Water at Risk
A Digital Atlas Exploring the Impacts of Natural Gas Development in
the Lycoming Creek Watershed of Pennsylvania
Coursing through lush valleys of the Allegheny Plateau, Lycoming Creek flows over 37 miles to its confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The 272-square-mile watershed includes idyllic tributaries like Pleasant Stream and Trout Run, names reflecting the intrinsic beauty and bounty of the area. Rock Run in Loyalsock State Forest by some accounts is, “one of the most beautiful streams in all of Pennsylvania.”
The mightier Pine Creek to the west perhaps carries greater notoriety, as does the enchanting Loyalsock to the east. But make no judgement about Lycoming Creek’s smaller stature. Forest covers 81% of the basin and only one percent is developed, with the rest of the land used for agriculture. Through the heart of this rugged terrain, a picturesque waterway beckons anglers and other revelers of the wilds.
The Lenape people called the watershed home before European occupation. They knew the creek as Legani-hanne, meaning “sandy or gravelly stream.” The native residents and those who displaced them used it as a means of transportation, whether traveling by canoe or walking the Sheshequin Path that runs north and east along the shores.
Lumber fueled the regional economy of the 19th century, and Lycoming’s forests fell. By rail and by water, saw logs were sent to Williamsport for milling. Wood-powered wealth gave rise to the city’s “Millionaire’s Row,” but prosperity apexed in the early 20th century. Today, the Williamsport area is home to nearly 30,000 people, down from a peak of around 45,000 in 1950. Comparatively, about 20,000 persons live within the Lycoming Creek watershed.
These days, Williamsport buzzes with breweries, bookstores, and the vitality of an urban hub. The Little League World Series still comes to town every summer, ushering memories of simpler, quieter times.
Nearby, the serene creek surges with life, including the Eastern hellbender—North America’s largest amphibian. But the same water can turn tempestuous and destructive. Notable floods in 1972, 1996, 2011, and 2016 caused loss of life and property damage. As climate change intensifies, heavy downpours and rapid snowmelt exacerbate flood risks.
Unconventional drilling brought new threats to the area: congested truck traffic, exorbitant consumptive water use, myriad air pollution sources, extensive land clearing, and ecological disturbance; and, the dangers of spills, leaks, and water contamination.
This report explores these impacts, underscoring the heavy footprint of extraction—and related activities—on public and private lands throughout the Lycoming Creek watershed.
The Lycoming Creek watershed provides ample opportunities for nature-based recreation. While there are no state parks in the watershed, a 507-acre (0.8 square miles) portion of the Tioga State Forest occupies the northern boundary of the watershed in Tioga County. Further south lies 45,022 acres (71.1 square miles) of the Loyalsock State Forest. This includes 332 acres (0.52 square miles) of the Devil’s Elbow Natural Area, a site known for its many wetlands—home to carnivorous sundew and pitcher plants—waters that feed the stunning Rock Run.
The McIntyre Wild Area covers a 7,226 acre (11.3 square mile) expanse of the Loyalsock State Forest, situated entirely in the Lycoming Creek watershed. It includes spectacular waterfalls on streams that feed the aforementioned Rock Run, a tributary known for its vibrant trout population.
To the west of Lycoming Creek and State Route 14 is Bodine Mountain, another sweeping feature of the Loyalsock State Forest. Bodine Mountain is a north-to-south ridge rising over 1,300 feet above the Lycoming Creek valley.
In addition to state forests, the watershed contains 238 acres of State Game Land 335 at the northern boundary, and 2,430 acres (3.8 square miles) of State Game Land 133, situated southeast of Bodine Mountain. These conserved lands are designated to protect wildlife—a goal that seems at odds with current oil and gas leasing practices.
Fishing and enjoying mountain streams
Pennsylvania has two separate designations for streams with excellent water quality: exceptional value (EV) and high quality (HQ). The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) explains that the quality of HQ streams can be lowered, “if a discharge is the result of necessary social or economic development, the water quality criteria are met, and all existing uses of the stream are protected.” The water quality of EV streams cannot be lowered.
Sadly, there are no streams in the beautiful Lycoming Creek watershed with an EV designation, however deserving. On the other hand, 412 miles of streams in its drainage are designated as HQ, representing 76% of the watershed’s 542 total stream miles, according to the state’s official designated use inventory. Statewide, 3,838 out of 86,473 miles (4.4%) of inventoried streams are categorized as EV, while 58,748 miles (67.9%) are HQ, making the Lycoming Creek watershed below average for the former, and above average for the latter.
Prior to industrialization, native brook trout populations were widespread in small, forested streams across Pennsylvania. While many streams are now stocked with several species of trout, the combination of pollution and deforestation has decimated the areas where trout—especially native brook trout—thrive in sustainable wild populations. Suitable streams are designated as Class A trout streams, and they are rare, accounting for just 3,037 miles, or 3.5% of streams across the Commonwealth. The Lycoming Creek watershed contains slightly fewer Class A streams than is typical, with 17.5 miles, representing just 3.2% of all streams in the drainage. Nevertheless, it remains an important respite for trout species and the anglers who seek them.
Split estates and the Clarence Moore lands
Hundreds of thousands of acres of Pennsylvania state forest are under lease agreements for fracked gas extraction, diminishing outdoor experiences and posing ongoing environmental threats. In those situations, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) clearly controls the surface and the gas that lies beneath. However, in some areas of the state forest, private interests claim mineral ownership, even in gaseous form—a situation called “split estate.” Loyalsock State Forest contains about 25,000 split estate acres, known as the Clarence Moore Lands.
In the Lycoming Creek watershed, most of the Clarence Moore lands lie east of US Highway 15, occupying areas that drain into Rock Run and Pleasant Stream, including some of the area’s few remaining Class A wild trout waters. Another section of the Clarence Moore lands extends west of Highway 15, on Bodine Mountain’s eastern flank. In their current state, the lands provide invaluable ecological services and—coupled with the Loyalsock Creek to the east—comprise critical source waters for two major watersheds.
Gas drilling requires a significant amount of infrastructure, including multiacre well pads, miles of gathering pipelines, retention ponds, waste processing facilities, and compressor and metering stations. Allowing surface disturbance in the Clarence Moore lands could have lasting, devastating consequences.
Nearly a decade ago, the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation approached DCNR with extensive plans for dozens of fracked gas wells and all the disruptive destruction that accompanies them in a large swatch of the Loyalsock State Forest and the Clarence Moore lands. Over the years, the Clarence Moore players have changed significantly. Southwestern Energy scored a stake, while Anadarko sold their interest to Alta Resources, a privately-held company scheduled for purchase by EQT, the nation’s largest fracked gas company. While the operators play their game of musical chairs, the situation remains a serious threat to some of the few remaining portions of the region that haven’t been spoiled with industrial gas drilling.
Ironically, modern horizontal drilling enables access to Clarence Moore’s reserves from miles away—from well pads on private land. There is no need—nor social license—to expunge the forest for future generations for short-lived, selfish gain. Organizations near and far, led by the Responsible Drilling Alliance and Save PA Forests Coalition, have rallied tirelessly to save this land from development, a truly special place deserving permanent protection.
Figure 2. The Clarence Moore Lands are a complicated split estate situation in the Loyalsock State Forest, including parts of the Lycoming, Loyalsock, and Schrader Creek watersheds.
Unique wetland biomes
Countless wetlands feed Lycoming Creek’s headwaters, providing a unique opportunity to observe aquatic flora and fauna beneath the forested canopy of Penn’s Woods. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) explains their importance, as well as their precarious state:
“Wetlands provide a multitude of ecological, economic and social benefits. They provide habitat for fish, wildlife and plants—many of which have a commercial or recreational value—recharge groundwater, reduce flooding, provide clean drinking water, offer food and fiber, and support cultural and recreational activities. Unfortunately, over half of America’s wetlands have been lost since 1780, and wetland losses continue today. This highlights the urgent need for geospatial information on wetland extent, type, and change.”
The geospatial data referred to above is the National Wetland Inventory (NWI), which seeks to document all the wetlands in the United States, based primarily in aerial imagery. According to NWI data, there are 3,136 acres (4.9 square miles) of wetlands in the Lycoming Creek watershed. However, further field research is necessary to properly identify wetland boundaries, particularly in the case of ephemeral wetlands, for example, where the presence of aquatic plants help determine boundaries. All of this suggests that while there is every reason to believe the USFWS’ claim that over half of the nation’s wetlands have been lost since around the time of the Revolutionary War, it is believed the NWI discounts the total acreage.
