Fracking in the Coalfields

Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project

By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
Maps by Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

Dunkard Creek winds a course along the Southern Pennsylvania border of West Virginia through some of the densest coal mining and natural gas fields in the United States.

In 2009, watershed scientists in the region were alarmed to discover the creek, hosting one of the most diverse ecosystems of the Monongahela River watershed, had suffered a devastating fish kill. Some studies estimate that nearly 20,000 fish and other aquatic species were lost in the ecological disaster that may take decades to reclaim. In 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency stated that a golden algae bloom was to blame, caused by excessive water withdrawals from energy companies and unchecked discharges of acid mine drainage (AMD) from abandoned coal mining. CONSOL Energy, the predominant extraction company in Southwestern PA, ultimately agreed to pay $5.5 million, limit their water use, and build a better AMD treatment facility by 2013.

Some watershed scientists studying the causes of the fish kill, however, suspected a more complicated chain of events was to blame. Golden algae thrive in highly brackish (salty) waters that may have been caused by AMD discharges and low water levels. But conductivity measurements of total dissolved solids (TDS) in Dunkard Creek, an indicator of high water salinity, registered much higher than would be associated with AMD, even during periods of extremely low water. Residents living along Dunkard Creek and neighboring communities in Greene County suggest the events leading up to the fish kill may instead have been caused by natural gas drilling waste mixing with AMD discharges, either through cross-contamination in mines from migrating groundwater, or from the illegal dumping of drilling waste into abandoned mines and AMD treatment pools.

Nearly 20,000 fish and other aquatic species were lost in the 2009 Dunkard Creek fish kill.

While the Dunkard Creek fish kill remains a highly contested issue, the environmental disaster was one of a number of early warning events alerting communities to the unknown risks of shale gas drilling in regions with a long history of coal extraction. This article, part of the FracTracker Knowing Our Waters project, tells the story of a the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community working to understand the complications of shale gas drilling in coalfield regions. In particular, this article highlights the work of concerned citizens in Greene County, PA, as well as the nonprofit organizations and academic researchers that support their efforts as watchdogs of threatened watersheds. Despite findings that the Dunkard Creek fish kill was due to water withdrawals and AMD discharges, these citizen water monitor groups have data to support arguments that improper shale gas waste disposal is linked to deteriorating watershed conditions.

Coal Mining, Shale Gas, and Water Quality in Greene County

Coal Mining

Greene County produces over 12% of the underground mined coal tonnage in the United States. The combined output of three active mines – Bailey Mine Complex (three different underground mines that combined are the largest underground mine complex in North America), Cumberland Mine, and Emerald Mine #1 – contributed nearly 20 million tons of coal in 2013. These three mines also make Greene County one of only two in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where longwall coal mining is still practiced – a process often considered, along with hydraulic fracturing and tar sands removal, to be an “extreme” method of fossil fuel extraction. The process of longwall mining uses a highly mechanized extraction process to bore out coal bed segments 800 feet wide, 7,000 feet long, and 7 feet high. The residual earth is then allowed to collapse as machinery advances along its path. The fact that two “extreme” fossil-fuel extraction industries – longwall mining and hydraulic fracturing – co-exist in Greene County is a rarity in the US. Greene County is also home to many abandoned mines from more than a century of coal extraction.

Greene County produces over 12% of the underground mined coal tonnage in the United States.

One of the most prominent impacts from legacy coal mining comes from acid mine drainage (AMD) discharges, formed through the chemical reaction of subsurface water entering coal beds that contain sulfur-bearing minerals. This process results in the formation of sulfuric acid – particularly in flooded abandoned mines. AMD fluids are highly toxic when they reach the surface, and can have harmful health effects on humans and ecosystems. The drainage can be treated to neutralize the harmful effects of sulfites and heavy metals. However, many AMD discharge sites remain undermanaged due to a lack of state resources for abandoned mine reclamation projects.

Impacts from active coal mining can include declining groundwater levels that cause drinking wells to dry up, redirected surface and groundwater flow patterns, migration of methane and other gases released in the process of mining, and the discharge of polluted water used in processing extracted coal. The US EPA and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) require coal-mining operators to limit discharges into surface waters, and in some instances these regulations have been effective. For instance, in March of 2014, the US EPA and the Department of Justice charged Alpha Resources with more than 6,000 discharge violations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. In addition to a $27.5 million fine, Alpha Resources was ordered to invest $150 million in Greene County to build reverse osmosis AMD treatment plants.

  • The fact that two “extreme” fossil-fuel extraction industries (longwall mining and hydraulic fracturing) co-exist in Greene County is a rarity in the U.S. Greene County is also home to many abandoned mines from more than a century of coal extraction.

Shale Gas Extraction

Shale gas extraction introduces a host of new water quality issues to a region already compromised by active and legacy coal mining. Greene County is the fourth highest producing county of shale gas (natural gas obtained from shale formations) in PA. From July 2013 to June 2014, shale gas companies retrieved more than 330 billion cubic feet worth of gas. Greene County is also the second highest producer of liquid wastes in the state – 4.4 million barrels worth over the same time period (Check out a breakdown of these numbers for the second half of 2013).

The majority of wastewater treatment plants in the state of PA are not equipped to handle shale gas drilling waste. In fact, in 2011, the DEP requested that gas companies cease delivering waste to dozens of treatment facilities upon finding elevated levels of bromide in drinking water samples. In addition to being troublesome for aquatic life, bromide interacts with chlorine at water treatment facilities to produce trihalomethanes (THMs), a known carcinogen. But not all facilities and drilling companies adhere to DEP’s request. An equally concerning issue is the lack of proper waste data reporting. In March 2014, the Tri-County Municipal Water Authority, which services more than 10,000 customers in the Monongahela River Valley including Greene County, came under investigation by the DEP for failing to report discharge data and water quality reports. Another major concern in Greene County is the illegal disposal of waste. In 2012, Allan Shipman, of Allan’s Waste Water Service Inc., pleaded guilty to 200 counts of dumping millions of gallons of Marcellus Shale wastewater into abandoned mine shafts, local streams, and onto roadsides between 2003 and 2009.

What might come from the entanglement of these two industries remains a relative mystery. At a recent visit to the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), an environmental advocacy organization that works in Greene County to improve policy and regulations for the oversight of fossil fuel extraction, we learned more about these concerns. Veronica Coptis, CCJ’s Deputy Director, explains in an interview:

If we keep going with the pace that we’re going right now, we’re just treating this region like a grand experiment. What happens when you start plugging a bunch of gas wells near abandoned mine pools? Or what happens when you start long-wall mining close to a shale gas well? If it goes the way it’s going right now, unfortunately, we’re going to see some massive disaster.

Interactive Map of Coal and Gas Extraction in Greene (and Washington) County
(click corner arrow to expand map and for additional data layers)

Assessing Cumulative Extraction Impacts

Efforts to fill gaps in the understanding of the cumulative impacts of coal and gas extraction are particular evident in the volunteer water monitoring community. Three organizations listed in the Knowing Our Waters project monitor surface waters in Greene County:

  • The Harry Enstrom Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA), conducting monthly grab samples at 27 monitoring sites
  • The Greene County Watershed Alliance, a coalition of nonprofit watershed associations that maintains 20 automated data loggers
  • The West Virginia University Water Research Institute, which runs a comprehensive bi-weekly sampling program

One of the most active citizen-driven environmental advocacy groups in the Greene County is the Izaak Walton League Harry Enstrom Chapter. Since 2010, with the introduction of their volunteer monitoring program, Harry Enstrom has experienced explosive growth, from 27 members to over 120 today. But the organization is not necessarily anti-industry. As their mission states, “The IWLA supports the economic development of mining, drilling and the proper use of natural resources.” But the chapter is highly dedicated to seeing energy extraction done safely. “It is of the utmost importance that our most valued resources – water & air – are not destroyed by ongoing mining and drilling activities, particularly with respect to the development of the Marcellus shale gas reserves.”

  • The IWLA began to find high levels of bromide at five of their water monitoring sites. In each case these were either an AMD discharges site, or from an active coal refuse slurry pod, discharging into nearby streams.

Beginning in 2011, members of the IWLA began to find high levels of bromide at five of their water monitoring sites. In each case these monitors were at either an AMD discharges site, or at points where active coal refuse slurry pods discharge treated water into nearby streams. An earlier article that followed the work of the IWLA, written by PublicSource, noted that a statewide study of 140 abandoned mines by the US Geological Survey in 1999 found bromides never exceeded .6 milligrams per liter at any of the IWLA testing sites. However, samples taken by the IWLA have shown bromide levels to be as much as 10 times higher than the USGS’s.

These findings quickly led IWLA volunteers to suspect that waste products of the two industries were co-mingling in underground mine shafts or in refuse impoundments managed by the coal industry. Harry Enstrom chapter president Ken Dufalla recalls:

“We had a meeting with Range Resources in 2011. They gave a nice presentation about how they’re really safe. We said, we would like to help you out with monitoring, but they never contacted us. What we did get out of that meeting was learning that bromides don’t come from coal, but from Marcellus Shale drilling. So then why are we getting so much bromide out of coal mining discharge? Are the water pools compromised? If so, then we’re in trouble. There’s 1.8 trillion gallons of water in the old abandoned mines here in Southwest Pennsylvania.”

Into the Field

FracTracker joined the IWLA on a tour of their “hot spot” monitoring locations in December 2014. These locations included the Emerald Mine refuse impoundment discharge #001 into Smith Creek, as well as Cumberland Mine’s refuse impoundment discharge #014 and #029 into Whiteley Creek. All of these sites are operated by Alpha Resources – and 014 and 029 were included in the 2014 EPA/DOJ violations settlement. A fourth hot spot we visited was the Clyde Mine AMD treatment plant, which discharges into Ten Mile Creek (operated by the DEP since the mine’s abandonment in 2002).

The PA Oil and Gas Act Section 78 (on the Disposal of Brine, Drill Cuttings, and Residual Waste) prohibits the disposal of flowback water or any materials associated with the drilling industry into coal mines, slurry impoundments, coal mine discharges or coal refuse piles. But detecting the co-presence of coal waste and shale gas waste can be difficult.

Veronica Coptis, Center for Coalfield Justice Deputy Director
Talks about the co-presence of coal waste and shale gas waste

In lieu of having a clear signature of shale gas waste, IWLA volunteers monitor for pH, water temperature, and relative conductivity / total dissolves solids (TDS) to determine the presence of bromide. One strategy the IWLA has used to bring attention to their findings is to obtain PA DEP’s own monitoring data to confirm potential discharge violations. The agency has no discharge limits for bromide, but standards do require conductivity concentrations to be below 1,000 microsiemens, and TDS concentrations to be below 500 milligrams per liter.

In DEP’s most recent water samplings, collected in 2012, Emerald Mine discharge #001 registered conductivity readings of nearly 5,000 microsiemens and TDS levels of 3,500 milligrams per liter. Cumberland Mine’s discharge #029 conductivity was as high as 7,500 microsiemens. IWLA also requested the assistance of watershed scientists from the WVU Water Research Institute to corroborate these findings. These researchers found similar results. DEP’s discharge limits are technically set as monthly averages. Averages do not provide enforcement actions in the case of extreme discharge spikes throughout the month, however. Additionally, there presently is not a way to enforce monthly averages without self-reporting by the industry in a region lacking in DEP oversight.

Smith Creek, Whiteley Creek, and Ten Mile Creek all flow into the Monongahela River. “This is going into your drinking water. It’s going into the Mon River,” Dufalla explains to a packed room of concerned citizens in February 2014. “1 million people depend on the Monongahela River for their drinking water. Look at your bromide parts per billion. When you get 4,000 – remember there’s no standard for bromide, and remember that 3 bromides to make one trihalomethane – if you divide that by 3, you get a sense of how many trihalomethanes can be produced.” This is problematic for municipal drinking water facilities in the region. EPA drinking water standards mandate a maximum trihalomethane concentration of 80-ppb. The discharge from Clyde Mine is just upriver from the Tri-County treatment facility.

In documents submitted to the DEP in November 2013, and again in March 2014, the IWLA requested testing for a full spectrum of pollution indicators at their hot spot sites. Similar documents were forwarded to the EPA. These included requests to test for radionuclides in response to a 2013 Duke University study that found radium concentrations were 200 times above normal near a wastewater treatment facility in Indiana County, PA, receiving shale gas waste.

Documents obtained by the IWLA from an April 2014 DEP sampling at Smith Creek discharge #001 found radium 226 levels of 301 PCi/L. The total radium limit for industrial effluent set by the EPA is 60 PCi/L. Thus far, these requests for more comprehensive monitoring in Greene County have fallen on deaf ears, despite accumulating data that point to shale gas waste interactions at coal mining discharge sites.

Visit the IWLA Hot Spots

#001 Smith Creek

#029 Whiteley Creek

Clyde Mine Ten Mile Creek

Becoming Engaged Citizens

The IWLA’s efforts to bring attention to alarming pollution levels in Greene County’s watersheds are well documented, and have been the subject of numerous investigative journalism pieces over the years. The persistence of the IWLA Harry Enstrom chapter has made its monitoring tours and monthly chapter meetings an obligatory stop for journalists, researchers, and politicians from all over the country. Foreign delegates from Germany, Poland, Australia, Russia, and Italy have also consulted with the chapter to better understand the environmental and social impacts of extreme fossil fuel extraction. In 2013 the Harry Enstrom chapter received the IWLA’s National “Save Our Streams Award,” and in 2014 the IWLA’s National “Conservation Award.” In 2014 their volunteer monitoring program expanded into Washington County, PA, and in 2015 they have plans to train IWLA chapters in neighboring WV and OH.

Ken Dufalla, IWLA Harry Enstrom Chapter President
Talks about the water monitoring efforts of the IWLA

The IWLA and other monitoring organizations, such as the watershed associations affiliated with the Greene County Watershed Alliance, have also made significant scientific contributions to the WVU Water Research Institute’s Three Rivers QUEST (3RQ) program. WVU WRI has used this data to work closely with the PA DEP over the past year to address TDS loads in the Monongahela River watershed. These same citizen-led organizations also submitted highly informed testimony during the DEP’s public hearings in February 2014 for proposed changes to Act 13.

These accomplishments highlight some of the most impressive benefits of volunteer water monitoring programs. Participants are empowered by the practice of learning about how their ecosystems work – and their fragility. Participants also educate one another on how to navigate complex legal systems. Perhaps most importantly, concerned citizens realize they can play a part in pressuring government agencies to take seriously their responsibilities in protecting residents’ wellbeing.

By participants in monitoring programs, concerned citizens also realize they can play a part in pressuring government agencies tasked with protecting their wellbeing.

There remains a consistent frustration, however, with the lack of response to citizen complaints. The PA DEP has not revisited Greene County’s discharge sites for comprehensive data collections since 2012. Nevertheless, the DEP’s 2014 PA Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report, required by the Clean Water Act, suggests that TDS loads in the Monongahela River watershed have significantly decreased since 2012. The one exception is in Dunkard Creek. The report states that, “Statistically significant increasing trends for both SO4 (sulfates) and TDS were observed at one station (Dunkard Creek).” Of more than 100 monitoring stations in the DEP’s Water Quality Network (WQN), data for only 14 stations were used in the 2014 study, and the Dunkard Creek Station was the single station located in Greene County. The IWLA argues that, if abandoned mine discharge sites like Dunkard Creek are experiencing high concentrations of abnormal pollution indicators, then other mining discharge sites are as well.

But this issue of poor regulatory oversight may be changing thanks to the diligence of the IWLA, CCJ, and other environmental advocacy organizations in the region. During FracTracker’s tour of monitoring sites in November, we happened upon a DEP watershed specialists gathering samples at Dunkard Creek. We were told that the DEP would be responding to accruing complaints by returning to the area in 2015 for a comprehensive monitoring study. Dufalla tells us at the end of our field site visit:

We’re going to keep on pushing until we get the water and air cleaned up. It’s not about money and it’s not about suing. That’s definitely not what it’s about. It’s about keeping the air and water clean for future generations to come. Which is actually part of the constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Article 1 Section 27, that guarantees every resident clean water and clean air. And all we’re trying to do is to get those who are responsible for regulating this to follow the regulations founded in the constitution.

For more information, please contact Kirk Jalbert: