Landscape Changes and Mental Health Impacts in Southwestern Pennsylvania Communities: A Qualitative Study

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

Overview

Unconventional oil and natural gas development, or “fracking,” began in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. Since then, over 12,000 unconventional wells have been drilled in the state, and over 15,000 violations have been documented at unconventional well sites. As fracking operations continue to expand, increasing numbers of residents have experienced significant health impacts and irreparable damage to their property. Southwest Pennsylvania in particular has been heavily impacted, with high concentrations of oil and gas infrastructure developed in Washington, Greene, and Fayette Counties.

Fracking operations have led to declining air quality, water and soil contamination, and drastic changes to the physical landscape including deforestation, habitat fragmentation, road construction, and damaged farmland. While the volume of scientific literature about the physical and mental health impacts of fracking is rising, few studies exist that specifically focus on residents’ perceptions of the changing physical landscape. The primary goal of this qualitative study was to identify residents’ attitudes about the changing physical landscape resulting from fracking operations. Furthermore, how have these landscape changes affected residents’ engagement with the outdoors and their overall health?

Mental health, green spaces, and a changing landscape

Many scientific studies have documented the relationship between fracking developments and mental health, and between mental health and access to green spaces and engagement with the outdoors. Peer-reviewed studies have looked at heavily fracked communities across the US, many of which focus on Pennsylvania residents. Methods typically involve one-on-one interviews, larger focus groups, surveys, or a combination of the three, to identify how living amongst oil and gas operations takes a toll on everyday life. These studies have found an increase in stress and anxiety, feelings of powerlessness against the oil and gas industry, social conflicts, sleep disturbances, and reduced life satisfaction. Additionally, residents have experienced disruptions in their sense of place and social identity. For a summary of published research about the mental health impacts from fracking, click here.

A healthy strategy many choose to cope with stress and anxiety is engagement in outdoor recreation. Having easily accessible “green spaces,” or land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs, or other vegetation such as parks and conservation areas have been shown to promote physical and mental health. Many scientific studies have identified significantly fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress in populations with higher levels of neighborhood green space.1 Additionally, green spaces can aid recovery from mental fatigue and community social cohesion.2 3 However, residents in Southwestern Pennsylvania may slowly see their access to green spaces and opportunities for outdoor recreation decline due to the expansion of fracking operations. Figure 1 below shows a visual representation of the interconnected relationship between fracking, access to green spaces, and negative mental health impacts.

Figure 1. The interconnected relationship between fracking operations, landscape changes and decreasing access to outdoor recreation, and negative mental health impacts.

 

In the last 10-15 years, fracking operations in Southwest Pennsylvania have exploded. The development of new pipelines, access roads, well pads, impoundments, and compressor stations is widespread and altering the physical landscape. Figure 2 below illustrates just one of many examples of landscape disruption caused from fracking operations.

 

Figure 2. Examples of changes in the physical landscape caused from fracking operations in Greene County (A) and Washington County (B), Pennsylvania. Images taken from Google Earth.

 

Additionally, this time-slider map (Figure 3) illustrates a larger scale view of landscape changes in Greene County, Pennsylvania in a region just east of Waynesburg.

 

Figure 3. Time-slider map of a region in Greene County, PA where the left portion of the map is imagery from 2005, and the right portion of the map is from 2017. Active oil and gas wells are indicated by a blue pin, and compressor stations are in green.

 

Study design

A qualitative study was conducted to answer the following research questions:

  1. What are residents’ perception of the landscape changes brought about by fracking?
  2. Have these landscape changes caused any mental health impacts?
  3. Have changes to the physical landscape from oil and gas operations resulting in any changes in engagement with outdoor recreation?

To better understand these topics, residents living in Southwestern Pennsylvania were recruited to participate in one-on-one phone interviews, and an online survey was also distributed throughout the FracTracker Alliance network. Recruitment for the one-on-one phone interviews was accomplished through FracTracker’s social media, and email blasts through other partnering organizations such as Halt the Harm Network, People Over Petro, and the Clean Air Council. Similarly, the online survey was shared on FracTracker’s social media and also distributed through our monthly newsletter. Since this was not a randomized sample to select participants, these results should not be generalized to all residents living near oil and gas infrastructure. However, this study identifies how certain individuals have been impacted by the changing landscape brought about by fracking operations.

