Pine Creek compressor station FLIR camera footage by Earthworks (May 2019).
“The Iroquois…called Pine Creek ‘Tiadaghton’ meaning either ‘The River of Pines’ or ‘The Lost or Bewildered River’.”[i] The river’s iconic watershed in North Central Pennsylvania spans 979 square miles, spanning parts of Clinton, Lycoming, Potter, and Tioga counties, and an infamous 47-mile gorge through which the Pine Creek flows. At 87 miles in length, it is the largest tributary to the West Branch Susquehanna River.[ii]
In 1964, Congress included Pine Creek as one of 27 rivers under study for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic River System.[iii] Four years later, the US Department of the Interior designated twelve miles of the canyon a National Natural Landmark. In 1992, Pine Creek was recognized as a Pennsylvania Scenic River.[iv] These accolades underscore its vibrant beauty, ecological value, and cultural significance.
A rugged landscape carved into the Allegheny Plateau, the watershed contains extensive public lands and the highest concentrations of exceptional value (EV) and high quality (HQ) streams anywhere in Pennsylvania. It is a prized recreational attraction in the region known as the Pennsylvania Wilds, a destination for nature-based tourism. The area has endured episodes of resource extraction – logging, coal mining, and shallow gas development – but nothing quite the same as the assault from hundreds of new unconventional gas wells and the sprawling pads, pipelines, impoundments, compressor stations, and access roads accompanying such development.
Modern extraction is heavy industry – loud, dusty, and dirty. It is incongruent with the thick forests, sensitive habitats, hushed solitude, and star-drenched skies one expects to experience in many wilderness pursuits. Threats to air, water, and wildlife are manifest. Landscape fragmentation and forest loss are collateral damage. Ecological impacts, while sometimes immediate, are often insidious as they slowly degrade environmental health over time. The Oil and Gas Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) acknowledged in a 2012 presentation: “…that Marcellus Shale will be a long-term influence on the character of Pennsylvania landscapes.”[v] To what extent remains to be determined.
Writer and conservationist Samuel P. Hayes noted “The Pennsylvania Administrative Code of 1929 identified watershed protection as the primary purpose of the state forests.”[vi] Enduring more than 10 years of fracking history, and with more planned, the Pine Creek watershed is an experiment for this tenent and overdue for the geospatial examination that follows.
According to the NOAA, a watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean.
A LEGACY OF EXTRACTION
Humans have left their mark on Pine Creek for thousands of years, but the effects of timber and fossil fuel extraction in the last 220 years are most notable. Historical accounts and agency records provide substantial documentation of these impacts.
In 1799, Pine Creek’s first sawmill was set up near the confluence with Little Pine Creek. By 1810, eleven saw mills were in operation. In the next 30 years, that number rose to 145. Pine Creek earned the moniker of “Lumber Capital of the World,” but by the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted due to clearcutting. By the end of the Civil War, the great pine forests along Pine Creek were depleted. Underappreciated for lumber, eastern hemlocks remained, but were eventually felled as well, their bark prized for tanning leather. The advent of logging railroads accelerated the forest’s demise. By the first years of the 20th century, the trees were all but gone, “…branches and stumps littered the mountainsides and sparks from locomotives created fires of holocaustal proportions.”[vii]
Sadly, much of the wildlife was gone too. Bounties, market hunting, and habitat loss had taken a toll. The area’s last timber wolf was killed in 1875. The beaver, otter, fisher, martin, lynx, and wolverine were exterminated by the early 1900s. The remaining solitary panthers lasted until the 1930s, then “faded into oblivion.”[viii]
While not often thought of as a part of Pennsylvania’s coal country, the Pine Creek Watershed has seen its share of coal mining and related activity. Coal was first discovered along the Babb Creek portion of the watershed in 1782, and mining operations began in earnest in the 1860s. By 1990, the area was so impacted by mine drainage and other pollution that there were no fish found in Babb Creek. Efforts to rehabilitate the stream have made some progress, raising the pH of the stream and restoring fish populations, to the point where Babb Creek was officially removed from the list of impaired streams in 2016.
