvania’s climate goals of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/EQT-Tioga-Wide-7.gif300800Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgShannon Smith2020-06-29 11:04:372020-06-29 11:55:12Testimony to PA DEP on Control of Methane & VOC Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Sources
COVID-19 and the oil and gas industry are at odds. Air pollution created by oil and gas activities make people more vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19. Simultaneously, the economic impact of the pandemic is posing major challenges to oil and gas companies that were already struggling to meet their bottom line. In responding to these challenges, will our elected leaders agree on a stimulus package that prioritizes people over profits?
Air pollution from oil and gas development can come from compressor stations, condensate tanks, construction activity, dehydrators, engines, fugitive emissions, pits, vehicles, and venting and flaring. The impact is so severe that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost due to increased exposure to pollution.
Yes, air quality has improved in certain areas of China and elsewhere due to decreased traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite our eagerness for good news, sightings of dolphins in Italian waterways does not mean that mother earth has forgiven us or “hit the reset button.”
Significant environmental health concerns persist, despite some improvements in air quality. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from areas with the high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution.
On March 8th, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke looked at the impacts of air quality improvements under COVID-19, and offered this important caveat:
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. Again I emphasize that the effects calculated above are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes, and do not account for the many other short- or long-term negative consequences of social and economic disruption on health or other outcomes; these harms could exceed any health benefits from reduced air pollution. But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e. the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”
This is an environmental justice issue. Higher levels of air pollution tend to be in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants. Other health impacts related to oil and gas activities, from cancer to negative birth outcomes, compromise people’s health, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Plus, marginalized communities experience disproportionate barriers to healthcare as well as a heavier economic toll during city-wide lockdowns.
Financial Instability of the Oil & Gas Industry in the Face of COVID-19
The COVID-19 health crisis is setting off major changes in the oil and gas industry. The situation may thwart plans for additional petrochemical expansion and cause investors to turn away from fracking for good.
Persistent Negative Returns
Oil, gas, and petrochemical producers were facing financial uncertainties even before COVID-19 began to spread internationally. Now, the economics have never been worse.
In 2019, shale-focused oil and gas producers ended the year with net losses of $6.7 billion. This capped off the decade of the “shale revolution,” during which oil and gas companies spent $189 billion more on drilling and other capital expenses than they brought in through sales. This negative cash flow is a huge red flag for investors.
“North America’s shale industry has never succeeded in producing positive free cash flows for any full year since the practice of fracking became widespread.” IEEFA
The oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia has been taking a toll on oil and gas prices as well. Saudi Arabia plans to increase oil production by 2 – 3 million barrels per day in April, bringing the global total to 102 million barrels produced per day. But with the global COVID-19 lockdown, transportation has decreased considerably, and the world may only need 90 million barrels per day.
If you’ve taken Econ 101, you know that when production increases as demand decreases, prices plummet. Some analysts estimate that the price of oil will soon fall to as low as $5 per barrel, (compared to the OPEC+ intended price of $60 per barrel).
Corporate welfare vs. public health and safety
Oil and gas industry lobbyists have asked Congress forfinancial support in response to COVID-19. Two stimulus bills in both the House and Senate are currently competing for aid.
Speaker McConnell’s bill seeks to provide corporate welfare with a $415 billion fund. This would largely benefit industries like oil and gas, airlines, and cruise ships. Friends of the Earth gauged the potential bailout to the fracking industry at $26.287 billion. In another approach, the GOP Senate is seeking to raise oil prices by directly purchasing for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation’s emergency oil supply.
Speaker Pelosi’s proposed stimulus bill includes $250 billion in emergency funding with stricter conditions on corporate use, but doesn’t contain strong enough language to prevent a massive bailout to oil and gas companies.
Hopefully with public pressure, Democrats will take a firmer stance and push for economic stimulus to be directed to healthcare, paid sick leave, stronger unemployment insurance, free COVID-19 testing, and food security.
Grasping at straws
Fracking companies were struggling to stay afloat before COVID-19 even with generous government subsidies. It’s becoming very clear that the fracking boom is finally busting. In an attempt to make use of the oversupply of gas and win back investors, the petrochemical industry is expanding rapidly. There are currently plans for $164 billion of new infrastructure in the United States that would turn fracked natural gas into plastic.
The location of the proposed PTTGC Ethane Cracker in Belmont, Ohio. Go to this map.
There are several fundamental flaws with this plan. One is that the price of plastic is falling. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) states that the price of plastic today is 40% lower than industry projections in 2010-2013. This is around the time that plans started for a $5.7 billion petrochemical complex in Belmont County, Ohio. This would be the second major infrastructural addition to the planned petrochemical buildout in the Ohio River Valley, the first being the multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
Secondly, there is more national and global competition than anticipated, both in supply and production. Natural gas and petrochemical companies have invested in infrastructure in an attempt to take advantage of cheap natural gas, creating an oversupply of plastic, again decreasing prices and revenue. Plus, governments around the world are banning single-use plastics, and McKinsey & Company estimates that up to 60% of plastic production could be based on reuse and recycling by 2050.
Sharp declines in feedstock prices do not lead to rising demand for petrochemical end products.
Third, oil and gas companies were overly optimistic in their projections of national economic growth. The IMF recently projected that GDP growth will slow down in China and the United States in the coming years. And this was before the historic drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The risks are becoming insurmountable. The price of plastics is sinking and the market is already oversupplied due to industry overbuilding and increased competition,” said Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of finance and author of the report.
Oil, gas, and petrochemical companies are facing perilous prospects from demand and supply sides. Increasing supply does not match up with decreasing demand, and as a result the price of oil and plastics are dropping quickly. Tens of thousands of oil and gas workers are being fired, and more than 200 oil and gas companies have filed for bankruptcy in North America in the past five years. Investors are no longer interested in propping up failing companies.
Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants. At this point, the economy is bound to move towards cleaner and more economically sustainable energy solutions.
It’s not always necessary or appropriate to find a “silver lining” in crises, and it’s wrong to celebrate reduced pollution or renewable energy achievements that come as the direct result of illness and death. Everyone’s first priority must be their health and the health of their community. Yet the pandemic has exposed fundamental flaws in our energy system, and given elected leaders a moment to pause and consider how we should move forward.
It is a pivotal moment in terms of global energy production. With determination, the United States can exercise the political willpower to prioritize people over profits– in this case, public health over fossil fuel companies.
Top photo of petrochemical activity in the Houston, Texas area. By Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. Aerial assistance provided by LightHawk.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/HoustonArea_feature.jpg8331875Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgShannon Smith2020-03-24 15:48:412020-04-01 09:56:09COVID-19 and the oil & gas industry
Air pollution from Pennsylvania shale gas compressor stations is a significant, worsening public health concern.
By Cynthia Walter, Ph.D.
Dr. Walter is a retired biology professor who has worked on shale gas industry pollution since 2009 through Westmoreland Marcellus Citizens Group, Protect PT and other groups. Contact: email@example.com
Compressor Stations (CS) in the gas industry are sources of serious air pollutants known to harm humans and the environment. CS are permanent facilities required to transport gases from wells to major pipelines and along pipelines. Additional operations and equipment located at CS also emit toxins. In the last 20 years, CS abundance and sizes have dramatically increased in shale gas extraction areas across the US. This report will focus on CS in and near Southwestern Pennsylvania. Numbers of CS there have risen more than tenfold in the last decade in response to well completions and pipelines after the local fracking boom began in 2005. For example, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, had two CS before 2005 and now has 50 CS corresponding with about 341 active shale gas wells. In Pennsylvania, state regulations allow CS to be as close as 750 feet from homes, schools, and businesses. Emission monitoring relevant to public health exposure is limited or absent.
Current Pennsylvania policies allow rapid CS expansion. Also, regulations do not address public health risks due to several major flaws. First, permits allow annual totals of emitted toxins using models that assume constant releases, but substantial emissions from CS occur in peaks that expose citizens to concentrations may impair health, ranging from asthma to cancer. Second, permits do not address the fact that CS simultaneously release many serious air toxins including benzene and formaldehyde, and particulates that carry toxins into lungs. This allowance of multiple toxin release does not reflect the well-established science that public health risks multiply when people are exposed to several toxins at once. Third, permit reviews rarely consider nearby known air pollution sources contributing to aggregate air toxin exposures that occur in bursts and continually. Fourth, permits do not require operators to provide public access to real-time reports of air pollutants released by CS and ambient air quality near CS.
Poor air quality causes harm directly, e.g. respiratory distress, and indirectly, e.g., through increased vulnerability to respiratory viruses. The annual cost of damages from air pollution from CS was estimated at $4 million-$24 million in Pennsylvania based on emissions from CS in 2011. These damages include harm to human and livestock health and losses of crops and timber. After 2011, CS and gas infrastructures continue to expand, with increasing air pollution and damages, especially in shale gas areas. These costs must be compared to the benefits of using alternative energy sources. For example, in a neighboring state, New York, shifting to renewable energy will save tens of billions of dollars annually in air pollution costs, prevent thousands of premature deaths each year, and trigger substantial job creation, based on peer-reviewed research using US government data.
Constant air monitoring must occur at current compressor stations and nearby sites important to the public, such as schools. The peak concentrations and totals for substances relevant to public health must be recorded and made available to the public in real time.
Air pollution from compressor stations must become an important part of measuring and modeling pollution exposures from all components of the shale gas industry.
Permits for new compressor stations must be revised to better protect the public in ways including, but not limited to the following:
Location, e.g., increased general setback limits and expanded limits for sensitive sites such as schools, senior care facilities and hospitals
Emission limits for criteria air pollutants and hazardous air pollutants including Radon, especially limits for peak concentrations and annual totals
Monitoring air quality within the station, at the fence-line and in key sites nearby, such as schools, using information from air movement models to select locations and heights.
Limits for CS size based on aggregate pollution from other local air pollution sources.
Costs of harm from CS and other shale gas activities must be compared to alternatives.
CS emissions contribute major air pollutants to the total pollution from unconventional gas development (UCGD), but their role in regional air quality problems has not always been noted. In 2009, when UCGD operations were only a few years in this region and many CS had not yet been built, CS emissions were estimated to be a small component. Now, in 2020, gas transport requirements have increased, leading to many more and larger CS. The amounts of CS emissions have increased accordingly, based on estimates by Carnegie Mellon University atmospheric researcher, Robinson (Figure 1). Part of the reason that CS are such a major pollution source is that they run constantly, in contrast to machinery for well development and trucking that fluctuate with the market for new wells.
Air pollutants in CS emissions vary substantially in chemistry and concentrations due to differences in equipment (Table 1). Emissions in CS can come from several types of sources described below.