Eight residents completed phone interviews, all of whom resided in Washington County, PA. Residents were first asked how long they have lived in their current home, and if there was oil and gas infrastructure on or near their property. Oil and gas infrastructure was defined as well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, ponds or impoundments, or access roads. Next, residents were asked if they had any health concerns regarding fracking operations and gave personal accounts of how fracking operations have altered the physical landscape near their home and in their surrounding community. For those with agricultural land, additional questions were asked about fracking’s impact on residents’ ability to use their farmland. Lastly, residents were asked questions focused on engagement in outdoor recreation and if fracking had any impact on outdoor recreation opportunities. NVivo, a qualitative analysis software, was used identify emergent themes throughout the interviews,

In addition to the interviews, an online survey was also made available.The main purpose of the survey was to gauge where concerns about landscape changes from fracking operations fell in relation to other oil and gas impacts (i.e. air pollution, water contamination, excess noise and traffic, and soil contamination). Nine responses were recorded, and the results are discussed below. However, if you would like to add your thoughts, you can find the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Z5DCWBD.

Main findings and emergent themes

Various emergent themes surrounding the oil and gas industry’s impact on public health and the environment were identified throughout the resident interviews. Residents shared their personal experiences and how they have been directly impacted by fracking operations, especially with reference to the changing physical landscape surrounding their homes and throughout their communities. Participants’ time of residence in Washington County ranged from 3 years to their entire life, and all participants had oil and gas infrastructure (well pad, pipelines, impoundment, access roads, or compressor station) on or next to their property.

Changes to the physical landscape and residents’ attitudes toward the altered environment

The first overarching theme was changes to the physical landscape and residents’ attitudes toward the altered environment. All interview participants expressed concerns about the changes to the physical landscape on or surrounding their property, especially regarding access roads and well pads. Although one participant mentioned that widening the township road in order to make room for fracking trucks benefited the local community, the majority of participants expressed frustration about the construction of access roads, excessive truck traffic, noise, and dust from the unpaved access roads. One individual stated, “My main concern is the dust from the road. I’m constantly breathing that in, and it’s all over my shed, on the cars, the inside of the house, the outside of the house.” Multiple participants discussed the oil and gas operations disrupting what was once peaceful farmland with beautiful scenery (see an example in Figure 4 below). Another individual stated, “And of course, the noise is just unbearable. They don’t stop…the clanging on the pipe, the blow off with the wells, pumps running, generators, trucks coming down the hill with their engine brakes on, blowing their horn every time they want another truck to move.”

 

Figure 4. Aerial view of oil and gas infrastructure next to a home in Scenery Hill, PA. Image courtesy of Lois Bower-Bjornson from the Clean Air Council.

 

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities

Impacts to outdoor recreation activities such as hunting, fishing, and hiking were another recurring theme throughout the interviews. Again, a majority of participants believed their opportunities to partake in outdoor recreation have been limited since fracking operations began in their area.

Among the top concerns was deteriorating air quality and increasing numbers of ozone action days, or days when the air quality index (AQI) for ozone reaches an unhealthy level for sensitive populations. Various participants expressed concerns about letting their children outside due to harmful air emissions and odors originating from well pads or compressor stations. Excessive truck traffic was also a safety concern that was mentioned, especially for those individuals with access roads on or neighboring their property.

Additionally, one individual noted landscape changes in areas commonly used for hiking stating, “You might be hiking along a trail and then realize that you’re no longer on the trail. You’re actually on a pipeline cut. Or you’ll get confused while you’re hiking because you’ll intersect with a road that was developed for a well pad, and it’s not on your map.” Along with hiking, participants also noted a change in hunting and fishing opportunities since fracking moved into the region. Concerns were expressed regarding harvesting any fish or wild game due to possible contamination from fracking chemicals, especially near watersheds with known chemical spills.

Going for a hike and immersing oneself in nature is a healthy way to unwind and relieve stress. However, a rising number of well pads and compressor stations are put in place near parks, hiking trails, and state game lands throughout Southwest Pennsylvania (Figure 5). Participants expressed concerns about feeling unable to escape oil and gas infrastructure, even when visiting these recreational areas. As one individual mentioned, “It really does change your experience of the outdoors. And, you know, it’s an area that’s supposed to be a protected natural area. Then you know you can’t really get away. Even there in public lands far away from buildings and roads. And you can’t really get away from it.”

