A LEGACY OF EXTRACTION
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]
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.
Fracking Comes to Pine Creek
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.
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%|
And When It’s Over?
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).