Engines: Compression engines powered with methane release nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAP). Diesel engines release those pollutants as well as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and substantial particulate matter. In addition, diesel storage on site is a hazard. Electric engines produce less pollutants, but they are much less common than fossil fuel engines in southwestern Pennsylvania. CS operators can vary the use of engines at a station, and therefore, emissions vary during partial or full shutdowns and start-up periods.
Blowdowns: Toxic emissions dramatically increase during blowdowns, a procedure that is scheduled or used as needed to release the build-up of gases. Blowdown frequency and emissions vary with the rate of gas transport and the chemistry of transported gases. The full extent of emissions from any CS, therefore, is not known. Blowdowns can release a wide range of substances, and when flaring is used to burn off gases, the combustion creates new substances and additional particulates. Blowdowns are the most likely source of peaks in emissions at continuously operated CS. For example, Brown et al. (2015) used PA DEP measures of a CS in Washington County, Pennsylvania, alongside likely blowdown frequencies and weather models to predict peak emission frequency. They estimated nearby residents would experience over 118 peak emissions per year.
Non-compression Procedures: CS facilities are often the location for equipment that separate gases, remove water and other fluids, and run pipeline testing operations called pigging. These activities can be constant or intermittent and release a wide range of substances which may or may not be included in estimates for a permit. In addition, some of the processing releases gases which are flared at the facility, thus releasing a range of combustion by-products and particulate pollution. For example, the Shamrock CS operated by Dominion Transfer Inc. includes equipment for dehydration, glycol processing and pigging. The Janus facility operated by EQT includes dehydration and flaring. Permitted emissions for those facilities are listed in Table 1.
Storage Tank Emissions: CS often include storage tanks that hold substances known to release fumes. For example, the Shamrock CS was permitted to have an above ground storage tank of 3000 gallons for drip gas and a 1000-gallon tank for used oil, both of which release volatile organic compounds. The EQT Janus CS has two 8,820-gallon tanks. Gas releases from such tanks could be controlled and recorded by the operator or they could be unrecorded leaks.
Fugitive emissions: Gas leaks, called fugitive emissions, occur readily from many components in CS facilities; such problems will increase as equipment ages. A study of CS stations in Texas is an example.
“In the Fort Worth, TX area, researchers evaluated compressor station emissions from eight sites, focusing in part on fugitive emissions. A total of 2,126 fugitive emission points were identified in the four month field study of 8 compressor stations: 192 of the emission points were valves; 644 were connectors (including flanges, threaded unions, tees, plugs, caps and open-ended lines where the plug or cap was missing); and 1,290 were classified as Other Equipment. The Other category consists of all remaining components such as tank thief hatches, pneumatic valve controllers, instrumentation, regulators, gauges, and vents. 1,330 emission points were detected with an IR camera (i.e. high-level emissions) and 796 emission points were detected by Method 21 screening (i.e. low-level emissions). Pneumatic Valve Controllers were the most frequent emission sources encountered at well pads and compressor stations.”
Eastern Research Group (2011).
Table 1. Examples of air pollutants allowed for release by compressor stations. Air pollutants (pounds/year) are estimates provided by the companies for permits in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in recent years. Total compressor engine horsepower (hp) is noted. Sources: Janus and Tonkin CS Permits at WV DEP website. Shamrock CS permit. Buffalo CS, Washington, Co PA – PENNSYLVANIA BULLETIN, VOL. 45, NO. 16 APRIL 18, 2015.
Buffalo ** (PA) 20,000 hp + 5,000 bhp
Volatile Organic Compounds
Hazardous Air Pollutants-Total
Total Particulate Matter
(PM-2.5, PM-10-separate or combined)
Carbon Dioxide Equivalents
Health Effects of Compressor Station Emissions
Several toxic chemicals are released by individual CS in amounts that range from a few thousand pounds to a quarter of a million pounds per year (Tables 1 & 2) as described below.
Nitrous Oxides (NOx) are often the largest total amount of emissions from fossil fuel machinery. In CS, these oxides are formed when a fossil fuel such as methane or diesel is combusted to produce the energy to compress and propel gases. NOx contribute to acid rain. Excess acids in rain lower the pH of waters, in some cases to levels that dissolve toxic metals in drinking water supplies. NOx also trigger the formation of ozone, a substance well known to impair lungs.
Ozone forms when oxygen reacts with nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, and a wide range of volatile organic compounds. Ozone exposure can trigger asthma and heart attacks in sensitive individuals, and for healthy people, ozone causes breathing problems in the short term and eventual scarring of lungs and impaired function.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gaseous compounds containing carbon, such as benzene and formaldehyde. In air pollution regulation, the EPA lists many compounds as VOC, but excludes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and butane. Many VOC’s are toxic in themselves (Tables 2, 3 and 4). Also, several VOC’s react to form ozone. https://www.epa.gov/air-emissions-inventories/what-definition-voc
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is another product of fossil fuel combustion and another contributor to ozone formation. CO is directly toxic because it prevents oxygen from binding to the blood.
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) adds to lung irritation. It also contributes to acid rain, lowering the pH of water and increasing the ability of toxic metals to dissolve in water supplies.
Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) include highly toxic substances such as formaldehyde and benzene, which are known carcinogens, as well as the other substances known to be emitted from CS (Tables 3 & 4). The EPA lists 187 substances as HAP, which include many VOC’s as well as some non-organic chemicals such as arsenic and radionuclides including Radon. (https://www.epa.gov/haps/initial-list-hazardous-air-pollutants-modifications)
Particulate Matter (PM) usually refers to particles in small size classes. Most state or federal regulations address measures of particles less than 10 microns (PM-10) and some monitoring systems separate out particles less than 2.5 microns (PM-2.5). Particles in either of those size ranges are not visible, but highly damaging because they travel deep into the lungs where they irritate tissues and impair breathing. Also, these tiny particles carry toxins from air into the blood passing through the lungs. This blood transports substances directly to the brain where toxins can quickly impair the nervous system and subsequently impact other organs. (https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/particulate-matter-pm-basics)
Health impacts from many of the substances released by CS are well-known in medical research. For example, many of the VOC and HAP compounds permitted for release by state agencies are known carcinogens (Table 3). Many of these substances also impact the nervous system as shown in the organic compounds measured in CS in PA and listed in Table 4. Also, a study of 18 CS in New York by Russo and Carpenter (2017) found that all 18 CS released substances with known impacts on the nervous system and total annual emissions were over five million pounds, among the highest of all types of emissions (Table 5). Russo and Carpenter also found high annual emissions of over five million pounds for substances known to be associated with each of the following other health problems: digestive problems, circulatory disorders, and congenital malformations.
Congenital defects were significantly more common for mothers living in a 10-mile radius of denser shale gas development in Colorado compared to reference populations (MacKenzie et al. 2014). Currie et al. (2017) examined over a million birth records in Pennsylvania and found statistically significant increased frequencies of low birth weight and negative health scores for infants born to mothers within 3 km of unconventional gas wells compared to matching populations more distant from shale gas developments. Such developments include a wide range of gas infrastructure including CS and also high truck traffic and fracking. One plausible mechanism for harm to developing babies is exposure to VOCs such as benzene, toluene and xylene associated with CS and well operations. These VOC’s are classified by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry as known to cross the placental barrier and cause harm to the fetus including birth deformities.
In sum, CS are a significant source of air pollutants with direct and indirect impacts on health. One indirect impact especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, is the increased incidence and severity of respiratory viral infections in populations living in areas with poor air quality. Ciencewicki, and Jaspers (2007) write, “a number of studies indicate associations between exposure to air pollutants and increased risk for respiratory virus infections.”
Table. 2. Health effects of air pollutants permitted for release by compressor stations.
Impairs lungs and transfers toxins into body when microscopic particles carry chemicals deep into lungs and release into bloodstream.
Forms ozone that impairs lung function which can trigger asthma and heart attacks and scars lungs in the long term.
Forms acid rain that dissolves toxic metals into water supplies.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Includes a wide variety of gaseous organic compounds, some of which cause cancer. Many VOC react to form ozone that impairs lungs as noted above.
Blocks ability of blood to carry oxygen.
Also forms ozone that impairs lungs as noted above.
Irritates lungs, triggering respiratory and heart distress.
Forms acid rain that dissolves toxic metals into water supplies.
Hazardous Air Pollutants
Category of various toxic compounds many of which impact the nervous system. Includes formaldehyde, benzene and several other carcinogens.
Sum of emissions of all toxins. Exposure to multiple toxins exacerbates harm directly through impairment of lungs and circulatory system and indirectly through injury to detoxification mechanisms, such as liver function.
Carbon Dioxide Equivalents
A measure of the combined effects of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and Methane expressed in a standard unit equivalent to the heat trapping effect of CO2. Greenhouse gases trap heat and worsen climate change and related harm to health when increased air temperatures directly cause stress directly and indirectly accelerate ozone formation.
Table 3. Gas industry list of carcinogenicity rating for Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) released by compressor stations in a factsheet prepared by EQT for Janus compressor, WV. 2015 Source: DEP.
B2-Probable Human Carcinogen
Category A – Known Human Carcinogen
Category D Not Classifiable
Suggested Evidence of Carcinogenic Potential
B2-Probable Human Carcinogen
B1- Probable Human Carcinogen
C- Possible human Carcinogen
Table 4. Center for Disease Control list of health effects for volatile organic carbons measured by PA DEP near compressor station. Source: CDC.
Irritation to eyes and nose; nausea, headache; neuropath; numb extremities, muscle weakness; dermatitis; dizziness
Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, peripheral nervous system
Central nervous system
Irritation to eyes, skin & respiratory system; headache, dizziness; nausea
Eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system
Drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia
Central nervous system
Table 5. Amounts of pollutants known to be associated with health impacts in a review of 18 New York compressor stations. Emissions were grouped and tallied based on their impacts on disorders classified by ICD codes as defined by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. Source: Copy of Table 3.17b, Russo and Carpenter 2017.
Congenital malformations and deformations
Eye, ear, face and neck
Chromosomal abnormalities, nec
Regional Air Toxins and Cancer Risk in Southwestern Pennsylvania
Cancer risks from HAPs have been elevated for many years in several areas of Southwestern PA, as noted in a map from 2005 (Figure 2), when most air pollution was from urban traffic and single sources such as coke works and unconventional gas development (UCGD) had just begun in the region. The cancer risk pattern changed by 2014 (Figure 3). The specific numbers of excess cancer risk predicted for each location cannot be compared between the two maps because each map was produced using different sources of information and models. The pattern, however, can be compared and shows that elevated cancer risk is now more widespread across Southwestern PA and no longer primarily in Allegheny County.
Cancer risk maps are constructed by the EPA office of National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) using models of reported air toxics and their relationship to cancer as a risk factor, as defined by NATA: “A risk level of “N”-in-1 million implies that up to “N” people out of one million equally exposed people would contract cancer if exposed continuously (24 hours per day) to the specific concentration over 70 years (an assumed lifetime). This would be in addition to cancer cases that would normally occur in one million unexposed people.” (https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment/nata-glossary-terms) In the current context, the NATA models are useful to compare the relative differences in air quality from a public health perspective, assuming the data on air pollutants is complete.