 

Figure 5. A map of active oil and gas well pads and compressor stations in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Map layers also indicate wells pads and compressor stations within 1 mile of a park, hiking trail, ball park, or state game land.

View map fullscreen

Mental health impacts

But what are the mental health impacts that result from the changing physical landscape brought about by fracking? Aside from the physical health effects caused by fracking activity — such as respiratory illnesses from air pollution or skin irritation from contaminated well water — these landscape changes have taken a toll on participants’ mental health as well.

Sentimental value and emotional distress

Many participants described the sentimental value of their property, and the beautiful scenery surrounding their generational family farms. But after fracking began on neighboring property, witnessing their tranquil family farm suddenly become surrounded by dusty access roads, excessive truck traffic, noise, and deteriorating air quality took a serious emotional and mental toll. When asked about the impact of the changing landscape, one participant stated, “It’s the emotional part of watching her childhood farm being destroyed while she is trying to do everything she can to rebuild it to the way it used to be.”

An additional emergent theme surrounding fracking landscape changes was surrounding agricultural impacts. Participants with agricultural land were asked additional questions about fracking’s impacts on their ability to use their farmland. One individual noted that one of their fields was now unusable due to large rocks and filter fabrics left from construction of a well pad, and redirected runoff uphill of their fields. The loss of productive farmland has further contributed to the mental and emotional stress. One participant added, “Our house is ruined, our health is ruined, and our farms are ruined.” In addition to agricultural impacts on large farms, multiple participants also mentioned concerns about their smaller-scale gardens, citing uncertainty about the impacts of air pollution and soil contamination on their produce.

Feelings of powerlessness and social tension

Some participants mentioned feelings of powerlessness against the oil and gas industry. Many families were not consulted prior to fracking operations beginning adjacent to their property. In some cases, this has resulted in significant declines in property values, leaving residents with no financial means to escape oil and gas activity. It is important to note that many residents are given temporary financial incentives to allow fracking on their land. However, to some, the monetary compensation failed to make up for the toll fracking took on their physical and mental health. Lastly, some participants also mentioned feeling stress and anxiety from the social tension resulting from fracking. Debates about the restrictions and regulations on fracking have divided many communities, leading to conflicts and social tensions between once-amiable neighbors.

Survey results

In addition to the interviews, an online survey was distributed to gain more insight as to where concerns about the changing physical landscape fell in relation to other effects associated with oil and gas development (such as poor air quality, water or soil contamination, truck traffic, and noise).

Nine individuals responded to the survey, all of whom indicated having oil and gas infrastructure within five miles of their home. All respondents also indicated that they participated in a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing/photography, camping, hunting, and fishing.

Interestedly, only five respondents stated they felt fracking had a negative impact on their health, three responded they were unsure, and one responded no. However, all participants felt fracking had a negative impact on their surrounding environment. When discussing outdoor recreation, eight of nine respondents stated they felt fracking limited their access to outdoor recreation opportunities.

Next, respondents indicated that the level of concern related to the changing landscape brought about by fracking was equal to concerns about air pollution, water and soil contamination, noise, and truck traffic (using a 5-point likert scale). Lastly, one respondent stated that they closed their outdoor recreation tourism business due to blowdown emission (the release of gas from a pipeline to the atmosphere in order to relieve pressure in the pipe so that maintenance or testing can take place) and noise from fracking operations.

Conclusion and future directions

In summary, fracking operations have deeply impacted these individuals living in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Not only do residents experience deteriorating air quality, water contamination, and physical health effects, but the mental and emotional toll of witnessing multigenerational farms become forever changed can be overbearing. Other mental health impacts included rising social tensions, feelings of powerlessness, and continuous emotional distress. Fracking operations continue to change the physical landscape, tarnishing Southwest Pennsylvania’s natural beauty and threatening access to outdoor recreation opportunities. Unfortunately, those not living in the direct path of fracking operations struggle to grasp the severity of fracking’s impact on families living with oil and gas infrastructure on or near their property. More widespread awareness of fracking’s impacts is needed to educate communities and call for stricter enforcement of regulations for the oil and gas industry. As one resident summed up their experiences,

 

“Engines are running full blast, shining lights, and just spewing toxins out there. And you can’t get away from it. You just can’t. You can’t drink the water. You can’t breathe the air. You can’t farm the ground. And you’re stuck here.”