Within the watershed’s abandoned mine areas, 68 specific sites totaling nearly 500 acres are flagged as “containing public health, safety, and public welfare problems created by past coal mining.” This represents more than 11% of the total mined area. Only five of these 68 sites – all strip mines – have completed the reclamation process.
Table 1. Problematic coal mine areas in the Pine Creek Watershed
|SITE TYPE||ABANDONED||RECLAMATION COMPLETE||TOTAL FACILITIES||TOTAL ACRES|
|Dry Strip Mine||31||5||36||322.0|
|Flooded Strip Mine||2||–||2||1.7|
|Known Subsidence Prone Area||2||–||2||0.4|
|Coal Processing Settling Basin||3||–||3||1.5|
OIL & GAS
The oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania started with the Drake Well near Titusville in 1859, before the onset of the Civil War. In the years since, perhaps as many as 760,000 such wells have been drilled statewide.[ix] While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the current state agency with regulatory oversight of the industry, it estimates that there could be as many as 560,000 wells drilled that they have no record of in their database. Given the lack of data for these early wells, it is not possible to know exactly how many wells have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed.[x]
Over a century ago, pollution was seen as the price to be paid for a job in timbering or mining. Some politicians seem to want a return to those bad old days by gutting some of our reasonable regulations that protect our air and water. Here, as in the rest of the Marcellus gas play, our politicians are not protecting our air and water as mandated in Article 1, Section 27 of our State Constitution.
-Dick Martin Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition and board member of Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation, PEDF
A Wealth of Public Lands & Recreational Opportunity
The Pine Creek Watershed is in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 12-county region in North Central Pennsylvania focused on nature-based tourism. “Adventure to one of the largest expanses of green between New York City and Chicago,” touts the initiative’s website.[xi] The area includes over two million acres of public land, and is marketed for its notorious starry skies, quaint towns, large elk herd, and other attractions, like Pine Creek.
The watershed and its trails and public lands contribute substantially to the PA Wilds estate and offerings, including:
- 1,666 stream miles (187.6 miles Exceptional Value and 1,011.5 miles High Quality)
- Eight state parks, spanning 4,713 acres (7.36 sq. miles)
- Four state forests, covering 264,771 acres (414 sq. miles)
- Eight natural areas
- Three wild areas
- Seven state game lands, totaling 51,474 acres (80.42 sq. miles)
- And 31 trails, traversing 789 miles
These largely remote and rugged spaces are relished for their idyllic and pristine qualities. Modern extraction brings discordant traffic, noise, lights, and releases of pollutants into the air and water. Stream waters – ideal for trout, anglers, and paddlers – are siphoned for the fracturing process. Trails are interrupted by pipelines and access roads. The erosion of outdoor experiences is piecemeal and pervasive.
A recent study lends credence to the concern that shale gas development is incongruent with the region’s ecotourism and recreational goals. “The Impacts of Shale Natural Gas Energy Development on Outdoor Recreation: A Statewide Assessment of Pennsylvanians” found that “only a small population of Pennsylvania outdoor recreationists were impacted by [shale natural gas energy development (SGD)] related activities. In the regions of Pennsylvania where SGD was most prominent (e.g., North Central and Southwest), outdoor recreation impacts were considerably higher.”[xii]
Weak rules favor the gas companies and allow them to waste resources, pollute our air, and destroy our climate. Continued exploitation of our public lands diminishes the value of this common good.
–Leann Leiter, OH/PA Field Advocate, Earthworks
Read more about Leann’s view on fracking in Pine Creek and using FLIR photography to expose polluting emissions. Go to this post on Earthworks’ blog.
Fracking Comes to Pine Creek
Natural resource extraction in the Pine Creek Watershed did not stop with timber, coal, and traditional oil and gas. The drilling landscape in Pennsylvania changed dramatically around 2005, as operators began to develop the Marcellus Shale, a carbon-rich black shale that had eluded the industry for decades, because the rock formation was reluctant to release the large quantities of gas trapped within it. Based on successes in other shale formations, the Marcellus began to be drilled with a combination of horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing – now using millions of gallons of fluids, instead of tens of thousands – and built upon multi-acre well pads. Operators were successful in releasing the gas, and this type of well, known as “unconventional” drilling, took off in vast swaths of Pennsylvania. Similar techniques were extended to other formations, notably the Utica shale formation.