Another, very different statistic regarding cancer is the rate of cancer, also called the incidence. This number is based on actual reported cases and applies to cancers that occur due to all causes. The cancer rate, therefore, is a much higher number than a risk factor. For example, according to the US Center for Disease Control, the annual rate of new cases of cancer in PA in 2016, the most recent year reported, was 482.5 per 100,000 people. Compared to other states, PA is among the ten states with the highest cancer incidence. In the US, one in four people die from cancer, placing it second to heart disease as a leading cause of death. (https://gis.cdc.gov/Cancer/USCS/DataViz.html). Compared to other nations, the US has the fifth highest cancer rate, with 352 new cases each year per 100,000 people. (https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/cancer-trends/data-cancer-frequency-country)
Compressor station emissions contribute to air pollutants known to be associated with cancer. For example, in a review of emissions for 18 CS in New York, Russo and Carpenter (2017) found that most or all CS released substances associated with a wide range of cancers (Table 6). Up to 56 such chemicals were emitted in amounts that totaled over 1 million pounds each year.
Maps of cancer risk are likely to be under-reporting risk levels in both the amount rates of risk and also the locations. Cancer risks from serious air pollutants cannot be properly mapped for several reasons. First, reports on concentrations of HAP in emissions are limited. HAP emissions are in accounts required only from large facilities, and thus, smaller operations, such as many CS, are likely be ignored. Second, general air quality monitoring stations are limited in location and do not measure HAP. For example, the PA DEP maintains 47 air quality stations dispersed among over 60 counties (http://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/airwaste/aq/aqm/pollt.html). Most stations report hourly measures of Ozone and PM-2.5, and only a handful also monitor one or more other substances such as CO, NOx, SO ₂ or H2S. One county in Southwestern PA has additional air quality stations. Allegheny has a county health department that maintains 17 stations to report real-time air quality based on Ozone, SO2 or PM-2.5 (https://alleghenycounty.us/Health-Department/Programs/Air-Quality/Air-Quality.aspx).
In sum, cancer risk estimates from air pollution fall short in the following ways:
Estimates of air quality do not reflect the reality of air pollution from CS as well as many other new sources such as increased truck traffic associated with shale gas development.
Tallies of annual emissions do not represent the actual exposures of individuals to pulses of toxins.
Models of air pollution and cancer are not sufficiently based on real world studies of impacts from multiple toxins in short and long-term exposures.
Figure 2. Cancer risk map in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2005 from the National Air Toxics Assessment program in the EPA. Total Lifetime Cancer Risk from Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) per million. Colors indicate yellow for 28-78, gold for 79-95, light orange for 99-148, orange for 149-271, bright orange for 272-517, and red for 518-744 excess cancer risk per million. (https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment)
Figure 3. Cancer risk map in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 2014 from the National Air Toxics Assessment in the EPA. Facilities are locations where air quality information was available for modeling. Total Risk of cancer as a baseline was assumed to be 1 per 1,000,000. Estimates of risk predict known air pollution sources alone will cause 1-24 excess cancers per million in Light Pink areas, 25-49 excess cancers per million in Gray areas, and 50-74 excess cancers per million in Blue areas. Source: EPA.
Table 6. Amounts of pollutants known to be associated with cancer in a review of 18 New York compressor stations. Emissions were grouped and tallied based on their impacts on disorders classified by ICD codes as defined by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), a medical classification list by the World Health Organization. Source: Copy of Table 3b, Russo and Carpenter 2017.
Lip, oral cavity and pharynx
Respiratory system and intrathoracic organs
Bone and articular cartilage
Connective and soft tissue
Breast and female genital organs
Male genital organs
Eye, brain and central nervous system
Endocrine glands and related structures
Secondary and ill-defined
Malignant neoplasms, stated or presumed to be primary, of lymphoid, haematopoietic and related tissue
Malignant neoplasms of independent (primary) multiple sites
In situ neoplasms
Neoplasms of uncertain or unknown behavior
Measurements of Compressor Station Emissions
Studies of real-world concentrations of air pollutants from CS emissions are lacking, but some reports exist. Of these, a few records are in peer-reviewed studies, and cited in reviews such as Saunders et al. 2018. A few published reports are described below. They all show the high variation over time for CS emissions and the occurrence of peak concentrations.
Macey et al. (2014) observed ambient air near CS contained toxins at concentrations that impair health. They collected grab samples of air from industrial sites including CS in Arkansas and Pennsylvania and analyzed them for toxins using EPA approved methods. Most of the CS studied in Arkansas (Table 6) and Pennsylvania (Table 7) released formaldehyde at amounts associated with a cancer risk from exposure to this substance of 1/10,000 which is equivalent to 100 times higher risk than the widely accepted baseline risk of 1 per million. This means the amounts of formaldehyde found near CS substantially increased the risk of cancer using well-established federal analyses (https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/hac/phamanual/appf.html). Some toxins Macey et al. recorded are less well studied than formaldehyde and benzene. For example, 1,3-butadiene is classified by the EPA as a known human carcinogen, but a calculation of cancer risk for this substance is lacking. Air samples in the Macey study were collected close to the CS (e.g., 30-42m) and at greater distances (e.g., 254-460m). Those distant samples were well beyond the 750-foot set-back rule for Pennsylvania. At all these distances, air movement modeling predicts that toxins released from a source such as a CS are likely to travel downwind within the air mass under most weather conditions, thus exposing residents near and further from CS. Many people, therefore, in homes, schools and businesses that are downwind of CS are likely to experience serious air toxins at concentrations that harm their health.
Air toxins were also measured by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 in a variety of unconventional gas extraction facilities including one CS in Washington County, PA. Brown et al. (2015) reported these data, showing the concentrations that citizens could experience near a compressor station varied greater than tenfold within a day and among consecutive days (Table 8). The length of time for peak concentrations was unknown, but Brown et al. used a model of weather including wind patterns to estimate citizens are likely to experience 118 peak concentrations per year.
Goetz et al. (2015) sampled air in Marcellus shale regions of Pennsylvania for short periods (1-2.5 hrs.) at distances 480-1100 meters from eight CS, four with relatively small capacity (5,000-9,000 hp) and four with moderate capacity (14,000-17,000 hp). They found that each CS had a different pattern of relatively higher concentrations of some pollutants, such as NOX versus other pollutants, e.g., CO. Also, totals of all pollutants did not correlate with compressor engine capacity, probably because the CS they sampled include a mix of engines using fossil fuels and electric power. Goetz et al. concluded with recommendations for more comprehensive and longer-term monitoring to better understand air pollution from CS and all components in shale gas development.
Radionuclides in CS emissions are almost never measured, even though Marcellus shales are well known for containing elevated amounts of radiologic substances such as uranium, radium and radon. The only published report of testing for radionucleotides in CS emissions in PA was a test of a single CS emission for one period of time. In a review of radiation in shale gas industry components, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) measured radon (Rn) in ambient air at one CS by deploying sample bags in four cardinal directions at the fence line at a height of 5 feet for 62 days. They reported Rn concentrations of 0.1-0.8 pCi/L, values they stated were within the range of outdoor air in the US. (https://www.dep.pa.gov/Business/Energy/OilandGasPrograms/OilandGasMgmt/Oil-and-Gas-Related-Topics/Pages/Radiation-Protection.aspx) Given the high variation of amounts of emissions from CS and variable chemistry in sources of gases released from combustion, blowdowns and leaks, frequent testing for radionucleotides should be standard in monitoring CS emissions.
Methane is the substance tracked most often in emissions from CS and other gas industry facilities because of its central role in operations, requirements to avoid explosive concentrations, and readily available measurement technology, in comparison to other substances emitted from CS. Although methane emissions from CS are not always correlated with amounts of other, more toxic emissions, patterns observed in plumes of methane from CS are likely to reflect elevated concentrations of other harmful substances from CS.
Nathan et al (2015) sampled methane emissions from one CS in the Barnett shale region using a sensor carried on a model aircraft. The open-path, laser sensor produced measures with a precision of 0.1 ppmv over short intervals, allowing researchers to see emission variation in time and space as the aircraft changed position. Based on 22 flights within a week period, they observed a substantial range in methane released from 0.3 – 73 g CH4 per second. These values calculate to 0.02 – 6.3 metric tons of methane per day, a range that matches that estimated by Goetz of 0.5 – 9 metric tons per day. In addition, Nathan et al. found high variability in concentrations at different heights, as the emission plumes shifted in response to wind velocity, direction and topography. They recommend caution in interpretations of ground-based emission monitors and called for more monitoring of air movements and emissions at different elevations.
Payne et al. 2017 confirmed these ideas when they mapped plumes of methane in CS in New York and Pennsylvania using a sensor capable of recording methane in parts per million (ppm) every 0.25 – 5 seconds. The sensor was located on a mobile unit that marked GPS location. They found high variability in the shape and extent of plumes. For example, one of most extensive plumes was recorded near Dimock, Pennsylvania in a locale with CS as the only major source of methane. Researchers recorded the highest concentrations of methane in the study, 22 ppm, at 500 m from the CS, with a second peak of 0.6 ppm noted over 1 km from the CS and elevated methane as far as 3 km from the site (Figure 4). Wind direction did not always predict the shape of the plume, but data collection was restricted by the path of the sensor and the transport vehicle (Figure 8). Most importantly, they found that …“during atmospheric temperature inversions, when near-ground mixing of the atmosphere is limited or does not occur, residents and properties located within 1 mile of a compressor station can be exposed to rogue methane from these point sources.” These residents are likely to also experience excess toxins from CS as well, especially under such weather conditions.
Exposure to peak concentrations of air pollutants have dramatic effects on health for several reasons. First, lungs carry toxins into the blood within seconds, and the blood quickly transfers compounds to the brain and other vital organs. Many of the substances released by compressor stations impact the central nervous system as seen in Table 3, and these toxins are released simultaneously. Citizens, therefore inhaling a plume of emissions will have impacts from the total of these compounds. The health impacts for these combined toxins are unknown, and especially of concern during pregnancy and child development. Exposure studies in animals and humans test individual substances and the Center for Disease Control and NIOSH use these to develop exposure guidelines for a healthy adult in a work-place. In contrast, residents near compressor stations will include citizens of all ages with various health conditions. For example, the American Lung Association determined that over 50% of the 360,000 residents of Westmoreland County are at greater risk for health impairment due to air pollution because they have one or more of these conditions: asthma, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illness, advanced age (https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/people-at-risk.html).