 

Hopefully, shedding light on residents’ experiences such as these will bring policymakers to reconsider fracking regulations to minimize the impact on public health and the surrounding environment.

 

By Emma Vieregge, FracTracker Summer 2020 Environmental and Health Fellow

 

Acknowledgements

The 2020 Environmental Health Fellowship was made possible by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and the Heinz Endowments.

Many thanks to all participants who took the time to share their experiences with me, Lois Bower-Bjornson with the Clean Air Council, Jessa Chabeau at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, and the FracTracker team for all of their feedback and expertise.

Feature image courtesy of Lois Bower-Bjornson from the Clean Air Council.

References:

1 Beyer, K., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F., & Malecki, K. (2014). Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453-3472. doi:10.3390/ijerph110303453

2 Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., . . . Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140(3), 300-305. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.03.012

3 Maas, J., Dillen, S. M., Verheij, R. A., & Groenewegen, P. P. (2009). Social contacts as a possible mechanism behind the relation between green space and health. Health & Place, 15(2), 586-595. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.09.006

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FracTracker Falcon Pipeline spills map

Falcon Pipeline Construction Releases over 250,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid in Pennsylvania and Ohio

Part of the Falcon Public Environmental Impact Assessment – a FracTracker series on the impacts of Falcon Ethane Pipeline System

Challenges have plagued Shell’s construction of the Falcon Pipeline System through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, according to documents from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Records show that at least 70 spills have occurred since construction began in early 2019, releasing over a quarter million gallons of drilling fluid. Yet the true number and volume of spills is uncertain due to inaccuracies in reporting by Shell and discrepancies in regulation by state agencies. 

Drilling Mud Spill

A drilling fluid spill from Falcon Pipeline construction near Moffett Mill Road in Beaver County, PA. Source: Pennsylvania DEP

Releases of drilling fluid during Falcon’s construction include inadvertent returns and losses of circulation – two technical words used to describe spills of drilling fluid that occur during pipeline construction.

Drilling fluid, which consists of water, bentonite clay, and chemical additives, is used when workers drill a borehole horizontally underground to pull a pipeline underneath a water body, road, or other sensitive location. This type of installation is called a HDD (horizontal directional drill), and is pictured in Figure 1.

HDD Pipeline Diagram

Figure 1. An HDD operation – Thousands of gallons of drilling fluid are used in this process, creating the potential for spills. Click to expand. Source: Enbridge Pipeline

 

Here’s a breakdown of what these types of spills are and how often they’ve occurred during Falcon pipeline construction, as of March, 2020:

  • Loss of circulation 
    • Definition: A loss of circulation occurs when there is a decrease in the volume of drilling fluid returning to the entry or exit point of a borehole. A loss can occur when drilling fluid is blocked and therefore prevented from leaving a borehole, or when fluid is lost underground.
    • Cause: Losses of circulation occur frequently during HDD construction and can be caused by misdirected drilling, underground voids, equipment blockages or failures, overburdened soils, and weathered bedrock.
    • Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 49 losses of circulation releasing at least 245,530 gallons of drilling fluid. Incidents include:
      • 15 losses in Ohio – totaling 73,414 gallons
      • 34 losses in Pennsylvania – totaling 172,116 gallons
  • Inadvertent return
    • Definition: An inadvertent return occurs when drilling fluid used in pipeline installation is accidentally released and migrates to Earth’s surface. Oftentimes, a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return when underground formations create pathways for fluid to surface. Additionally, Shell’s records indicate that if a loss of circulation is large enough, (releasing over 50% percent of drilling fluids over 24-hours, 25% of fluids over 48-hours, or a daily max not to exceed 50,000 gallons) it qualifies as an inadvertent return even if fluid doesn’t surface.
    • Cause: Inadvertent returns are also frequent during HDD construction and are caused by many of the same factors as losses of circulation. 
    • Construction of the Falcon has caused at least 20 inadvertent returns, releasing at least 5,581 gallons of drilling fluid. These incidents include:
      • 18 inadvertent returns in Pennsylvania – totaling 5,546 gallons 
        • 2,639 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)
      • 2 inadvertent returns Ohio – totaling 35 gallons 
        • 35 gallons into water resources (streams and wetlands)

However, according to the Ohio EPA, Shell is not required to submit reports for losses of circulation that are less than the definition of an inadvertent return, so many losses may not be captured in the list above. Additionally, documents reveal inconsistent volumes of drilling mud reported and discrepancies in the way releases are regulated by the Pennsylvania DEP and the Ohio EPA.