A University of Vermont team developed another model for calculating wetlands, based primarily on, “2006-2008 leaf-off LiDAR data, 2005-2008 leaf-off orthoimagery, 2013 high-resolution land-cover data, and moderate-resolution predictive wetlands maps, incorporating topography, hydrological flow potential, and climate data.” This model calculates 6,943 wetlands acres (10.8 square miles) in the Lycoming Creek drainage, more than double the NWI’s estimated acreage.
Five trails traverse the Lycoming Creek watershed, crossing 152 miles total. This includes nearly 44 miles of the Loyalsock State Forest Cross-Country Ski Trail system south and east of the McIntyre Wild Area, suitable for hiking, biking, equestrian pursuits, and of course, cross-country skiing. The watershed also contains 33 miles of Bicycle PA Route J, which runs along Lycoming Creek from the confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River on the southern end, all the way to the wetland border that feeds Lycoming Creek and neighboring Towanda Creek to the northeast. The watershed’s most popular trail may be the famous Old Loggers Path, a coveted backpacking route that meanders nearly 23 miles. The Hawkeye Cross-Country Ski Trail—frequented by hikers, bikers, and skiers—loops over seven miles in the northeastern corner of the watershed. Yet another watershed trail is the Lycoming Creek Bikeway, a mostly straight five-mile stretch from Hepburnville to the West Branch Susquehanna River.
Figure 3. Rock Run in Loyalsock State Forest’s McIntyre Wild Area. Photo by Ann Pinca.
Figure 4. A flyfisher casts in Lycoming Creek right beside Sheshequin Campground in Trout Run. Photo by Rebecca Johnson.
Figure 5. This wetland lies just beyond the northeastern boundary of the Lycoming Creek watershed and is similar to those feeding the headwaters of Rock Run near Devil’s Elbow Natural Area in Loyalsock State Forest. Photo by Shannon Smith.
The commercial oil and gas industry got its start in Pennsylvania in 1859 with the famous Drake Well, followed by a frenzy of drilling in the central and western portions of the state. The DEP has records of over 185,000 conventional oil and gas wells throughout the Commonwealth, and—because the industry preceded permitting requirements by almost a century—yearly estimates range between 480,000 and 760,000 conventional wells have punctured Pennsylvania’s surface.
The Lycoming Creek watershed was further east than most of the conventional oil and gas pools, so it has seen very little conventional drilling. Of the 185,000 known well locations, only 25 (0.01%) are within the watershed. Of those, 11 (44%) have a status of “proposed but never materialized,” or “operator reported not drilled.” Eight wells (32%) are plugged, four (16%) have active status, one (four percent) is considered being in a regulatory inactive period, and one (four percent) is on the DEP’s orphan list—awaiting funding to be plugged properly.
While drillers had long known about the Marcellus Shale, it wasn’t until 2004 that drilling in the formation became a profitable enterprise, through the combination of industrial-scale hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Soon thereafter, the Lycoming Creek watershed was no longer on the periphery of oil and gas exploration, but part of a densely drilled cluster of new unconventional wells in northeastern Pennsylvania.
The first unconventional well in the Lycoming Creek watershed was permitted by Range Resources at the Bobst Mountain Hunting Club on May 31, 2007, and drilling started less than two months later.
In the years that followed, 592 unconventional wells have been proposed for the watershed, 586 (99%) of which received permits, with 384 (65%) drilled as of June 28, 2021. Some wells had a short life, with 41 (10.6%) already plugged—a figure slightly higher than the statewide average of 8.7%. Fifteen operators have been active in the watershed.
As with the rest of Pennsylvania, the total number of drilled wells peaked in 2012, with 100 wells drilled that year. In the past seven years, the highest annual total was only one-fourth of that, with 25 wells drilled in 2019. However, these trends do not foretell an end to drilling in the region. The reduced number of wells drilled is offset by drilling each well more intensively, using five times as much water per well for hydraulic fracturing.