In sum, the research on CS emissions of methane, air pollutants such as NOx, and hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene, all indicate exposures to CS emissions pose a threat to public health, but the emissions have not yet been fully quantified and modeled. Documenting CS contributions to harmful ambient air quality is feasible, however. The published studies from as far back as 2011 indicate that instrumentation to record substances and weather are readily available. Activities within a station such as compressor function, blowdowns, venting and flaring are all recorded by operators, but such reports are not released to researchers or the public. The science of models that predict public health risks in response to air pollution exposure are highly developed. In sum, operators of CS have the technology to measure emissions and ambient air quality and scientists have the models, but lack of industry data prevents the public from knowing impacts from CS.
Table 6. Air toxins found in grab samples near Arkansas compressor stations including concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Minimum Risk Level (MRL) exceedance, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk. Source: Copy of Table 4 from Macey et al. 2014.
EPA IRIS cancer risk exceeded
355 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
30 m from compressor
355 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
237 m from compressor
42 m from compressor
254 m from compressor
C = chronic; I = intermediate.
Table 7. Air toxins found in grab samples near Pennsylvania compressor stations including concentrations, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), Minimum Risk Level (MRL) exceedance, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk. Source: Copy of Table 5 from Macey et al. 2014
EPA IRIS cancer risk exceeded
420 m from compressor
370 m from compressor
270 m from PIG launcha
790 m from compressor
C, I, A
420 m from compressor
C, I, A
230 m from compressor
460 m from compressor
C = chronic; A = acute; I = intermediate.
aLaunching station for pipeline cleaning or inspection tool.
Table 8. Variation in air pollutants measured in ug/cubic meter by PA DEP during two sampling times per day for three consecutive days near a compressor station in Southwest PA. Source: Copied from Table 1. Brown et al. 2015 based on data from Southwestern Pennsylvania Short Term Marcellus Ambient Air Sampling Report, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Nov. 2010.
Figure 4. Methane emission plumes from compressor stations near Dimock, Pennsylvania (left) and Springvale, Pennsylvania (right). Source: Copied from Payne et al. 2017.
Compressor Station Locations
Prior to 2008, compressor stations were infrequent with one or a few per county broadly distributed across PA as part of gas transport from locations outside of PA (Figure 5). These pipelines were mainly an issue for public health in the case of explosions. Major transmission pipelines use pressures up to 1500 psi. Leaks, therefore, release large amounts of gas much of which is not noticed because it lacks the mercaptan odorant added to household methane. For example, the 30-inch Spectra gas pipeline that exploded in 2016 in Westmoreland County caused a hole 12 feet deep and1500 square feet in area and burned 40 acres. The PA DEP claimed to have measured air quality, but they did not arrive until long after the plume from the fire traveled downwind. This pipeline was transporting gas from one of the largest gas storage facilities in the country, the Sunoco Gas Depot in Delmont, Pennsylvania to New Jersey as part of over 9,000 miles of pipelines in the Texas Eastern system from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. That section of pipeline was built in 1981 and had recently been increased in pressure, probably using older or newer compressors in nearby locations. Faulty joints between pipeline sections were blamed for the catastrophic release of gas. (Phillips, S. 2016. State Impact, NPR). Immediately after the explosion, while gas continued to pour out of the pipeline, emergency workers needed at least one hour to locate shut-off locations. In general, pipeline shut-offs are sited at compressors stations or at intervals along a pipeline.
CS abundance in counties with shale gas extraction increased over tenfold in the decade after 2005 when the gas industry obtained exemptions to the Clean Water Act and began unconventional gas extraction in Pennsylvania (Figure 6). Permit applications for new wells, pipelines and CS continue throughout southwest Pennsylvania. In PA, the Oil and Gas law states the following: “ In order to allow for the reasonable development of oil and gas resources, a local ordinance … Shall authorize natural gas compressor stations as a permitted use in agricultural and industrial zoning districts and as a conditional use in all other zoning districts, if the natural gas compressor building meets the following standards:….(i) is located 750 feet or more from the nearest existing building or 200 feet from the nearest lot line, whichever is greater, unless waived by the owner of the building or adjoining lot;” (Pennsylvania Statutes Title 58 Pa.C.S.A. Oil and Gas §3304). CS and many aspects of the shale gas industry are controlled by this state law.
Each stage of gas extraction involves emissions that can be close or far from the well pad. Most emissions involve diesel engines. Diesel engines are well-known to produce substantial amounts of VOC’s, NOx and particulate pollution (PM-2.5, PM-10). Well pad construction requires intense activity by diesel trucks and earth moving equipment. Well drilling uses diesel engines. From 3 – 5 million gallons of water are used for each fracking event and up to 300 truck visits are needed to transport water for the many wells that are not close to water supplies from piped sources. Trucks are used to transport the 1 – 2 million gallons of produced water that emerges from the well for disposal in injection wells likely to be distant from most wells. Additional waste is carried long distances as well, including drill cuttings and sludge. For example, shale gas industry waste was handled for years in Max Environmental, one of the largest industrial waste sites in the eastern US located in Yukon, Westmoreland County since the 1960’s. Within one mile of Yukon is Reserved Environmental, a waste facility with operations focused since 2008 on processing sludge from fracking into solid cakes to be trucked to other landfills. In sum, all stages of shale gas industry contribute to many poorly documented sources of air pollution likely to be near CS.
The density of CS in some areas such as southwest Pennsylvania impacts the local and regional air quality. For example, Westmoreland County has 50 CS and 341 shale gas wells (https://www.fractracker.org) and some neighboring counties have even more shale gas emission sources. People in Westmoreland County receive pollutants from shale gas activities in their immediate vicinity and additional air pollutants from CS and other industries in neighboring counties. Wind patterns shown in Figure 7 indicate Westmoreland County is frequently downwind from Washington County, a county with a very high density of shale gas operations, and Eastern Allegheny County where large industries such as coke works release substantial amounts of air pollutants.
Figure 5. Compressor Stations prior to 2008 and in around 2013. Source: Copied from article by James Hilton in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Figure 6. Compressor Stations in Pennsylvania mapped in 2019. Source: FracTracker Alliance. 2000.
Figure 7. Wind patterns at small airports around Pennsylvania 1991-2005 showing predominant direction of wind and velocity in knots (Orange 0 – 4, Yellow 4 – 7, Turquoise 7 – 11, Medium Blue 11 – 17, Dark Blue 17 – 21). Source: The Pennsylvania State Climatologist.
Costs of Compressor Stations and Air Pollution
As permanent, constant sources of air and noise pollution and safety risks, CS add significant costs to communities. Poor air quality alone is well-established as an economic drain for a region due to many factors including increased health care, lower property values, a declining tax base, and difficulty in attracting new businesses or housing development. Litovitz et al. (2013) estimated that, compared to other activities of shale gas extraction, CS made up the majority of the annual emissions of important air toxins in 2011, and therefore a majority of the damages from air pollution, totaling 4 – 24 million dollars of the 7 – 32 million dollars of the aggregate air pollution damages from gas operations (Table 9).
Litovitz and others recognize that the costs of damages from the gas industry air pollution in 2011 may appear smaller than the state-wide impacts from other industries, such as coal burning power plants and coke production, but that appearance deserves a second look. First, shale gas extraction activities are concentrated in a few regions of Pennsylvania, and local air quality is most relevant to public health and local economics such as property values. Second, emissions from gas extraction in 2011 was only in its early stages in Pennsylvania and shale gas operations will expand greatly unless regulations change, while coal-fired power plants are declining due to the advanced age of most facilities. For example, in Westmoreland County, PA alone there are over 50 CS in 2020, the number currently in the entire state of New York, where unconventional gas development was suspended due, in large part, to concerns for public health. Costs from one aspect of an energy sector can be viewed in the context of economic and other benefits of alternative energy efforts. For example, Jacobson et al. (2013) estimated that shifting to clean, renewable energy in NY state would prevent 4000 premature deaths each year and save $33 billion/year through air pollution reductions that impact health care, crop production and other costs. Jacobson et al. used government data in their models regarding health benefits and also identified substantial job growth during and after the transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. Pennsylvania has the potential to attain similar benefits in air quality, public health, savings and job growth gained from a shift to clean, renewable energy in place of fossil fuels.
Table 9. a) Emissions from shale gas industry in 2011 throughout Pennsylvania in metric tons per year. b) Costs of damages due to air pollution from shale gas extraction in 2011 throughout Pennsylvania. Copied from Tables 5 and 6 in Litovitz et al. 2013.
(2) Well drilling and hydraulic fracturing
(4) Compressor stations
17 000–28 000
ᵃ These totals are reported to two significant figures, as are all intermediate emissions values in this document. The activity emissions may not exactly sum to the totals.
Total regional damage for 2011 ($2011)
Average per well or per MMCF damage ($2011)
$320 000–$810 000
$180–$460 per well
(2) Well drilling, fracturing
$2 200 000–$4 700 0
$1 200-$2 700 per well
$290 000–$2 700 0
$0.27-$2.60 per MMCF
(4) Compressor stations
$4 400 000–$24 000 000
$4.20-$23.00 per MMCF
$7 200 000–$32 000 000
Major Studies Cited in Text:
Brown, David, Celia Lewis, Beth I. Weinberger and Heather Bonaparte. 2014. Understanding air exposure from natural gas drilling put air standards to the test. Reviews in Environmental Health. https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2014-0002
Brown, David, Celia Lewis and Beth I. Weinberger. 2015. Human exposure to unconventional natural gas development; a public health demonstration of high exposure to chemical mixtures in ambient air. Journal of Environmental Science and Health (Part A) 50: 460-472.
Goetz, J.D. E. Floerchinger, E., C. Fortner, J. Wormhoudt, P. Massoli, W. Berk Knighton, S.C. Herndon, C.E. Kolb, E. Knipping, S. L. Shaw, and P. F. DeCarlo. 2015. Atmospheric Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 7012−7020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.5b00452
Jacobson, MZ, RW Howarth, MA Delucchi, ST Scobie, JH Barth, M Dvorak, M Klevze, H. Hatkhuda, B. Mirand, NA Chowdhury, R Jones, L Plano, AR Ingraffea. 2013. Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight. Energy Policy 57: 585-601.
Macey, G.P., Breech, R., Chernaik, M. (2014) Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study. Environ Health 13, 82 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-069X-13-82
McKenzie, LM, G Ruisin, RZ Witter, DA Savitz, LS Newman, JL Adgate. 2014. Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado. Environmental Health Perspectives Vol 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1306722.
Payne, RA, P Wicker, ZL Hildenbrand, DD Carlton, and KA Schug. 2017. Characterization of methane plumes downwind of natural gas compressor stations in Pennsylvania and New York. Science of The Total Environment 580:1214-1221
Russo, PN and DO Carpenter 2017. Health Effects Associated with Stack Chemical Emissions from NYS Natural Gas Compressor Stations: 2008-2014 Institute for Health and the Environment, A Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Environmental Health, University at Albany, 5 University Place, Rensselaer New York. Https://www.albany.edu/about/assets/Complete_report.pdf
Saunders, P.J., D. McCoy. R. Goldstein. A. T. Saunders and A. Munroe. 2018. A review of the public health impacts of unconventional natural gas development Environ Geochem Health 40:1–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-016-9898-x
Compressor Stations in Westmoreland Co. PA in Dec 2019, based on information from FracTracker Alliance, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Air Quality Report, and the Department of Homeland Security.