Very few of these incidents were published online for the public to see; FracTracker obtained information on them through a public records request. The map below shows the location of all known drilling fluid releases from that request, along with features relevant to the pipeline’s construction. Click here to view full screen, and add features to the map by checking the box next to them in the legend. For definitions and additional details, click on the information icon.

 

View map full screen 

Jefferson County, Ohio

Our investigation into these incidents began early this year when we received an anonymous tip about a release of drilling fluids in the range of millions of gallons at the SCIO-06 HDD over Wolf Run Road in Jefferson County, Ohio. The source stated that the release could be contaminating drinking water for residents and livestock.

Working with Clean Air Council, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, and DeSmog Blog, we quickly discovered that this spill was just the beginning of the Falcon’s construction issues.

Documents from the Ohio EPA confirm that there were at least eight losses of circulation at this location between August 2019 and January 2020, including losses of unknown volume. The SCIO-06 HDD location is of particular concern because it crosses beneath two streams (Wolf Run and a stream connected to Wolf Run) and a wetland, is near groundwater wells, and runs over an inactive coal mine (Figure 2).

Map of spills along pipeline

Figure 2. Losses of circulation that occurred at the SCIO-06 horizontal directional drill (HDD) site along the Falcon Pipeline in Jefferson County Ohio. Data Sources: OH EPA, AECOM

According to Shell’s survey, the coal mine (shown in Figure 2 in blue) is 290 feet below the HDD crossing. A hazardous scenario could arise if an HDD site interacts with mine voids, releasing drilling fluid into the void and creating a new mine void discharge. 

A similar situation occurred in 2018, when EQT Corp. was fined $294,000 after the pipeline it was installing under a road in Forward Township, Pennsylvania hit an old mine, releasing four million gallons of mine drainage into the Monongahela River. 

The Ohio EPA’s Division of Drinking and Ground Waters looked into the issues around this site and reported, “GIS analysis of the pipeline location in Jefferson Co. does not appear to risk any vulnerable ground water resources in the area, except local private water supply wells.  However, the incident location is above a known abandoned (pre-1977) coal mine complex, mapped by ODNR.”

If you believe your environment may be impacted by pipeline construction, you may contact Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services for assistance, and as always you can reach out to FracTracker Alliance with questions and concerns.

 

While we cannot confirm if there was a spill in the range of millions of gallons as the source claimed, the reported losses of circulation at the SCIO-06 site total over 60,000 gallons of drilling fluid. Additionally, on December 10th, 2019, the Ohio EPA asked AECOM (the engineering company contracted by Shell for this project) to estimate what the total fluid loss would be if workers were to continue drilling to complete the SCIO-06 crossing. AECOM reported that, in a “very conservative scenario based on the current level of fluid loss…Overall mud loss to the formation could exceed 3,000,000 gallons.” 

Despite this possibility of a 3 million+ gallon spill, Shell resumed construction in January, 2020. The company experienced another loss of circulation of 4,583 gallons, reportedly caused by a change in formation. However, in correspondence with a resident, Shell stated that the volume lost was 3,200 gallons. 

Whatever the amount, this January loss of circulation appears to have convinced Shell that an HDD crossing at this location was too difficult to complete, and in February 2020, Shell decided to change the type of crossing at the SCIO-06 site to a guided bore underneath Wolf Run Rd and open cut trench through the stream crossings (Figure 3).

Pipeline Map

Figure 3. The SCIO-06 HDD site, which may be changed from an HDD crossing to an open cut trench and conventional bore to cross Wolf Run Rd, Wolf Run stream (darker blue), an intermittent stream (light blue) and a wetland (teal). Click to expand.

An investigation by DeSmog Blog revealed that Shell applied for the route change under Nationwide Permit 12, a permit required for water crossings. While the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the route change on March 17th, one month later, a Montana federal court overseeing a case on the Keystone XL pipeline determined that the Nationwide Permit 12 did not meet standards set by federal environmental laws – a decision which may nullify the Falcon’s permit status. At this time, the ramifications of this decision on the Falcon remain unclear.

Inconsistencies in Reporting

In looking through Shell’s loss of circulation reports, we noted several discrepancies about the volume of drilling fluid released for different spills, including those that occurred at the SCIO-06 site. As one example, the Ohio EPA stated an email about the SCIO-06 HDD, “The reported loss of fluid from August 1, 2019 to August 14, 2019 in the memo does not appear to agree with the 21,950 gallons of fluid loss reported to me during my site visit on August 14, 2019 or the fluid loss reported in the conference call on August 13, 2019.” 

In addition to errors on Shell’s end, our review of documents revealed significant confusion around the regulation of drilling fluid spills. In an email from September 26, 2019, months after construction began, Shell raised the following questions with the Ohio EPA: 

  • when a loss of circulation becomes an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA clarifies: “For purposes of HDD activities in Ohio, an inadvertent return is defined as the unintended return of any fluid to the surface, as well as losses of fluids to underground formations which exceed 50-percent over a 24-hour period and/or 25-percent loss of fluids or annular pressure sustained over a 48-hour period;”
  • when the clock starts for the aforementioned time periods – the Ohio EPA says the time starts when “the drill commences drilling;”
  • whether Shell needs to submit loss of circulation reports for losses that are less than the aforementioned definition of an inadvertent return – the Ohio EPA responds, “No. This is not required in the permit.”

How are these spills measured?

A possible explanation for why Shell reported inconsistent volumes of spills is because they were not using the proper technology to measure them.

Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns from HDD: Assessment, Preparedness, Prevention and Response Plan” states that drilling rigs must be equipped with “instruments which can measure and record in real time, the following information: borehole annular pressure during the pilot hole operation; drilling fluid discharge rate; the spatial position of the drilling bit or reamer bit; and the drill string axial and torsional loads.”

In other words, Shell should be using monitoring equipment to measure and report volumes of drilling fluid released.

Despite that requirement, Shell was initially monitoring releases manually by measuring the remaining fluid levels in tanks. After inspectors with the Pennsylvania DEP realized this in October, 2019, the Department issued a Notice of Violation to Shell, asking the company to immediately cease all Pennsylvania HDD operations and implement recording instruments. The violation also cited Shell for not filing weekly inadvertent return reports and not reporting where recovered drilling fluids were disposed. 

In Ohio, there is no record of a similar request from the Ohio EPA. The anonymous source that originally informed us of issues at the SCIO-6 HDD stated that local officials and regulatory agencies in Ohio were likely not informed of the full volumes of the industrial waste releases based on actual meter readings, but rather estimates that minimize the perceived impact. 

While we cannot confirm this claim, we know a few things for sure: 1) there are conflicting reports about the volume of drilling fluids spilled in Ohio, 2) according to Shell’s engineers, there is the potential for a 3 million+ gallon spill at the SCIO-06 site, and 3) there are instances of Shell not following its permits with regard to measuring and reporting fluid losses. 

The inconsistent ways that fluid losses (particularly those that occur underground) are defined, reported, and measured leave too many opportunities for Shell to impact sensitive ecosystems and drinking water sources without being held accountable.

What are the impacts of drilling fluid spills?

Drilling fluid is primarily composed of water and bentonite clay (sodium montmorillonite), which is nontoxic. If a fluid loss occurs, workers often use additives to try and create a seal to prevent drilling fluid from escaping into underground voids. According to Shell’s “Inadvertent Returns From HDD” plan, it only uses additives that meet food standards, are not petroleum based, and are consistent with materials used in drinking water operations.

However, large inadvertent returns into waterways cause heavy sedimentation and can have harmful effects on aquatic life. They can also ruin drinking water sources. Inadvertent returns caused by HDD construction along the Mariner East 2 pipeline have contaminated many water wells.

Losses of circulation can impact drinking water too. This past April in Texas, construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline caused a loss that left residents with muddy well water. A 3 million gallon loss of circulation along the Mariner East route led to 208,000 gallons of drilling mud entering a lake, and a $2 million fine for Sunoco, the pipeline’s operator.

Our Falcon Public EIA Project found 240 groundwater wells within 1/4 mile of the pipeline and 24 within 1,000 ft of an HDD site. The pipeline also crosses near surface water reservoirs. Drilling mud spills could put these drinking water sources at risk.

But when it comes to understanding the true impact of the more than 245,000+ gallons of drilling fluid lost beneath Pennsylvania and Ohio, there are a lot of remaining questions. The Falcon route crosses over roughly 20 miles of under-mined land (including 5.6 miles of active coal mines) and 25 miles of porous karst limestone formations (learn more about karst). Add in to the mix the thousands of abandoned, conventional, and fracked wells in the region – and you start to get a picture of how holey the land is. Where or how drilling fluid interacts with these voids underground is largely unknown.

Other Drilling Fluid Losses

In addition to the SCIO-04 HDD, there are other drilling fluid losses that occurred in sensitive locations.

In Robinson Township, Pennsylvania, over a dozen losses of circulation (many of which occurred over the span of several days) released a reported 90,067 gallons of drilling fluid into the ground at the HOU-04 HDD. This HDD is above inactive surface and underground mines.

The Falcon passes through and near surface drinking water sources. In Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the pipeline crosses the headwaters of the Ambridge Reservoir and the water line that carries out its water for residents in Beaver County townships (Ambridge, Baden, Economy, Harmony, and New Sewickley) and Allegheny County townships (Leet, Leetsdale, Bell Acres, and Edgeworth). The group Citizens to Protect the Ambridge Reservoir, which formed in 2012 to protect the reservoir from unconventional oil and gas infrastructure, led efforts to stop Falcon Construction, and the Ambridge Water Authority itself called the path of the pipeline “not acceptable.” In response to public pressure, Shell did agree to build a back up line to the West View Water Authority in case issues arose from the Falcon’s construction.

Unfortunately, a 50-gallon inadvertent return was reported at the HDD that crosses the waterline (Figure 4), and a 160 gallon inadvertent return occurred in Raccoon Municipal Park within the watershed and near its protected headwaters (Figure 5). Both of these releases are reported to have occurred within the pipeline’s construction area and not into waterways.

Spill from Falcon construction

Figure 4) HOU-10 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 50 gallons were released on the drill pad on 7/9/2019

Spill from pipeline construction

Figure 5) SCIO-05 HDD location on the Falcon Pipeline, where 160 gallons were released on 6/10/19, within the pipeline’s LOD (limit of disturbance)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farther west, the pipeline crosses through the watershed of the Tappan Reservoir, which provides water for residents in Scio, Ohio and the Ohio River, which serves over 5 million people.

A 35- gallon inadvertent return occurred at a conventional bore within the Tappan Lake Protection Area, impacting a wetland and stream. We are not aware of any spills impacting the Ohio River.

Pipelines in a Pandemic

This investigation makes it clear that weak laws and enforcement around drilling fluid spills allows pipeline construction to harm sensitive ecosystems and put drinking water sources at risk. Furthermore, regulations don’t require state agencies or Shell to notify communities when many of these drilling mud spills occur.

Despite the issues Shell experienced during construction, work on the Falcon continued over the past months during state shelter-in-place orders, while many businesses were forced to close. 

The problem continues where the 97-mile pipeline ends – at the Shell ethane cracker. In March, workers raised concerns about the unsanitary conditions of the site, and stated that crowded workspaces made social distancing impossible. While Shell did halt construction temporarily, state officials gave the company the OK to continue work – even without the waiver many businesses had to obtain. 

The state’s decision was based on the fact it considered the ethane cracker to “support electrical power generation, transmission and distribution.” The ethane cracker – which is still months and likely years away from operation – does not currently produce electrical power and will only provide power generation to support plastic manufacturing.

This claim continues a long pattern of the industry attempting to trick the public into believing that we must continue expanding oil and gas operations to meet our country’s energy needs. In reality, Shell and other oil and gas companies are attempting to line their own pockets by turning the country’s massive oversupply of fracked gas into plastic. And just as Shell and state governments have put the health of residents and workers on the line by continuing construction during a global pandemic, they are sacrificing the health of communities on the frontlines of the plastic industry and climate change by pushing forward the build-out of the petrochemical industry during a global climate crisis.

This election year, while public officials are pushing forward major action to respond to the economic collapse, let’s push for policies and candidates that align with the people’s needs, not Big Oil’s.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance

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