The map below shows the cumulative footprint of extractive practices in Pine Creek, with the exclusion of timber.
In 2018, unconventional wells in the Pine Creek Watershed produced 203 billion cubic feet of gas, which is more than the entire state of West Virginia consumed in 2017, not including electricity generation. To get all of that gas to market requires an extensive network of pipelines, and multi-acre compressor stations are required to push the gas through those pipes.
Pipeline data for the region, largely based on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) public pipeline viewer map, includes over 85 miles of pipelines in the watershed. However, this data does not include any of the gathering lines that crisscross the watershed, connecting the drilling sites to the midstream network.
Among other concerns, gas pipelines need to be placed in areas where they will not be impacted by tree roots, and so operators clear a 50-foot wide right-of-way, at minimum. This width results in the clearing of more than 6 acres per linear mile of pipe, which would be a total of 515 acres for the known pipeline routes in the region. However, the 50-foot width is a minimum, and some rights-of-way exceeding 300 feet were observed in the watershed, which would require the clearing of more than 36 acres per linear mile. These land clearing impacts are in addition to those required for well pads, access roads, and other infrastructure.
Many of the compressor stations in the Pine Creek Watershed are considered major pollution sources, and therefore require a Title V permit from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that they either produce at least 10 tons per year of any single hazardous air pollutant, or at least 25 tons of any combination of pollutants on the list.
Missing pipeline data is evidenced by FracTracker’s records of many compressor stations that are not along documented pipeline routes. Of the 26 compressors in the watershed that we have records for, only six are within 250 meters of known pipeline routes. Similarly, only 29 of the 594 drilled unconventional wells in the watershed are within the quarter-kilometer radius of known pipeline routes. One way or another, all compressors and well sites have to be connected to pipelines.
Table 2. Oil & Gas Well Status in the Pine Creek Watershed
|Oil & Gas Well Status||# of Wells|
|Operator reported not drilled||404|
|Proposed but never materialized||111|
The PA DEP has records for 1,374 oil and gas wells within the watershed, although not all of these were actually drilled. Of these wells, 404 wells have an official status of “operator reported not drilled,” while an additional 111 have a similar status of “proposed but never materialized.” Of the remaining 859 wells, 554 are currently considered active (including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells). An active status is given once the well is proposed — even before it is officially permitted by DEP, let alone drilled. The status remains until some other status applies.
Seventy-four wells are considered to be “regulatory inactive” (four conventional, 71 unconventional), meaning that the well has not been in production for at least a year, and must meet several other requirements. The remainder of the wells in the watershed have reached the end of their functional life, of which 168 have been plugged (119 conventional, 49 unconventional). This is done by filling the well bore with concrete, and is considered permanent, although the plugs have been known to fail from time to time. Fifty-seven additional conventional wells are considered abandoned, meaning that they are at the end of their useful life but have not been appropriately plugged, neither by the operator nor DEP. Five additional conventional wells are considered to be orphaned, which is a similar status to abandoned, but these wells are no longer linked to an operator active in the state. Given the lack of recordkeeping in the early part of the industry’s history in PA, the number of plugged, abandoned, and orphaned wells in the Pine Creek Watershed is likely significantly underrepresented.
Conventional drilling activity has essentially ceased in the watershed. A single well categorized as conventional, the Bliss 3H well, has been drilled in 2019. In fact, this well is almost certainly miscategorized. Not only does its well name follow conventions for horizontal unconventional wells, but the DEP’s formation report indicates that it is in fact drilled into the Marcellus Shale. Prior to Bliss 3H, the two most recent conventional wells were drilled in 2011.
Unconventional drilling is a different story altogether. In terms of the number of wells drilled, the peak within the Pine Creek Watershed was in 2011, with 186 wells drilled. That represented 9.5% of the statewide total that year, and Pine Creek is just one of 35 comparably sized watersheds targeted for unconventional development in Pennsylvania.
More recently, there were 16 wells drilled in the watershed in 2018, and 17 wells through the halfway point of 2019, indicating that the extraction efforts are once again on the upswing.