CNX GAS CO/HICKMAN COMP STA
PEOPLES TWP/RUBRIGHT COMP STA
CNX GAS CO/BELL POINT COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/ECKER BERGMAN RD COMP STA
RE GAS DEV/ORGOVAN COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/SALEM COMP STA
RW GATHERING LLC/ECKER BERGMAN RD COMP STA
EQT GATHERING LLC/DERRY COMP STA
Layman Compressor, Range Resources Appalachia, LLC
Key Rock Energy/LLC
Kriebel Minerals Inc./Sony Compressor Station (Inactive)
Lynn Compressor, Kriebel Minerals Inc.
Range Resources Appalachia/ Layman Compressor Station
Keyrock Energy LLC/ Hribal Compresor Station, East Huntingdon, Pa. (active)
KeyRock Energy LLC/ Hribal Compressor Station (Active)
Range Resources Appalachia/Schwartz Comp. Station
TEXAS KEYSTONE/FAIRFIELD TWP COMP STA
EQUITRANS LP/W FAIRFIELD COMP STA
DIVERSIFIED OIL & GAS LLC/MURPHY COMP SITE
TEXAS KEYSTONE INC/ MURPHY COMP STA
Silvis Compressor Station, Exco Resources Pa. Inc
Dominion Trans Inc., Lincoln Heights
CNX Gas Co. LLC
CNX Gas Co. LLC/ Jackson Compressor Station, Status: Active
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS CO/ARNOLD COMP STA
Lower Burrell City
TEXAS KEYSTONE INC/LOYALHANNA
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/BOARST COMP STA
MTN GATHERING LLC/10078 MAINLINE COMP STA
Dominion Trans Inc/Jeannette
DOMINION ENERGY TRANS INC/ROCK SPRINGS COMP STA
EQT GATHERING/SLEEPY HOLLOW COMP STA
EQT GATHERING/SLEEPY HOLLOW COMP STA
COLUMBIA GAS TRANS CORP/DELMONT COMP STA
LAUREL MTN MIDSTREAM OPR LLC/SALEM COMP STA
CNX Gas Co./ Jacobs Creek Compressor Station,
South Huntingdon Twp
Rex Energy I LLC/Launtz
Keyrock Energy LLC/ Unity Compressor Station
Nelson/RE Gas Dev LLC
People’s Natural Gas/ Latrobe Compressor Station
CNX Gas Co. LLC, Troy Compressor Station
Dominion Peoples (Inactive)
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/WASHINGTON STATION
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS/MERWIN COMP STA
HUNTLEY & HUNTLEY INC/TARPAY STA
Mamont (CNX GAS CO/MAMONT COMP STA)
CONE MIDSTREAM PARTNERS LP/MAMONT COMP STA
Feature image of a compressor station within Loyalsock State Forest, PA. Photo by Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, June 2016.
Front Range Citizen Science Health Tracking Project
Fracking is increasing at an alarming rate in Colorado, raising concerns about possible negative health outcomes. While mapping and air monitoring can contribute valuable data on this topic, there is an information gap when it comes to understanding the true human impact of fracking in the Front Range. To fill this gap, FracTracker Alliance is launching the Front Range Citizen Science Health Tracking Project in partnership with several community groups.
Residents can contribute valuable data about the fracking industry and its impacts from their phone anytime and anywhere. We’ll compare these reports with real-time air quality measurements to gain an in-depth look at the way fracking is affecting Coloradans.
Check back soon for dates and locations of our in-person meetings
As a participant, you will join hundreds of other residents in collecting data that will be compared with real-time air quality measurements. You’ll also receive information on threats to your air quality and tips on how to protect your health throughout the length of this year-long project.
Make an important contribution to all Coloradans who breathe air and get involved!
Sign up if you’d like to get involved or stay up to date on the project:
FracTracker – The Mobile App
The oil and gas industry – from its wells to pipelines to refineries – has a variety of ways of impacting the communities and environment that surround its infrastructure. We want to help you document it!
Check the Oil & Gas Map
Find wells, pipelines, & user reports near you on the map
View recent reports from other app users
Submit a Report
Submit reports & photos about nearby activity & issues you witness
Classify reports by senses impacted, such as from noise or odors
The FracTracker web app is another way to explore the scope and impacts of oil and gas development. Just like the mobile app, this tool contains an activity feed of user reports and a map of these reports. Watch a short video tutorial of the web app.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/TruckFeatureImage.jpg7191619Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2020-02-28 23:18:032020-07-17 10:27:25Front Range Health Tracking Project
A recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University estimated that for every three job years created by fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one year of life is lost for a resident due to increased pollution exposure. As fracking continues to expand around the perimeter of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania — one of the top ten most polluted regions in the U.S. — we’re called to question how this industry is impacting the area’s already poor air quality. To answer this question, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), and FracTracker Alliance conducted a study on air quality around sites impacted by fracking development.
Over the course of this past year, we set up air monitors in seven communities in or near Allegheny County with current or proposed oil and gas infrastructure, with the goal of gathering baseline data and identifying possible public health concerns.
The sites in question are mapped and described below. Click on the arrow to scroll through maps of the different sites.
North Braddock: Merrion Oil and Gas has proposed a fracking well on the property of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, near where North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, and North Versailles meet.
Plum Borough: Penneco has proposed to build a wastewater disposal well in Plum Borough. We placed three monitors at homes in areas where the air is likely to be impacted by construction and truck traffic should the wastewater disposal well be installed.
Economy Borough (Beaver County): We monitored around PennEnergy Resource’s B50 well pad, which recently began construction. Of particular concern to residents is the increase in truck traffic along a narrow road in a residential neighborhood that will be used to access the well pad.
Frazer Township: Monitoring took place around the Gulick, Schiller, and Bakerstown well pads.During their monitoring period, there was reported fracking activity on one well, and drilling activity on another.
Elizabeth Township: Monitoring occurred around three EQT and Olympus Energy fracked well pads listed as active; fracking reportedly occurred on one well pad during the monitoring period.
Indiana Township: Monitoring followed the construction of the Miller Jr. fracked well pad.
Stowe Township: Monitoring occurred in Stowe Township, where McKees Rocks Industrial Enterprise (MRIE) is located, and in adjacent McKees Rocks. This facility processes and transports frac sand, which operators use to frack a well by injecting it at extremely high pressures underground.
PM2.5 is a pollutant small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream and therefore poses a great risk to human health.
The process of constructing, drilling and fracking a well releases a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrous oxides (NOx).
Allegheny County has some of the worst air quality in the nation. In recent years, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which had been improving since 2005, began to worsen. This is due in part to fracking activities.
There are 163 fracked wells that have been drilled in Allegheny County, all of which pose a threat to human health.
This initial air quality study by Southwest Environmental Health Project and FracTracker found that areas with proposed fracking sites are particularly vulnerable because they already have poor air quality.
Further investigations will need to monitor air quality throughout different stages of development and during different seasons in order to provide meaningful comparisons of changes in air quality that could be correlated with oil and gas development.
Allegheny’s air – from bad to worse
In recent years, the air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, which had been improving since 2005, began to worsen. According to the 2019 State of the Air report, levels of ozone and particle pollution increased over 2015-2017 (Figure 1).
This fact echoes a nationwide trend. Another study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that after several years of improvement, air pollution in the United States worsened in 2017 and 2018. The study cited several possible explanations, including increased natural gas production, more wildfires, and a rollback on Clean Air Act regulations by the EPA.
While Allegheny County’s air pollution is largely attributable to steel, coal, and chemical plants, in the last decade, the oil and gas industry has brought many new sources of pollution to the area.
As of December, 2019, operators have drilled 163 fracking wells in the county (Table 1) and constructed nine compressor stations. Additional pollution caused by the oil and gas industry is attributable to the thousands of truck trips required to frack a well.
Table 1. Fracked wells in Allegheny County by municipality
The fracking process releases emissions that can affect human health at every stage of its lifespan. Research has linked fracking to immediate health symptoms, such as burning eyes, sore throat, and headaches. Ongoing research has identified the potential for long term health impacts, such as cardiovascular disease and adverse birth outcomes.
Air pollution from the oil and gas industry does not impact everyone equally. An individual’s response to exposure varies depending on factors such as age and health conditions.
There is also a great deal of variation amongst wells and compressor stations when it comes to emissions. As such, the best way to understand someone’s exposure is to monitor the places they frequent, such as the home, school, or workplace.
Types of Pollutants
The process of drilling and fracking a well releases a variety of pollutants, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and nitrous oxides (NOx). Table 2, below, shows reported emissions from gas wells in Allegheny County for 2017.
Table 2. Reported emissions from Allegheny County gas wells in 2017, from the PA DEP
Emission Amount (Tons)
Xylenes (Isomers And Mixture)
Our study looked at particulate matter (PM) – a mix of solid particles and liquids found in the air, like dust, soot, and smoke. Specifically, the study focused on PM2.5, which are particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter (Figure 2). PM forms during construction activities, combustion processes such as those in diesel engines, and from industrial sites and facilities.
Fracking and its associated processes release hazardous chemicals into the air, which then attach to PM2.5. Additionally, combustion engines of trucks and machinery used to construct well sites and drill wells release diesel emissions, including PM2.5. Compressor stations and flaring are additional sources.
PM2.5 is small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream and therefore poses a great risk to human health. Their health impacts include reduced lung function and cardiovascular disease, as well as short term effects such as sinus irritation.
Figure 2. Particulate matter diagram, from the US EPA
The monitors were placed at varying distances and directions from the facility in question, not exceeding 1.5 miles from the facility in question. We used Speck monitors indoors and Purple Air monitors outdoors; both types measured the concentration of particulate matter over roughly one month.
The EPA’s guideline for exposure to PM2.5 is 35 μg/m3 averaged over 24 hours. However, averaging exposure over 24 hours can obscure peaks- relatively short time spans of elevated PM2.5 concentrations. While it is normal for peaks to occur occasionally, high, long, or frequent peaks in pollution can affect people’s health, particularly with acute impacts such as asthma attacks.
The graphs below show our results. On each graph, you’ll see three to five lines, one for each outdoor monitor. Lines that follow similar trends show data that is likely an accurate representation of air quality in the community. Lines that stray from the pack may represent a unique situation that only that house is experiencing.