Gas production has flooded markets, reducing gas prices and profit margins. At the very start of the Marcellus boom in October 2005, gas prices were $13.42 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs), but have fluctuated between $1.75 and $4.00 per million BTUs in recent years. Many of the 202 wells permitted but not drilled in the watershed are located on existing well pads and can easily be drilled and brought into production as market forces dictate. For these reasons, the area is unlikely to see an end to drilling, pipeline construction, truck convoys—and all the other ancillary activities—any time soon.
Figure 6. Active fracking operation in May 2021 on ARD Operating’s COP Tract 551 A well pad, originally planned by Anadarko E&P in 2014. Photo by Ted Auch.
Figure 7. This video was taken at the same site as Figure 6, capturing ARD Operating’s well pad and the incessant noise it makes during hydraulic fracturing activities. Video footage captured by Brook Lenker.
Figure 8. Permitting, drilling, and plugging summary of unconventional wells in the Lycoming Creek watershed by year. Data through June 28, 2021.
Figure 9. Proposed unconventional wells by current operators in the Lycoming Creek watershed. Data through June 28, 2021. Note that wells that were proposed but not drilled are still associated with the original operator, which are not always still active in the watershed.
Figure 10. FracTracker’s partners at LightHawk provided aerial assistance to fly our photographer over the Lycoming Creek watershed. This video offers a glimpse at the oil and gas industry’s expansion in the watershed, juxtaposed with houses, farms, forests, wetlands, and numerous waterways. FracTracker’s Ted Auch captured still images while LightHawk pilot David Hartnichek gathered video footage, captured May 2021.
TimeSlider of Bodine Mountain
On the right, we see imagery from June 2021, with a substantial number of well pads, impoundments, compressors, pipelines, and access roads. Imagery on the left is from June 2014, with significantly less infrastructure. Users can zoom, pan, and choose different dates to explore the impacts of the industry over time.
In the Lycoming Creek watershed, unconventional wells and the well pads they operate on have been issued 634 violations between 2008 and June 28, 2021. This works out to 1.65 violations per drilled well, considerably above the statewide average of 1.3 violations per well.
Most of the violations (545, or 86%) are considered to negatively impact environmental health and safety, with the remaining 89 (14%) assessed for administrative infractions. However, the distinction between the two categories is murky at best. For example, the most common administrative violation is, “pits and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” an infraction documented 18 times in the watershed—presenting obvious hazards to health, safety, and the environment.
Altogether, there are 66 different violation codes cited within the watershed. The ten most frequent are seen in Figure 11.
For these 634 violations, the DEP has collected fines totaling $2,460,700 from four operators. Range Resources leads the way with $1,461,000 in fines, followed by Seneca Resources with $600,000, East Resources with $380,700, and Chief Oil & Gas with $19,000. For comparison, the average cost of drilling a single well in the Marcellus Shale is $8.3 million, according to 2017 financial data from a major operator in the region. At this rate, while assuming no inflation, the watershed will have to suffer 2,138 violations before the DEP’s penalties equal the cost of drilling and fracking one well.
Clearly, operators are not cowed by receiving violations, nor do they look at the occasional fine as anything more than the cost of doing business. It seems that in practice, the DEP’s regulatory role is chronicling the industry’s misdeeds, instead of protecting the environment and the people who live among the hundreds of wells in the area.
Figure 11. The ten most frequent violations for unconventional wells and well pads in the Lycoming Creek watershed through June 28, 2021.
Fracking’s aquatic impacts
The DEP maintains a statewide list of water resource sites. In the Lycoming Creek watershed, 76 out of 128 (59%) listed water resource facilities are associated with oil and gas activity, including 13 surface water withdrawal sites and 63 interconnections—large impoundments where water is collected and stored for future use. As excessive as these figures are, the state’s water resources data is incomplete. By examining aerial imagery, FracTracker found six impoundments adjacent to oil and gas operations that were not listed in the inventory. The DEP was aware of these facilities and provided data upon request. Multiacre lined impoundments can be identified from such imagery, but the inventory might be missing smaller withdrawal sites occluded from view by the tree canopy.
Overall, 259 wells reported using between 891,900 and 33,193,599 gallons of water as a base for their fracking chemical cocktail.
These numbers only represent the water consumed for hydraulic fracturing and don’t include any water used for pipeline hydrostatic testing, dust suppression on dirt and gravel roads, or any other purpose. For example, the voluminous 33,193,599 gallons used to frack Alta Resources’ Mac North B-3H well pad represents only a fraction of its permitted capacity for fracking operations.
Figure 12. A lined impoundment that does not appear on DEP’s Water Resources inventory. Photo by Karen Edelstein.
The unconventional oil and gas industry dominates water extraction, distribution, and use throughout the watershed. The amount of water used per fracked well has increased dramatically over the years, according to data from the industry’s frack fluid registry, FracFocus.
However, the registry is riddled with some obvious data inaccuracies—perhaps stemming from the fact that the registry is self-reported by the various operators.
For example, there are 272 well reports with latitude and longitude coordinates placing them inside the Lycoming Creek watershed, excluding wells where operators left the water usage field blank. There are some problematic data points with those remaining.
Five wells reported a negative number of gallons used to stimulate wells, including four from Seneca Resources’ Gamble K well pad—with quantities ranging from -214.7 million to -1.18 billion gallons of water—and one well from EXCO Resources’ Emig Unit well pad that registered -859.0 million gallons. At the other end of the spectrum, eight wells reported water consumption over 100 million gallons, including four from Rockdale Marcellus’ Cochran well pad, two from Seneca Resources’ Gamble K well pad, and two from EXCO Resources’ Emig Unit well pad.
As water consumption data of these 13 wells is obviously erroneous, they were excluded from the following analysis.
These withdrawal allowances are truly staggering.
Based on observations of consumptive use permit signs across the watershed, these water withdrawal limits are typical. Taking the 7.62 billion gallons per well pad average from Figure 15, this equates to about 716 billion gallons of permitted water consumption for the 94 well pads in the watershed that have at least one well with an active, regulatory inactive, or plugged well status. Given the average household consumes about 300 gallons of water per day—and that Pennsylvania has just over 5 million households—this volume is nearly equal to the entire residential consumption of the state for 628 days. If this is applied to each of the 125 proposed well pads, that figure rises to about 953 billion gallons, or a little less than the full capacity of Florida’s vast Lake Okeechobee.
Contamination from spills and leaks can affect more than just surface water. In 2014, 75 water wells in Lycoming County—which includes most of the Lycoming Creek watershed—were tested for various contaminants by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS). Six wells with the highest methane concentrations were further analyzed for their ratio of chloride to bromide, with half of that smaller subset showing water chemistry indicative of mixing with oilfield brine. Although the study posited that it could be mixing deep in the aquifer, it did not mention the frenzied drilling in the region at the time of sampling.
Stemming from thousands of complaints across the Marcellus Shale region, there are 378 private water supplies where DEP determined the loss of water quality or quantity was because of oil and gas activities. The public isn’t provided with the exact location of these fouled wells due to privacy concerns of impacted residents, but it is known that 18 incidents occurred in municipalities wholly or partially within the Lycoming Creek watershed.
According to Pennsylvania’s Act 13—an instrumental law governing various aspects of unconventional drilling in the state—oil and gas operators are presumed responsible for water wells negatively affected within 12 months and 2,500 feet of operations. Of course, the actual spread of a pollution plume depends on the characteristics of the aquifer itself, rather than definitions from Act 13, so it is possible that wells further than 2,500 feet from an incident could be negatively impacted—potentially years after the leak or spill occurred.
Of the 18 determination letters issued by DEP, one occurred in Fox Township in Sullivan County, six in Liberty Township in Tioga County, and two in Union Township. In Lycoming County, Eldred Township received three, Hepburn Township got one, Jackson Township received two, and McNett Township got two.
As previously mentioned, DEP also tracks violations of various state oil and gas regulations. The vast majority of incidents in the Lycoming Creek watershed resulted in an impact to surface or groundwater. Of the 634 total citations associated with unconventional wells and well pads: 41 (six percent) related to erosion and sedimentation concerns, which could harm aquatic life; 379 (60%) citations were for spills, leaks, or pollution discharges that degraded surface or groundwater; and 41 (six percent) were for other water issues. The remaining 173 (27%) violations were for various other shortcomings—most issued for improper handling of waste materials. Depending on what happened in the field to merit these violations, many of these incidents may also have had an impact on Pennsylvania’s waters.
Water is a defining characteristic for any watershed. From the expansive wetlands uphill to the brisk trout streams around Rock Run and the McIntyre Wild Area, down to the steep ravines of the Lycoming Creek, water makes this area special. In the rush to accommodate the thirsty and pollutive oil and gas industry, the state has allowed vast portions of the region to be spoiled.
Figure 13. Water consumption per well in the Lycoming Creek watershed has increased nearly five-fold in less than a decade, from 3,679,467 gallons in 2011 to 17,512,356 gallons in 2020, according to FracFocus data downloaded April 28, 2021.
Figure 14. Water consumption postings for six ARD (Alta Resources Development) well pads. Of the five visible signs, water consumption was permitted at 3 to 4 million gallons per pad, per day, for over five years. Photo by Erica Jackson.
Figure 15. The five visible signs in Figure 14 show that well pads are permitted to withdraw over 38.1 billion gallons of water, or an average of 7.62 billion gallons per well pad.
When fossil fuel companies portray fracked gas as “clean,” they better hope the public doesn’t notice the enormous stream of liquid and solid waste. In the Lycoming Creek watershed, operators reported 9,064,377 barrels (380.7 million gallons) of liquid waste and 416,248 tons of solid waste were generated in the drainage between January 2011 and April 2021.
As a point of comparison, this volume of liquid waste—from 362 wells in the watershed—is equal to about 577 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or an acre of land covered in toxic waste 1,168 feet deep. In terms of solid waste, disposal of drill cuttings and other substances equals the garbage left behind after 8,672 Kenny Chesney concerts—like having about 2.3 concerts every day. This estimation is based on 330 wells reporting solid waste generation in the watershed.
Problems with oil & gas waste
To compare chemical-laden flowback fluid and radioactive brines to pool water based on volume alone does little to communicate the dangers of liquid waste—just as comparing drill cuttings and filter socks to beer cans and food wrappers is insufficient.
Oil and gas waste is much more harmful to human health and the environment than normal household refuse.
Flowback fluid includes a portion of the liquid injected into a wellbore during hydraulic fracturing. As presented in the Water section, the volume of water injected into each well averaged over 17.5 million gallons in 2020. The industry’s chemical registry site FracFocus estimates that between one-half percent and two percent of the injected volumes are composed of various chemical additives. To get an accurate estimate of the volumes of these chemicals, it is necessary to add the water volume and the non-water volume together, then calculate the above range. Unfortunately, only 18 out of the 259 wells in the watershed that provide believable water volumes also provide non-water volumes.
Approximately 25% of these chemical additives could cause cancer, according to recent studies—while others may inflict skin or respiratory damage.
What is now the Marcellus Shale formation was an ancient, shallow seabed around 384 million years ago in the Middle Devonian epoch. As this sea dried out, organic content concentrated, which would eventually be the source of hydrocarbon gasses. Other components saturated with this organic matter—including barium, benzene, chloride, radium, thallium, and more. These contaminants resurface with the oil and gas, either dissolved or suspended in fluid waste called brine. Brine will continue to rise to the surface in significant quantities during a well’s operating lifespan.
Drill cuttings comprise most of the solid waste from oil and gas sites in Pennsylvania. As with brine, these cuttings contain concentrations of the same toxic and radioactive chemicals. Whether used onsite or sent to landfills, these cuttings are problematic when precipitation causes contaminants to leach, posing risks to aquifers and surface waters. Traditionally, landfill leachate is taken to water treatment facilities. However, these facilities are ill-equipped to handle oil and gas waste and cannot effectively remove the contaminant load.
What happens to the waste?
In 2019, FracTracker analyzed and mapped the destination of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas waste from 2011 through 2018 in a project with Earthworks. Most waste stays in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, but this still requires thousands of heavy tankers travelling tens or even hundreds of miles to reach their destinations. The industry ships some waste as far as Texas, Utah, and Idaho, despite enormous transportation costs. The project underscored Pennsylvania’s incapacity to deal with this noxious and problematic waste stream.
This waste is handled in various ways, with about 54% reused at other fracking sites, 30% sent to residual waste processing facilities, and ten percent disposed in injection wells. Most of the remaining six percent is sent to surface impoundments—but it is not clear what happens to the waste from there.
For solid waste, 56% goes to landfills, 34% is reused at well pads, and eight percent goes to residual waste processing facilities—with the rest handled by other methods.
There is record of 124 waste facilities in the Lycoming Creek watershed, including 121 well pads, one landfill, one residual waste processing facility, and one temporary storage site, pending future reuse or disposal.
The Clean Earth facility—a landfill and drilling mud processing facility—has taken 157,457 tons of solid oil and gas waste and 315 barrels of liquid waste from 2013 to 2016. Between 2012 and 2013, the facility operated as Clean Streams, LLC, and accepted 10,610 additional tons of solid waste and 513,894 barrels of liquid waste. At the watershed’s northern border in Tioga County is Rockdale Marcellus’ Harer Beneficial Reuse facility. Beech Resources proposed an additional facility in currently forested land across US Highway 15 from the Clean Earth facilities.
Figure 16. Estimated chemical components of fracking fluid for the 18 wells in the Lycoming Creek watershed that provide non-water volumes. The minimum estimate is 965,434 gallons, based on 0.5% chemical concentrations, while the maximum estimate is 3,861,737 gallons, based on two percent concentrations.
Figure 17. Disposition method of liquid waste from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2020, based on DEP waste reports. The total liquid waste volume was 61,832,431 barrels, or about 2.6 billion gallons.
Figure 18. Disposition of solid waste from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania in 2020. Total statewide mass was 1,397,678 tons.
Mountains of waste
As drilling continues in the Lycoming Creek watershed and nearby, enormous waste streams will continue to be a conundrum. Even reused material might contaminate the land, streams, and groundwater, and harm human health. As wells are fracked with ever-increasing volumes of fluid, they will return ever-increasing volumes of waste, requiring more and more resources to process.
To see more footage & photos from this project:
Field Day Description
On a sunny and brisk Thursday in May 2021, a group of 11 FracTracker staff members and volunteers gathered in the Lycoming watershed outside Williamsport to find and document unconventional oil and gas activities and infrastructure.
This field day was in part informed by insights from members of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, a regional organization, and the knowledge and experiences of Peter Petokas, a biology and environmental science professor at Lycoming College who has explored and kept tabs on the area’s hellbender habitats for years.
FracTracker’s Matt Kelso used DEP data to develop maps illustrating various infrastructure, including 384 drilled wells on 96 different pads, nine compressor and metering stations, and 67 water facilities related to oil and gas extraction—including 12 surface water withdrawal sites and 55 storage reservoirs. He then divided an area of about 272 square miles into five sections, and at least two participants explored each section.
Using Matt’s maps, FracTracker’s mobile app, cameras, decibel and distance measuring apps, and other tools, the group visited and documented various infrastructure—while observing significant truck traffic and other evidence of the industry’s pervasiveness. As the groups navigated rural back roads and small state highways, many were struck by the juxtaposition of a bucolic landscape of rolling hills, green forests, and peaceful farmland with imposing, pollutive, and sometimes noisy and smelly fracking sites.
Additional fieldwork was conducted with assistance from Earthworks’ staff and their FLIR technology, as well as aerial photography and videography captured by FracTracker’s Ted Auch—with flying assistance from partners at LightHawk.
FracTracker then used the geolocated photos, video, and site-specific descriptions—coupled with variable datasets, research, and other literature—to compile this Story Atlas, an educational tool for concerned residents of the Lycoming Creek watershed, and an insightful resource for others living near fracking activity.
The mobile app reports from this reconnaissance—and from locations across the U.S.—are visible on the FracTracker mobile app, available for download on your iOS or Android device, or by visiting the web app at https://app.fractracker.org/.
Figure 19. The field day volunteers gathered before exploring the Lycoming Creek watershed. Photo by Shannon Smith, FracTracker Alliance.
Figure 20. This FLIR footage was recorded by Earthworks at NFG Midstream Trout Run LLC’s Hagerman gas processing and metering facility in Trout Run, Pennsylvania in June 2021. This recording captures visible air pollution from combustion and fugitive emissions at the facility.
Much has changed in the Lycoming watershed since unconventional oil and gas exploration ramped up over the last 15 years—in terms of ecological deterioration, as well as the deterioration of locals’ attitudes toward the industry.
At first welcomed by many as a chance for financial gain through mineral rights leasing, some community members—especially those whose families have lived in the area for generations—watched their land drastically degenerated and their sovereign land rights eclipsed by industrial encroachment they did not foresee.
Between 2011 and 2018, unconventional oil and gas drilling—notably, hydraulic fracturing—transformed sections of forest and farmland into comparatively gritty industrial zones.
“They were assured that, after the drilling phase was completed, they would hardly know the wells were there. They were also told that they had to decide quickly, and that everyone around them had already leased. A local anti-drilling advocacy group tried to warn them, but many locals distrusted environmentalists.”
As author and professor Colin Jerolmack references in his recent article for The New Republic, some landowners who willingly leased their mineral rights to oil and gas companies now view the industry’s activities with consternation. Incessant noise, traffic congestion, and foul odors have tarnished the once peaceful countryside. Even more disconcerting for property owners, the industry often operates however they please, with little consultation or consent—making some feel that they have lost their decision-making power and agency.
This disaffection potentially makes room for environmentalists to find common ground with those who embraced the industry, couched not in anti-fracking sentiments—and not necessarily in the essential need to mitigate the climate crisis—but in their shared love for the land.
Another big ecological concern in the punctured watershed centers on the fragile Eastern hellbender populations. Five conservation groups filed a lawsuit on July 1, 2021, challenging a 2019 decision to deny the amphibian protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“The hellbender is an ancient species that deserves better protections,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. “The hellbender reminds us that we all live downstream. As the upstream tributaries are disturbed and polluted, the hellbender disappears. And the same pollution flows downstream to our populated areas, threatening the use and enjoyment of our rivers. We need to pay attention to what happens to the hellbender.”
Once widespread across 15 states, Eastern hellbenders have been eliminated from most of their historic range and continue to face many threats, including low water flow and poor water quality, increasing water pollution, deforestation, residential development, mining—and of course—oil and gas development.
Peter Petokas has been studying Eastern hellbender populations in the Lycoming watershed for 16 years. He is very concerned for the future of the species in the watershed, which holds one of the richest populations in Pennsylvania, concentrated in one of the few remaining streams with optimal water quality. Even so, a drought in 2020 left the area’s waterways with very low flows, which constrains the hellbender’s habitat and stresses the population. Because they lack protection under endangered species status, agencies may be remiss to implement enhanced regulations on discharges and withdrawals in the basin. Petokas remains hopeful that the pending lawsuit against the US Fish & Wildlife Service will restart an assessment for federal endangered/threatened species protection.
“If there’s ever a spill of anything, it’s the end, it would wipe out one of the best hellbender populations in Pennsylvania,” Petokas said.
Besides concerns about low water levels, the watershed is losing tree cover along streams to invasive insects and erosion. Riparian species like ash, sycamore, and river birches provide shade and keep the water cool enough for hellbenders to thrive.
Figure 21. A pipeline path cuts through forest in McNett Township, Lycoming County. Photo by Shannon Smith.
What does the future hold?
Figure 22. Miner’s Run, a stream in the Lycoming Creek watershed. Photo by Tim Palmer.
Thank you to all the inspiring and persistent environmental stewards who have contributed to the creation of this digital atlas:
Project funding provided by:
Clarence Moore Controversy in the Loyalsock – FracTracker Alliance
Karen Melton, Sierra Club, Fracking and a Community Turned Upside-down, June 2021
Colin Jerolmack, This Could Be the Start of a Rural Anti-Fracking Coalition, May 2021
Center for Biological Diversity, etc. lawsuit, July 2021
Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Lawsuit Filed to Overturn Denial of Endangered Species Protection to Eastern Hellbenders, July 2021
[ii] Colin Jermolmack, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. P. 261
[iii] Colin Jermolmack, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. P. 266
[iv] Colin Jermolmack, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. P. 258
[v] Colin Jermolmack, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. P. 270
[vi] Colin Jermolmack, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell. P. 272