Table 3. Number of unconventional wells drilled in Pennsylvania and the Pine Creek Watershed
|YEAR||STATEWIDE||PINE CREEK WATERSHED||PCT. TOTAL|
On May 9, 2019, nearly two dozen people descended upon the Pine Creek Watershed for the purpose of chronicling the impacts that the oil and gas industry is currently wreaking on the landscape. The documentation began early in the morning at the William T. Piper Memorial Airport in the town of Lock Haven, located in Clinton County. FracTracker Alliance organized the blitz with numerous partner organizations, including EarthWorks, Sierra Club, Save Our Streams PA, Responsible Drilling Alliance, Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, Environeers, Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, and Lebanon Pipeline Awareness.
The massive watershed was broken up into 10 impact zones, which were mostly determined by concentrations of known sites such as well pads, compressor stations, retention ponds, and pipeline corridors.
Some people brought cameras and specialized equipment to Pine Ceek, such methane sensors and global positioning system devices. Participants were encouraged to try out the FracTracker Mobile App, which was designed to allow users to communicate and share the location of oil and gas concerns. Earthworks brought a FLIR infrared camera, which can capture volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment. Others participants brought specialized knowledge of oil and gas operations from a variety of perspectives, from those who had previously interacted with the industry professionally, to those who have been forced to live in close proximity of these massive structures for more than a decade.
While we knew that it would not be possible to photograph every impact in the watershed, the results of this group effort were tremendous, including hundreds of photos, dozens of app submissions, and numerous infrared videos. All of these have been curated in the map above. In our exuberance, we documented a number of facilities that wound up not being in the Pine Creek Watershed – still impactful but beyond the scope of this project. In some cases, multiple photos were taken of the same location, and we selected the most representative one or two for each site. Altogether, the map above shows 22 aerial images, 84 app submissions, 46 additional photos, and nine infrared FLIR videos.
FracTracker also collaborated with a pilot from LightHawk, a nonprofit group that connects conservation-minded pilots with groups that can benefit from the rare opportunity to view infrastructure and impacts from the air. Together, LightHawk and FracTracker’s Ted Auch flew in a mostly clockwise loop around the watershed, producing the aerial photography highlighted in this article, and in the map below.
The benefits of being able to see these impacts from the air is incalculable. Not only does it give viewers a sense of the full scope of the impact, but in some cases, it provides access to sites and activities that would otherwise be entirely occluded to the public, such as sites with active drilling or hydraulic fracturing operations, or when the access roads are behind barriers that are posted as no trespassing zones.
It can be difficult to maintain a sense of the massive scale of these operations when looking at aerial images. One thing that can help to maintain this perspective is by focusing on easily identifiable objects, such as nearby trees or large trucks, but it is even more useful to cross-reference these aerial images with those taken at ground level.
Water – A Precious Resource
Drilling unconventional wells requires the use of millions of gallons of water per well, sometimes as high as 100 million gallons. Unconventional drilling operations in Pennsylvania are required to self-report water, sand, and chemical quantities used in the hydraulic fracturing stage of well production to a registry known as FracFocus. Because of this, we have a pretty good idea of water used for this stage of the operation.
This does not account for all of the industry’s water consumption. The amount of water required to maintain and operate pipelines, compressor stations and other processing facilities, and to suppress dust on well pads, access roads, and pipeline rights-of-way is unknown, but likely significant. Much of the water used for oil and gas operations in this watershed is withdrawn from rivers and streams and the groundwater beneath the watershed.
Table 3. Water consumption by well in the Pine Creek Watershed
|CATEGORY||GALLONS||EQUIVALENT PERSONS (ANNUAL USAGE)|
|Average Single Well||6,745,697||246|
|Maximum Single Well||13,313,916||486|
|All Wells (2013-2017)||850,648,219||31,074|
There are 60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections, mostly retention ponds. This dataset does not include limits on the 22 withdrawal locations, however, one of the surface withdrawal sites was observed with signage permitting the removal of 936,000 gallons per day. If this amount is typical, then the combined facilities in the watershed would have a daily capacity of about 20.6 million gallons, which is about 27 times the daily residential consumption within the watershed.
Predictably, water withdrawals ebb and flow with fluctuations in drilling activity, with peak consumption exceeding 1.2 billion gallons in the three-month period between April and June 2014, and an aggregate total of nearly 20.4 billion gallons between July 2008 and December 2016. It is not known what fraction of these withdrawals occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed.
Between October 22, 2007, and April 24, 2019, the Pennsylvania DEP issued 949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed.[xiii] It can be difficult to know precisely what happened in the field based on the notations in the corresponding compliance reports. For example, if an operator failed to comply with the terms of their erosion and sediment control permit, it is unclear whether there was a sediment runoff event that impacted surface waters or not. However, as these rules were put into place to protect Pennsylvania’s waterways, there is no question that the potential for negative water impacts exists. Therefore, erosion and sedimentation violations are included in this analysis.
Other violations are quite explicit, however. The operator of the Hoffman 2H well in Liberty Township, Tioga County was cited for failing to prevent “gas, oil, brine, completion and servicing fluids, and any other fluids or materials from below the casing seat from entering fresh groundwater,” and failing to “prevent pollution or diminution of fresh groundwater.” A well on the Tract 007 – Pad G well pad was left unplugged. “Upon abandoning a well, the owner or operator failed to plug the well to stop the vertical flow of fluids or gas within the well bore.”
The violation description falls into more than 100 categories for sites within the watershed. We have simplified those as follows:
Table 4. Oil and gas violations in the Pine Creek Watershed
|Casing / Cement Violation||31||Yes|
|Clean Streams Law Violation||32||Yes|
|Erosion & Sediment||84||Yes|
|Failed to Control / Dispose of Fluids||279||Yes|
|Failure to Comply With Permit||3||No|
|Failure to Plug Well||1||Yes|
|Failure to Prevent Pollution Event||23||Yes|
|Failure to Protect Water Supplies||8||Yes|
|Failure to Report Pollution Event||20||Yes|
|Failure to Restore Site||8||No|
|Industrial Waste / Pollutional Material Discharge||229||Yes|
|Rat Hole Not Filled||7||Yes|
|Residual Waste Mismanagement||2||Yes|
|Restricted Site Access to Inspector||1||No|
|Site Restoration Violation||9||No|
|Unmarked Plugged Well||1||No|
|Unpermitted Residual Waste Processing||73||Yes|
|Waste Analysis Not Completed||1||No|
|Water Obstruction & Encroachment||7||Yes|
Altogether, 816 out of the 949 violations (86%) issued in the Pine Creek Watershed were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water in the region. Two sites have more than 50 violations each, including the Phoenix Well Pad, with 116 violations in Duncan Township, Tioga County, and the Bonnell Run Hunting & Fishing Corp Well Pad in Pine Township, Lycoming County, with 94 violations.
When things go wrong with oil and gas operations, it is often residents in the surrounding areas that are exposed to the impacts. There are limited actions that affected neighbors can take, but one thing that they can do is register a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency, in this case the Pennsylvania DEP.
A thorough file review was conducted by Public Herald for complaints related to oil and gas operations in PA, yielding 9,442 complaints between 2004 and 2016. While this includes all oil and gas related complaints, Public Herald’s analysis show that the frequency is highly correlated with the unconventional drilling boom that occurred within that time frame, with the number of new wells and complaints both peaking in 2011.
Many of these complaints occurred in the Pine Creek Watershed. It is impossible to know the exact number, as the precise location of the events was redacted in the records provided by DEP. Most of the records do include the county and in some cases, the municipality. Altogether, there were complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed, for a total of 185 total complaints. Of those, 116 of (63%) specifically indicate water impacts, spread out over 25 municipalities throughout the watershed.
Additional complaints with unspecified municipalities were received by DEP in Lycoming County (n=4), Potter County (n=4), and Tioga County (n=3). These counties substantially overlap with the Pine Creek Watershed, but the data is unclear as to whether or not these impacts were noted within the watershed or not.
It is worth remembering that complaints are dependent upon observation from neighbors and other passersby. As Pine Creek is composed of rugged terrain with vast swaths of public land, it is relatively sparsely populated. It is likely that if these drilling sites were placed in more densely populated areas, the number of complaints related to these operations would be even higher.
“It was 2007, and my water well was fine. I mean, I didn’t have any problem with it. I was cooking, drinking, bathing with it and everything else. Well, then after they drilled I thought it was kind of…it didn’t taste like it did before.”[xiv]
– Judy Eckhart
A Waste-Filled Proposition
Since the Pine Creek Watershed has been the site of considerable oil and gas extraction activity, it has also been the site of significant quantities of waste generated by the industry, which is classified as residual waste in Pennsylvania. This category is supposedly for nonhazardous industrial waste, although both liquid and solid waste streams from oil and gas operations pose significant risks to people exposed to them, as well as to the environment. Oil and gas waste is contaminated with a variety of dangerous volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, which are frequently highly radioactive. There are also a large number of chemicals that are injected into the well bore that flow back to the surface, the content of which is often kept secret, even from workers who make use of them onsite.
There were 37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018. Of these sites, 30 (81%) were well pads, where flowback from drilling may be partially reused. While this reduces the overall volume of waste that ultimately needs to be disposed of, it frequently increases the concentration of hazardous contaminants that are found in the waste stream, which can make its eventual disposal more challenging. Most of the sites that accept waste do reuse that waste. However, the largest quantity of waste are from the remaining seven sites.
Table 5. Disposal of liquid gas waste in the Pine Creek Watershed
|Reuse at Well Pads||2,042,662||85,791,801||23%|
One single site – the Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility in Pine Township, Lycoming County – accounted for the majority of liquid waste disposed in the watershed, with 6,622,255 barrels (278,134,704 gallons.) has This amounts to 98.8% of all liquid waste that was not reused at other well pads.
Wastewater is also spread on roads in some communities, as a way to suppress dust on dirt roads. 3,001 barrels (126,050 gallons) of liquid waste have been used for road spreading efforts in regions intersecting the watershed in Ulysses Township, Potter County, and across private lots and roads throughout Potter and Tioga counties. Note that these figures include waste generated from conventional wells, which have different legal requirements for disposal than waste from unconventional wells, despite a similar chemical profile.
There are three facilities that have accepted solid oil and gas waste in the watershed, including a small one operated by Environmental Products and Services of Vermont (55 tons), Hydro Recovery LP Antrim Facility (10,415 tons), and Phoenix Resources Landfill (900,094 tons). This includes 200,808 tons in 2018, which is close to the previous peak value of 216,873 tons accepted in 2012.
Figure 1. Tons of solid O&G waste accepted at the Phoenix Resources Landfill
Recap: How has a decade of fracking impacted the Pine Creek Watershed?
1,374 recorded oil and gas wells in the watershed
554 are currently considered active
including 25 conventional and 529 unconventional wells
949 violations to unconventional oil and gas operations within the Pine Creek Watershed, 86% of which were likely to have an impact on either surface or ground water
185 complaints in 32 municipalities that are either partially or entirely within the watershed
A minimum of 515 acres cleared for the known gas pipeline routes in the region
26 compressor stations in the watershed
850,648,219 gallons of water used to frack wells in the watershed between 2013-2017
60 water-related facilities for oil and gas operations active within the watershed active in 2019, including two ground water withdrawal locations, 20 surface water withdrawal locations, and 38 interconnections (mostly retention ponds)
37 sites in the Pine Creek Watershed that accepted liquid waste between 2011 and 2018
And When It’s Over?
In the last ice age, glaciers came from the finger lakes area into Pine Creek. This made the soil there very deep and rich– in fact, people come from all over to study that soil. The Pine Creek area could be a mecca for sustainable agriculture. There is great soil, excellent water, and plenty of space for wind and solar. Under the right leadership, this region of Pennsylvania could feed people in a time when climate resilience is so urgently needed.
–Melissa Troutman, Research & Policy Analyst, Earthworks. Director of “Triple Divide.” Journalist, Public Herald
The Pine Creek region retains a primeval grandeur – an alluring wild spirit of great pride and significance to our state. Natural gas development has – and will further – compromise the natural and experiential qualities of this special place. For the benefit of Pennsylvanians today and tomorrow, extraction must be replaced by cleaner forms of energy and conservation values made preeminent.
– Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance
The Pine Creek Watershed in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin has seen more than its fair share of industrial impacts in the centuries since European contact, from repeated timber clearcutting, to coal extraction, to the development of unconventional oil and gas resources in the 21st century. Despite all of this, Pine Creek remains one of the Commonwealth’s natural gems, a cornerstone of the famed Pennsylvania Wilds.
Many of the impacts to the watershed could be thought of as temporary, in that they would likely stop occurring when the oil and gas developers decide to pack up and leave for good. This includes things like truck traffic, with all of the dust and diesel exhaust that accompanies that, pollution from compressor stations and leaky pipe junctions, and even most surface spills.
And yet in some ways, the ability of the land to sustain this industry becomes substantially impaired, and impacts become much more prolonged. Consider, for example, that prior logging efforts have permanently changed both the flora and fauna of the region. Similarly, while there is no more active coal mining in Pine Creek, almost 500 acres of sites deemed to be problematic remain, and some streams impacted by contaminated runoff and mine drainage have yet to return to their former pristine state, even decades later.
Unconventional drilling in the watershed will have similarly permanent impacts. While there is a legal threshold for site restoration, these multi-acre drill sites will not resemble the heavily forested landscape that once stood there when they reach the end of their useful life. Access roads and gathering lines that crisscross the landscape must be maintained until all well pads in the area are out of service, and then the aging infrastructure will remain in situ. Contaminated groundwater supplies are likely to take centuries to recover, if it is even possible at all.
Thousands of feet of rock once separated the unconventional formations from the surface. That distance was a barrier not just to the gas, but also to salty brines, toxic heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials that are present at those depths. To date, 593 holes have been drilled in the Pine Creek Watershed, creating 593 pathways for all of these materials to move to the surface. The only things keeping them in place are concrete and steel, both of which will inevitably fail over the course of time, particularly in the highly saline environment of an old gas well.
Even if the industry were to leave today and properly plug all of the wells in the Pine Creek Watershed, impacts from the drilling are likely to remain for many years to come.
[i] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P. 11.
[ii] Wikipedia. Pine Creek (Pennsylvania). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Creek_(Pennsylvania)
[iii] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P. 11.
[iv] DCNR. History of Colton Point State Park, 2019. https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/ColtonPointStatePark/Pages/History.aspx
[v] DCNR, Bureau of Forestry. Marcellus Shale Management Field Tour, 2012. http://www.paforestcoalition.org/documents/Marcellus_Shale_Management_Field_Tour_5-14-12.pdf
[vi] Hayes, Samuel P. Wars in the Woods: The Rise of Ecological Forestry in America. Pittsburgh, PA. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. (2007). P 120-121.
[vii] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P.58-60.
[viii] Owlett, Steven. Seasons Along the Tiadaghton: An Environmental History of the Pine Creek Gorge. Wellsboro, PA: Steven E. Owlett, 1993. P.61.
[ix] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Oil Gas Locations – Conventional Unconventional, 2019. https://www.pasda.psu.edu/uci/DataSummary.aspx?dataset=1088
[x] Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Abandoned and Orphan Oil and Gas Wells and the Well Plugging Program, 2018. http://www.depgreenport.state.pa.us/elibrary/PDFProvider.ashx?action=PDFStream&docID=1419023&chksum=&revision=0&docName=ABANDONED+AND+ORPHAN+OIL+AND+GAS+WELLS+AND+THE+WELL+PLUGGING+PROGRAM&nativeExt=pdf&PromptToSave=False&Size=411528&ViewerMode=2&overlay=0
[xii] Ferguson et al. The impacts of shale natural gas energy development on outdoor recreation: A statewide assessment of pennsylvanians, September 2019. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. Volume 27.
[xiii]Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Oil and Gas Compliance Report Viewer. 2019. http://www.depreportingservices.state.pa.us/ReportServer/Pages/ReportViewer.aspx?/Oil_Gas/OG_Compliance
[xiv] Joshua Pribanic & Melissa Troutman. Triple Divide, 2013.
All aerial photography by Ted Auch with flight support by LightHawk (May 2019).
Pine Creek compressor station FLIR camera footage by Earthworks (May 2019).