In addition to graphing the results, EHP used the following parameters to analyze the data:
Frequency of peaks
Duration of peaks
Time between peak exposures
Baseline (level of particles generally found outside when peaks are not occurring)
Total sum (or quantity) of peak exposure
These five parameters were compared to EHP’s data gathered from roughly 400 sites in Ohio, West Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania. This database compiles air quality data from locations that have no infrastructure present as well as nearby sites such as well pads, compressor stations, frac-sand terminals, processing facilities, etc.
In the table below, numbers in green indicate values that are better than EHP’s averages, while red values show values that are worse than the average of EHP’s dataset. Black numbers show values that are average.
Table 3. EHP/FracTracker sites of air quality investigation in Allegheny County
*The proposed well is near the intersection of East Pittsburgh, North Braddock, and North Versailles
**Monitors were also placed in neighboring McKees Rocks
~In homes where baseline levels of PM2.5 are low, such as in Frazer and Economy, peaks are more easily registered in our analysis, but they typically have a smaller magnitude compared to homes that have high baselines.
Communities with proposed sites
In North Braddock and Plum Borough, the outdoor air monitors collected data around sites of future and/or proposed activity. This baseline monitoring helps us understand what the air is like before oil and gas activity and is essential for understanding the future impact of oil and gas development in a community.
In these neighborhoods, we found worse than average values for total accumulation of PM2.5. This may be due to other patterns of PM2.5 movement in the area related to weather and surrounding sources of pollution. North Braddock is an urban environment, and therefore has pollution from traffic and buildings. Another source is the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, one of the county’s top polluters. While Plum Borough is more rural, it also contains an active fracking well pad and is near a coal-fired power plant and a gas power plant.
If constructed, the proposed fracking well and the proposed wastewater disposal well will add additional pollution from construction, truck traffic, and in North Braddock’s case, emissions from the well itself. This may pose a significant health risk, especially in vulnerable populations like children and those with preexisting health conditions.
Communities with constructed well pads
Emissions vary across the timeline of drilling and fracking a well. Figure 2 below shows reported emissions of PM2.5 and VOCs from different components of a fracking operation. PM2.5 emissions are highest during drilling (when the well bore is formed) and completion (when the well is fracked by injecting high volumes of water, sand, and chemicals at tremendous pressure). For a step by step outline of the fracking process, check out FracTracker’s fracking operation virtual tour.
Figure 2. 2017 emissions from Allegheny County gas wells at different stages in the fracking process, reported to the PA DEP
Our monitoring in Economy Borough, where construction on PennEnergy Resources’ B50 well pad had just begun, showed air quality that is better than EHP’s averages. However, if the wells on the well pad are drilled and fracked, EHP hopes to provide monitors again to track changes in air quality. In addition to emissions from the fracking well, which is close to the Chestnut Ridge housing development, residents are concerned about truck traffic along Amsler Ridge Road.
In Indiana, while residents reported truck traffic to the site, the wells were not fracked during the monitoring period. The measurements were average or slightly above the average EHP typically sees near homes. Looking at these results, peak duration was flagged, and the total sum of particulate matter was slightly elevated compared to our average suggesting that the long durations may ignite a health response in sensitive individuals. Other sources that could be contributing to pollution include the PA Turnpike and the Redland Brick manufacturer.
In Frazer, there was reported fracking activity on one well and drilling activity on another; these time periods were only slightly elevated on the hourly average charts. Monitors were left at two households in Frazer because there was an indication that fracking would start soon.
In Elizabeth Township, air quality measurements were generally better compared to the rest of EHP’s data, but there were clear peaks that all monitors registered which generated a similar, if not potentially higher, amounts of accumulated PM2.5.
Frac sand facility
Finally, monitors around MRIE, the frac sand processing facility in Stowe Township, showed air quality that may pose a health risk. The peaks in these neighborhoods generated a higher amount of accumulated PM2.5 and lasted longer compared to the rest of our data. In addition to pollution from MRIE and its associated trucks and trains, the neighborhood has many sources of pollution, including highways and industrial facilities on Neville Island.
This study is limited in that PM2.5 was the only pollutant that the Purple Air and Speck monitors captured. To understand the complete burden of air pollution residents are exposed to, other pollutants such as VOCs, must be monitored.
Additionally, monitoring occurred over a short time period. Further investigations will need to monitor air quality throughout different stages of development and during different seasons in order to provide meaningful comparisons of changes in air quality that could be correlated with oil and gas development. EHP will continue to monitor around certain active sites to watch for changes in the data.
If you’re concerned about health or environmental impacts from a well in your neighborhood, make sure to document the issue by taking notes, photos, and videos, and file a complaint with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. To report an environmental health concern, reach out to the Department of Health by phone at 1-877 PA Health (1-877-724-32584) or email (RA-DHENVHEALTH@pa.gov). If you’re an employer or worker and have health or safety concerns, reach out to your area’s OSHA office or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
While cleaning up the air in your community is difficult, there are steps you can take to protect the air in your home. With the average American spending 90% of their time indoors, the air inside can greatly impact your health. For this project, we also set up air monitors in residents’ homes so participants could better understand these risks. Visit EHP’s resources under the section “What You Can Do” to learn more about protecting your indoor air quality. To learn more about how fracking is impacting residents in southwest Pennsylvania, explore the Environmental Health Channel.
Finally, help us crowdsource new data on the impacts and status of oil and gas development in your community by reporting what you see, hear, smell, and question on the FracTracker mobile app (also available from your computer!). Those living near oil and gas infrastructure are the best source of knowledge when it comes to understanding the impacts of this industry. With your help, we want to make sure all of these impacts are being documented to inform decision makers and residents about the risks of fracking.
Many thanks to the Southwest Environmental Health Project for including us as collaborators on this study.
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/drilling-rig.jpg16673750Erica Jacksonhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgErica Jackson2019-12-18 10:56:062020-09-15 13:42:52Allegheny County Air Quality Monitoring Project
“The Iroquois…called Pine Creek ‘Tiadaghton’ meaning either ‘The River of Pines’ or ‘The Lost or Bewildered River’.”[i] The river’s iconic watershed in North Central Pennsylvania spans 979 square miles, spanning parts of Clinton, Lycoming, Potter, and Tioga counties, and an infamous 47-mile gorge through which the Pine Creek flows. At 87 miles in length, it is the largest tributary to the West Branch Susquehanna River.[ii]
In 1964, Congress included Pine Creek as one of 27 rivers under study for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System.[iii] Four years later, the US Department of the Interior designated twelve miles of the canyon a National Natural Landmark. In 1992, Pine Creek was recognized as a Pennsylvania Scenic River.[iv] These accolades underscore its vibrant beauty, ecological value, and cultural significance.
A rugged landscape carved into the Allegheny Plateau, the watershed contains extensive public lands and the highest concentrations of exceptional value (EV) and high quality (HQ) streams anywhere in Pennsylvania. It is a prized recreational attraction in the region known as the Pennsylvania Wilds, a destination for nature-based tourism. The area has endured episodes of resource extraction – logging, coal mining, and shallow gas development – but nothing quite the same as the assault from hundreds of new unconventional gas wells and the sprawling pads, pipelines, impoundments, compressor stations, and access roads accompanying such development.
Modern extraction is heavy industry – loud, dusty, and dirty. It is incongruent with the thick forests, sensitive habitats, hushed solitude, and star-drenched skies one expects to experience in many wilderness pursuits. Threats to air, water, and wildlife are manifest. Landscape fragmentation and forest loss are collateral damage. Ecological impacts, while sometimes immediate, are often insidious as they slowly degrade environmental health over time. The Oil and Gas Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) acknowledged in a 2012 presentation: “…that Marcellus Shale will be a long-term influence on the character of Pennsylvania landscapes.”[v] To what extent remains to be determined.
Writer and conservationist Samuel P. Hayes noted “The Pennsylvania Administrative Code of 1929 identified watershed protection as the primary purpose of the state forests.”[vi] Enduring more than 10 years of fracking history, and with more planned, the Pine Creek watershed is an experiment for this tenent and overdue for the geospatial examination that follows.
According to the NOAA, a watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean.
A LEGACY OF EXTRACTION
Humans have left their mark on Pine Creek for thousands of years, but the effects of timber and fossil fuel extraction in the last 220 years are most notable. Historical accounts and agency records provide substantial documentation of these impacts.
In 1799, Pine Creek’s first sawmill was set up near the confluence with Little Pine Creek. By 1810, eleven saw mills were in operation. In the next 30 years, that number rose to 145. Pine Creek earned the moniker of “Lumber Capital of the World,” but by the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted due to clearcutting. By the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted. Underappreciated for lumber, eastern hemlocks remained, but were eventually felled as well, their bark prized for tanning leather. The advent of logging railroads accelerated the forest’s demise. By the first years of the 20th century, the trees were all but gone, “…branches and stumps littered the mountainsides and sparks from locomotives created fires of holocaustal proportions.”[vii]
Sadly, much of the wildlife was gone too. Bounties, market hunting, and habitat loss had taken a toll. The area’s last timber wolf was killed in 1875. The beaver, otter, fisher, martin, lynx, and wolverine were exterminated by the early 1900s. The remaining solitary panthers lasted until the 1930s, then “faded into oblivion.”[viii]
While not often thought of as a part of Pennsylvania’s coal country, the Pine Creek Watershed has seen its share of coal mining and related activity. Coal was first discovered along the Babb Creek portion of the watershed in 1782, and mining operations began in earnest in the 1860s. By 1990, the area was so impacted by mine drainage and other pollution that there were no fish found in Babb Creek. Efforts to rehabilitate the stream have made some progress, raising the pH of the stream and restoring fish populations, to the point where Babb Creek was officially removed from the list of impaired streams in 2016.
Within the watershed’s abandoned mine areas, 68 specific sites totaling nearly 500 acres are flagged as “containing public health, safety, and public welfare problems created by past coal mining.” This represents more than 11% of the total mined area. Only five of these 68 sites – all strip mines – have completed the reclamation process.
Table 1. Problematic coal mine areas in the Pine Creek Watershed
Dry Strip Mine
Flooded Strip Mine
Known Subsidence Prone Area
Coal Processing Settling Basin
OIL & GAS
The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania started with the Drake Well near Titusville in 1859, before the onset of the Civil War. In the years since, perhaps as many as 760,000 such wells have been drilled statewide.[ix] While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the current state agency with regulatory oversight of the industry, it estimates that there could be as many as 560,000 wells drilled that they have no record of in their database. Given the lack of data for these early wells, it is not possible to know exactly how many wells have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed.[x]
Over a century ago, pollution was seen as the price to be paid for a job in timbering or mining. Some politicians seem to want a return to those bad old days by gutting some of our reasonable regulations that protect our air and water. Here, as in the rest of the Marcellus gas play, our politicians are not protecting our air and water as mandated in Article 1, Section 27 of our State Constitution.
-Dick Martin Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition and board member of Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, PEDF
A Wealth of Public Lands & Recreational Opportunity
The Pine Creek Watershed is in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 12-county region in North Central Pennsylvania focused on nature-based tourism. “Adventure to one of the largest expanses of green between New York City and Chicago,” touts the initiative’s website.[xi] The area includes over two million acres of public land, and is marketed for its notorious starry skies, quaint towns, large elk herd, and other attractions, like Pine Creek.
The watershed and its trails and public lands contribute substantially to the PA Wilds estate and offerings, including:
1,666 stream miles (187.6 miles Exceptional Value and 1,011.5 miles High Quality)
Eight state parks, spanning 4,713 acres (7.36 sq. miles)
Four state forests, covering 264,771 acres (414 sq. miles)
Eight natural areas
Three wild areas
Seven state game lands, totaling 51,474 acres (80.42 sq. miles)
And 31 trails, traversing 789 miles
These largely remote and rugged spaces are relished for their idyllic and pristine qualities. Modern extraction brings discordant traffic, noise, lights, and releases of pollutants into the air and water. Stream waters – ideal for trout, anglers, and paddlers – are siphoned for the fracturing process. Trails are interrupted by pipelines and access roads. The erosion of outdoor experiences is piecemeal and pervasive.
A recent study lends credence to the concern that shale gas development is incongruent with the region’s ecotourism and recreational goals. “The Impacts of Shale Natural Gas Energy Development on Outdoor Recreation: A Statewide Assessment of Pennsylvanians” found that “only a small population of Pennsylvania outdoor recreationists were impacted by [shale natural gas energy development (SGD)] related activities. In the regions of Pennsylvania where SGD was most prominent (e.g., North Central and Southwest), outdoor recreation impacts were considerably higher.”[xii]
Weak rules favor the gas companies and allow them to waste resources, pollute our air, and destroy our climate. Continued exploitation of our public lands diminishes the value of this common good.
Natural resource extraction in the Pine Creek Watershed did not stop with timber, coal, and traditional oil and gas. The drilling landscape in Pennsylvania changed dramatically around 2005, as operators began to develop the Marcellus Shale, a carbon-rich black shale that had eluded the industry for decades, because the rock formation was reluctant to release the large quantities of gas trapped within it. Based on successes in other shale formations, the Marcellus began to be drilled with a combination of horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing – now using millions of gallons of fluids, instead of tens of thousands – and built upon multi-acre well pads. Operators were successful in releasing the gas, and this type of well, known as “unconventional” drilling, took off in vast swaths of Pennsylvania. Similar techniques were extended to other formations, notably the Utica shale formation.
The map below shows the cumulative footprint of extractive practices in Pine Creek, with the exclusion of timber.
In 2018, unconventional wells in the Pine Creek Watershed produced 203 billion cubic feet of gas, which is more than the entire state of West Virginia consumed in 2017, not including electricity generation. To get all of that gas to market requires an extensive network of pipelines, and multi-acre compressor stations are required to push the gas through those pipes.
Pipeline data for the region, largely based on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) public pipeline viewer map, includes over 85 miles of pipelines in the watershed. However, this data does not include any of the gathering lines that crisscross the watershed, connecting the drilling sites to the midstream network.
Among other concerns, gas pipelines need to be placed in areas where they will not be impacted by tree roots, and so operators clear a 50-foot wide right-of-way, at minimum. This width results in the clearing of more than 6 acres per linear mile of pipe, which would be a total of 515 acres for the known pipeline routes in the region. However, the 50-foot width is a minimum, and some rights-of-way exceeding 300 feet were observed in the watershed, which would require the clearing of more than 36 acres per linear mile. These land clearing impacts are in addition to those required for well pads, access roads, and other infrastructure.
Many of the compressor stations in the Pine Creek Watershed are considered major pollution sources, and therefore require a Title V permit from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that they either produce at least 10 tons per year of any single hazardous air pollutant, or at least 25 tons of any combination of pollutants on the list.
Missing pipeline data is evidenced by FracTracker’s records of many compressor stations that are not along documented pipeline routes. Of the 26 compressors in the watershed that we have records for, only six are within 250 meters of known pipeline routes. Similarly, only 29 of the 594 drilled unconventional wells in the watershed are within the quarter-kilometer radius of known pipeline routes. One way or another, all compressors and well sites have to be connected to pipelines.
Table 2. Oil & Gas Well Status in the Pine Creek Watershed
Oil & Gas Well Status
# of Wells
Operator reported not drilled
Proposed but never materialized
The PA DEP has records for 1,374 oil and gas wells within the watershed, although not all of these were actually drilled. Of these wells, 404 wells have an official status of “operator reported not drilled,” while an additional 111 have a similar status of “proposed but never materialized.” Of the remaining 859 wells, 554 are currently considered active (including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells). An active status is given once the well is proposed — even before it is officially permitted by DEP, let alone drilled. The status remains until some other status applies.
Seventy-four wells are considered to be “regulatory inactive” (four conventional, 71 unconventional), meaning that the well has not been in production for at least a year, and must meet several other requirements. The remainder of the wells in the watershed have reached the end of their functional life, of which 168 have been plugged (119 conventional, 49 unconventional). This is done by filling the well bore with concrete, and is considered permanent, although the plugs have been known to fail from time to time. Fifty-seven additional conventional wells are considered abandoned, meaning that they are at the end of their useful life but have not been appropriately plugged, neither by the operator nor DEP. Five additional conventional wells are considered to be orphaned, which is a similar status to abandoned, but these wells are no longer linked to an operator active in the state. Given the lack of recordkeeping in the early part of the industry’s history in PA, the number of plugged, abandoned, and orphaned wells in the Pine Creek Watershed is likely significantly underrepresented.
Conventional drilling activity has essentially ceased in the watershed. A single well categorized as conventional, the Bliss 3H well, has been drilled in 2019. In fact, this well is almost certainly miscategorized. Not only does its well name follow conventions for horizontal unconventional wells, but the DEP’s formation report indicates that it is in fact drilled into the Marcellus Shale. Prior to Bliss 3H, the two most recent conventional wells were drilled in 2011.
Unconventional drilling is a different story altogether. In terms of the number of wells drilled, the peak within the Pine Creek Watershed was in 2011, with 186 wells drilled. That represented 9.5% of the statewide total that year, and Pine Creek is just one of 35 comparably sized watersheds targeted for unconventional development in Pennsylvania.
More recently, there were 16 wells drilled in the watershed in 2018, and 17 wells through the halfway point of 2019, indicating that the extraction efforts are once again on the upswing.
Table 3. Number of unconventional wells drilled in Pennsylvania and the Pine Creek Watershed
PINE CREEK WATERSHED
On May 9, 2019, nearly two dozen people descended upon the Pine Creek Watershed for the purpose of chronicling the impacts that the oil and gas industry is currently wreaking on the landscape. The documentation began early in the morning at the William T. Piper Memorial Airport in the town of Lock Haven, located in Clinton County. FracTracker Alliance organized the blitz with numerous partner organizations, including EarthWorks, Sierra Club, Save Our Streams PA, Responsible Drilling Alliance, Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, Environeers, Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, and Lebanon Pipeline Awareness.
The massive watershed was broken up into 10 impact zones, which were mostly determined by concentrations of known sites such as well pads, compressor stations, retention ponds, and pipeline corridors.
Some people brought cameras and specialized equipment to Pine Ceek, such methane sensors and global positioning system devices. Participants were encouraged to try out the FracTracker Mobile App, which was designed to allow users to communicate and share the location of oil and gas concerns. Earthworks brought a FLIR infrared camera, which can capture volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment. Others participants brought specialized knowledge of oil and gas operations from a variety of perspectives, from those who had previously interacted with the industry professionally, to those who have been forced to live in close proximity of these massive structures for more than a decade.
While we knew that it would not be possible to photograph every impact in the watershed, the results of this group effort were tremendous, including hundreds of photos, dozens of app submissions, and numerous infrared videos. All of these have been curated in the map above. In our exuberance, we documented a number of facilities that wound up not being in the Pine Creek Watershed – still impactful but beyond the scope of this project. In some cases, multiple photos were taken of the same location, and we selected the most representative one or two for each site. Altogether, the map above shows 22 aerial images, 84 app submissions, 46 additional photos, and nine infrared FLIR videos.
FracTracker also collaborated with a pilot from LightHawk, a nonprofit group that connects conservation-minded pilots with groups that can benefit from the rare opportunity to view infrastructure and impacts from the air. Together, LightHawk and FracTracker’s Ted Auch flew in a mostly clockwise loop around the watershed, producing the aerial photography highlighted in this article, and in the map below.
The benefits of being able to see these impacts from the air is incalculable. Not only does it give viewers a sense of the full scope of the impact, but in some cases, it provides access to sites and activities that would otherwise be entirely occluded to the public, such as sites with active drilling or hydraulic fracturing operations, or when the access roads are behind barriers that are posted as no trespassing zones.
It can be difficult to maintain a sense of the massive scale of these operations when looking at aerial images. One thing that can help to maintain this perspective is by focusing on easily identifiable objects, such as nearby trees or large trucks, but it is even more useful to cross-reference these aerial images with those taken at ground level.
Water – A Precious Resource
Drilling unconventional wells requires the use of millions of gallons of water per well, sometimes as high as 100 million gallons. Unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania are required to self-report water, sand, and chemical quantities used in the hydraulic fracturing stage of well production to a registry known as FracFocus. Because of this, we have a pretty good idea of water used for this stage of the operation.
This does not account for all of the industry’s water consumption. The amount of water required to maintain and operate pipelines, compressor stations and other processing facilities, and to suppress dust on well pads, access roads, and pipeline rights-of-way is unknown, but likely significant. Much of the water used for oil and gas operations in this watershed is withdrawn from rivers and streams and the groundwater beneath the watershed.
Table 3. Water consumption by well in the Pine Creek Watershed
EQUIVALENT PERSONS (ANNUAL USAGE)
Average Single Well
Maximum Single Well
All Wells (2013-2017)
There are 60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections, mostly retention ponds. This dataset does not include limits on the 22 withdrawal locations, however, one of the surface withdrawal sites was observed with signage permitting the removal of 936,000 gallons per day. If this amount is typical, then the combined facilities in the watershed would have a daily capacity of about 20.6 million gallons, which is about 27 times the daily residential consumption within the watershed.
Predictably, water withdrawals ebb and flow with fluctuations in drilling activity, with peak consumption exceeding 1.2 billion gallons in the three-month period between April and June 2014, and an aggregate total of nearly 20.4 billion gallons between July 2008 and December 2016. It is not known what fraction of these withdrawals occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed.
Between October 22, 2007, and April 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania DEP issued 949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed.[xiii] It can be difficult to know precisely what happened in the field based on the notations in the corresponding compliance reports. For example, if an operator failed to comply with the terms of their erosion and sediment control permit, it is unclear whether there was a sediment runoff event that impacted surface waters or not. However, as these rules were put into place to protect Pennsylvania’s waterways, there is no question that the potential for negative water impacts exists. Therefore, erosion and sedimentation violations are included in this analysis.
Other violations are quite explicit, however. The operator of the Hoffman 2H well in Liberty Township, Tioga County was cited for failing to prevent “gas, oil, brine, completion and servicing fluids, and any other fluids or materials from below the casing seat from entering fresh groundwater,” and failing to “prevent pollution or diminution of fresh groundwater.” A well on the Tract 007 – Pad G well pad was left unplugged. “Upon abandoning a well, the owner or operator failed to plug the well to stop the vertical flow of fluids or gas within the well bore.”
The violation description falls into more than 100 categories for sites within the watershed. We have simplified those as follows:
Table 4. Oil and gas violations in the Pine Creek Watershed
Casing / Cement Violation
Clean Streams Law Violation
Erosion & Sediment
Failed to Control / Dispose of Fluids
Failure to Comply With Permit
Failure to Plug Well
Failure to Prevent Pollution Event
Failure to Protect Water Supplies
Failure to Report Pollution Event
Failure to Restore Site
Industrial Waste / Pollutional Material Discharge
Rat Hole Not Filled
Residual Waste Mismanagement
Restricted Site Access to Inspector
Site Restoration Violation
Unmarked Plugged Well
Unpermitted Residual Waste Processing
Waste Analysis Not Completed
Water Obstruction & Encroachment
Altogether, 816 out of the 949 violations (86%) issued in the Pine Creek Watershed were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water in the region. Two sites have more than 50 violations each, including the Phoenix Well Pad, with 116 violations in Duncan Township, Tioga County, and the Bonnell Run Hunting & Fishing Corp Well Pad in Pine Township, Lycoming County, with 94 violations.
When things go wrong with oil and gas operations, it is often residents in the surrounding areas that are exposed to the impacts. There are limited actions that affected neighbors can take, but one thing that they can do is register a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency, in this case the Pennsylvania DEP.
A thorough file review was conducted by Public Herald for complaints related to oil and gas operations in PA, yielding 9,442 complaints between 2004 and 2016. While this includes all oil and gas related complaints, Public Herald’s analysis show that the frequency is highly correlated with the unconventional drilling boom that occurred within that time frame, with the number of new wells and complaints both peaking in 2011.
Many of these complaints occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed. It is impossible to know the exact number, as the precise location of the events was redacted in the records provided by DEP. Most of the records do include the county and in some cases, the municipality. Altogether, there were complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed, for a total of 185 total complaints. Of those, 116 of (63%) specifically indicate water impacts, spread out over 25 municipalities throughout the watershed.
Additional complaints with unspecified municipalities were received by DEP in Lycoming County (n=4), Potter County (n=4), and Tioga County (n=3). These counties substantially overlap with the Pine Creek Watershed, but the data is unclear as to whether or not these impacts were noted within the watershed or not.
It is worth remembering that complaints are dependent upon observation from neighbors and other passersby. As Pine Creek is composed of rugged terrain with vast swaths of public land, it is relatively sparsely populated. It is likely that if these drilling sites were placed in more densely populated areas, the number of complaints related to these operations would be even higher.
“It was 2007, and my water well was fine. I mean, I didn’t have any problem with it. I was cooking, drinking, bathing with it and everything else. Well, then after they drilled I thought it was kind of…it didn’t taste like it did before.”[xiv]
– Judy Eckhart
A Waste-Filled Proposition
Since the Pine Creek Watershed has been the site of considerable oil and gas extraction activity, it has also been the site of significant quantities of waste generated by the industry, which is classified as residual waste in Pennsylvania. This category is supposedly for nonhazardous industrial waste, although both liquid and solid waste streams from oil and gas operations pose significant risks to people exposed to them, as well as to the environment. Oil and gas waste is contaminated with a variety of dangerous volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, which are frequently highly radioactive. There are also a large number of chemicals that are injected into the well bore that flow back to the surface, the content of which is often kept secret, even from workers who make use of them onsite.
There were 37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018. Of these sites, 30 (81%) were well pads, where flowback from drilling may be partially reused. While this reduces the overall volume of waste that ultimately needs to be disposed of, it frequently increases the concentration of hazardous contaminants that are found in the waste stream, which can make its eventual disposal more challenging. Most of the sites that accept waste do reuse that waste. However, the largest quantity of waste are from the remaining seven sites.
Table 5. Disposal of liquid gas waste in the Pine Creek Watershed
Reuse at Well Pads
One single site – the Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility in Pine Township, Lycoming County – accounted for the majority of liquid waste disposed in the watershed, with 6,622,255 barrels (278,134,704 gallons.) has This amounts to 98.8% of all liquid waste that was not reused at other well pads.
Wastewater is also spread on roads in some communities, as a way to suppress dust on dirt roads. 3,001 barrels (126,050 gallons) of liquid waste have been used for road spreading efforts in regions intersecting the watershed in Ulysses Township, Potter County, and across private lots and roads throughout Potter and Tioga counties. Note that these figures include waste generated from conventional wells, which have different legal requirements for disposal than waste from unconventional wells, despite a similar chemical profile.
There are three facilities that have accepted solid oil and gas waste in the watershed, including a small one operated by Environmental Products and Services of Vermont (55 tons), Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility (10,415 tons), and Phoenix Resources Landfill (900,094 tons). This includes 200,808 tons in 2018, which is close to the previous peak value of 216,873 tons accepted in 2012.
Figure 1. Tons of solid O&G waste accepted at the Phoenix Resources Landfill
Recap: How has a decade of fracking impacted the Pine Creek Watershed?
1,374 recorded oil and gas wells in the watershed
554 are currently considered active
including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells
949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed, 86% of which were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water
185 complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed
A minimum of 515 acres cleared for the known gas pipeline routes in the region
26 compressor stations in the watershed
850,648,219 gallons of water used to frack wells in the watershed between 2013-2017
60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed active in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections (mostly retention ponds)
37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018
And When It’s Over?
In the last ice age, glaciers came from the finger lakes area into Pine Creek. This made the soil there very deep and rich– in fact, people come from all over to study that soil. The Pine Creek area could be a mecca for sustainable agriculture. There is great soil, excellent water, and plenty of space for wind and solar. Under the right leadership, this region of Pennsylvania could feed people in a time when climate resilience is so urgently needed.
–Melissa Troutman, Research & Policy Analyst, Earthworks. Director of “Triple Divide.” Journalist, Public Herald
The Pine Creek region retains a primeval grandeur – an alluring wild spirit of great pride and significance to our state. Natural gas development has – and will further – compromise the natural and experiential qualities of this special place. For the benefit of Pennsylvanians today and tomorrow, extraction must be replaced by cleaner forms of energy and conservation values made preeminent.
The Pine Creek Watershed in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin has seen more than its fair share of industrial impacts in the centuries since European contact, from repeated timber clearcutting, to coal extraction, to the development of unconventional oil and gas resources in the 21st century. Despite all of this, Pine Creek remains one of the Commonwealth’s natural gems, a cornerstone of the famed Pennsylvania Wilds.
Many of the impacts to the watershed could be thought of as temporary, in that they would likely stop occurring when the oil and gas developers decide to pack up and leave for good. This includes things like truck traffic, with all of the dust and diesel exhaust that accompanies that, pollution from compressor stations and leaky pipe junctions, and even most surface spills.
And yet in some ways, the ability of the land to sustain this industry becomes substantially impaired, and impacts become much more prolonged. Consider, for example, that prior logging efforts have permanently changed both the flora and fauna of the region. Similarly, while there is no more active coal mining in Pine Creek, almost 500 acres of sites deemed to be problematic remain, and some streams impacted by contaminated runoff and mine drainage have yet to return to their former pristine state, even decades later.
Unconventional drilling in the watershed will have similarly permanent impacts. While there is a legal threshold for site restoration, these multi-acre drill sites will not resemble the heavily forested landscape that once stood there when they reach the end of their useful life. Access roads and gathering lines that crisscross the landscape must be maintained until all well pads in the area are out of service, and then the aging infrastructure will remain in situ. Contaminated groundwater supplies are likely to take centuries to recover, if it is even possible at all.
Thousands of feet of rock once separated the unconventional formations from the surface. That distance was a barrier not just to the gas, but also to salty brines, toxic heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials that are present at those depths. To date, 593 holes have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed, creating 593 pathways for all of these materials to move to the surface. The only things keeping them in place are concrete and steel, both of which will inevitably fail over the course of time, particularly in the highly saline environment of an old gas well.
Even if the industry were to leave today and properly plug all of the wells in the Pine Creek Watershed, impacts from the drilling are likely to remain for many years to come.
[xiii]Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Oil and Gas Compliance Report Viewer. 2019. http://www.depreportingservices.state.pa.us/ReportServer/Pages/ReportViewer.aspx?/Oil_Gas/OG_Compliance
All aerial photography by TedAuch with flight support by LightHawk (May 2019).
Pine Creek compressor station FLIR camera footage by Earthworks (May 2019).
Project funding provided by:
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/DSC_0624_LowRes.jpg29444496Shannon Smithhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgShannon Smith2019-08-07 09:36:032020-03-20 17:32:33Wildness Lost – Pine Creek
Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians
Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”
A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.
Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.
Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin. While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.
Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.
The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.
Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.
The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California. There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.
Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.
The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively). Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.
Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Idle Well Count
Chevron U.S.A. Inc.
Aera Energy LLC
California Resources Production Corporation
California Resources Elk Hills, LLC
Berry Petroleum Company, LLC
E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation
Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC
HVI Cat Canyon, Inc.
Seneca Resources Company, LLC
Crimson Resource Management Corp.
Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Count by Field
Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
Count by County
San Luis Obispo
According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!
A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:
State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies
As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees. The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:
$150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
$300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
$750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
$1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer
Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.
In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”
While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.
Who is responsible?
All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.
To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.
Individual well fees:
Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000
Less than 50 wells: $200,000
50 to 500 wells: $400,000
500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000
With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.
Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/IdleWellsHathaway_resize.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgKyle Ferrar, MPH2019-04-03 11:30:582020-05-14 16:39:24Idle Wells are a Major Risk
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.
Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.
As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.
Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned
The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.
When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.
Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.
You don’t see them?
In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!
FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.
In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.
California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.
While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.
With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.
The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.
In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.
What are the risks?
Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.
The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.
In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”
The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.
In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.
If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.
Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.
Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?
New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.
If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/chevron-surface-expression_resize.jpg400900Kyle Ferrar, MPHhttps://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fractracker-Color-Logo.jpgKyle Ferrar, MPH2019-03-29 09:08:262020-05-14 16:39:35Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells
FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation.