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PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project - Map by FracTracker Alliance

PTTGC’s Ethane Cracker Project: Risks of Bringing Plastic Manufacturing to Ohio

In 2012, a battle between Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was underway. Politicians and businesses from each state were eagerly campaigning for the opportunity to host Royal Dutch Shell’s “world-class” petrochemical facility. The facility in question was an ethane cracker, the first of its kind to be built outside of the Gulf Coast in 20 years. In the end, Pennsylvania’s record-breaking tax incentive package won Shell over, and construction on the ethane cracker plant began in 2017.

Once completed, the ethane cracker will convert ethane from fracked wells into 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic pellets per year.

Shell Ethane Cracker

Shell’s ethane cracker, under construction in Beaver County, PA. Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker.
Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Ohio and West Virginia, however, have not been left out of the petrochemical game. In addition to the NGL pipelines, cryogenic plants, and fractionation facilities in these states, plans for ethane cracker projects are also in the works.

In 2017, PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC) put Ohio in second place in the “race to build an ethane cracker,” when it decided to build a plant in Belmont County, Ohio.

But first, why is the petrochemical industry expanding in the Ohio River Valley?

Fracking has opened up huge volumes of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fracked wells in these states extract methane, which is then transported in pipelines and used as a residential, industrial, or commercial energy source. The gas in this region, however, contains more than just methane. Classified as “wet gas,” the natural gas stream from regional wells also contains natural gas liquids (NGLs). These NGLs include propane, ethane, and butane, and industry is eager to create a market for them.

Investing in plastic is one way for the industry to subsidize the natural gas production, an increasingly unprofitable enterprise. 

An image of plastic pellets

Plastic pellets, also called “nurdles,” the end product of ethane crackers.

Major processing facilities, such as cryogenic and fractionation plants, receive natural gas streams and separate the NGLs, such as ethane, from the methane. After ethane is separated, it can be “cracked” into ethylene, and converted to polyethylene, the most common type of plastic. The plastic is shipped in pellet form to manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad, where it is made into a variety of plastic products.

By building ethane crackers in the Ohio River Valley, industry is taking advantage of the region’s vast underground resources.

PTTGC ethane cracker: The facts

PTTGC’s website states that the company “is Thailand’s largest and Asia’s leading integrated petrochemical and refining company.” While this ethane cracker has been years in the making, the company states that “a final investment decision has not been made.” The image below shows land that PTTGC has purchased for the plant, totaling roughly 500 acres, in Dilles Bottom, Mead Township.

According to the Ohio EPA, the plant will turn ethylene into:Recycling "2" symbol for HDPE plastic

  • 700,000 tons of high density polyethylene (HDPE) per year
  • 900,000 tons Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)

HDPE is a common type of plastic, used in many products such as bags, bottles, or crates. Look for it on containers with a “2” in the recycling triangle. LLDPE is another common type of plastic that’s weaker and more flexible; it’s marked with a “4.”

The ethane cracker complex will contain:

  • An ethylene plant
  • Four ethylene-based derivatives plants.
  • Six 552 MMBtu/hour cracking furnaces fueled by natural gas and tail gas with ethane backup
  • Three 400 MMBTU/hr steam boilers fueled by natural gas and ethane
  • A primary and backup 6.2 MMBtu/hour thermal oxidizer
  • A high pressure ground flare (1.8 MMBtu/hour)
  • A low pressure ground flare (0.78 MMBtu/hour)
  • Wastewater treatment systems
  • Equipment to capture fugitive emissions
  • Railcars for pygas (liquid product) and HDPE and LLDPE pellets
  • Emergency firewater pumps
  • Emergency diesel-fired generator engines
  • A cooling tower

Impacts on air quality

The plant received water permits last year, and air permits are currently under review. On November 29, 2018, the Ohio EPA held an information session and hearing for a draft air permit (the permit can be viewed here, by entering permit number P0124972).

FracTracker has previously reported on the air quality impacts, risks, and fragmented permitting process associated with the Shell ethane cracker in Pennsylvania. How does the PTTGC plant stack up?

The plant will be built in the community of Dilles Bottom, on the former property of FirstEnergy’s R.E. Burger Power Station, a coal power plant that shut down in 2011. The site was demolished in 2016 in preparation for PTTGC’s ethane cracker. In 2018, PTTGC also purchased property from Ohio-West Virginia Excavating Company. In total, the ethane cracker will occupy 500 acres.

R.E. Burger Power Station

R.E. Burger Power Station, which has been demolished for the PTTGC Ethane Cracker. Image Source

Table 1, below, is a comparison of the previous major source of air pollution source, the R.E. Burger Power Station, and predictions of the future emissions from the PTTGC ethane cracker. The far right column shows what percent of the former emissions the ethane cracker will release.

Table 1: Former and Future Air Emissions in Dilles Bottom, Ohio

Pollutant R.E.Burger Power Station
(2010 emissions)

PTTGC Ethane Cracker
(predicted emissions)

Percent of former emissions

CO (carbon monoxide) 143.33 544 379.5%
NOx (nitrogen oxides) 1861.2 164 8.81%
SO2 (sulfur dioxide) 12719 23 0.18%
PM10 (particulate matter, 10) 179.25 89 49.65%
PM2.5 (particulate matter, 2.5) 77.62 86 110.8%
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) 0.15 396 264000%

As you can see, the ethane cracker will emit substantially less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides compared with the R.E. Burger site. This makes sense, as these two pollutants are associated with burning coal. On the flip side, the ethane cracker will emit almost four times as much carbon monoxide and 263,900% more volatile organic compounds (percentages bolded in Table 1, above).

In addition to these pollutants, the ethane cracker will emit 38 tons per year of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS), a group of pollutants that includes benzene, chlorine, and ethyl chloride. These pollutants are characterized by the EPA as being “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects.”

Finally, the ethane cracker is predicted to emit 1,785,043 tons per year of greenhouse gasses. In the wake of recent warnings on the urgent need to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and National Climate Assessment, this prediction is highly concerning.

While these emission numbers seem high, they still meet federal requirements and nearly all state guidelines. If the ethane cracker becomes operational, pollutant monitoring will be important to ensure the plant is in compliance and how emissions impact air quality. The plant will also attract more development to an already heavily industrialized area; brine trucks, trains, pipelines, fracked wells, compressor stations, cryogenic facilities, and natural gas liquid storage are all part of the ethane-to-plastic manufacturing process. The plastics coming from the plant will travel to facilities in the U.S. and abroad to create different plastic products. These facilities are an additional source of emissions.

Air permitting does not consider the full life cycle of the plant, from construction of the plant to its demolition, or the development associated with it.

As such, this plant will be major step back for local air quality, erasing recent improvements in the Wheeling metropolitan area, historically listed as one of the most polluted metropolitan areas in the country. Furthermore, the pollutants that will be increasing the most are associated with serious health effects. Over short term exposure, high levels of VOCs are associated with headaches and respiratory symptoms, and over long term exposure, cancer, liver and kidney damage.

Emergency preparedness

In addition to air quality impacts, ethane cracker plants also pose risks from fires, explosions, and other types of unplanned accidents. In 2013, a ruptured boiler at an ethane cracker in Louisiana caused an explosion that sent 30,000 lbs. of flammable hydrocarbons into the air. Three hundred workers evacuated, but sadly there were 167 suffered injuries and 2 deaths.

While researching Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, FracTracker worked with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn about emergency planning around the petrochemical industry. Emergency planners map out two and five mile zones around facilities, called emergency planning zones, and identify vulnerabilities and emergency responders within them.

With this in mind, the map below shows a two and five-mile radius around PTTGC’s property, as reported by Belmont County Auditor. Within these emergency planning zones are the locations of schools, day cares, hospitals, fire stations, emergency medical services, hospitals, and local law enforcement offices, reported by Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data.

The map also includes census data from the EPA that identifies potential environmental justice concerns. By clicking on the census block groups, you will see demographic information, such as income status, age, and education level. These data are important in recognizing populations that may already be disproportionately burdened by or more vulnerable to environmental hazards.

Finally, the map displays environmental data, also from the EPA, including a visualization of particulate matter along the Ohio River Valley, where massive petrochemical development is occurring. By clicking on a census block and then the arrow at the top, you will find a number of other statistics on local environmental concerns.

View map full screen  |  How FracTracker maps work

Emergency planning zones for Shell’s ethane cracker are available here.

Within the 5 mile emergency planning zone, there are:

  • 9 fire or EMS stations
  • 17 schools and/or day cares
  • 1 hospital
  • 6 local law enforcement offices

Within the 2 mile emergency planning zone, there are:

  • 3 fire or EMS stations
  • 7 schools and/or day cares
  • No hospitals
  • 3 local law enforcement offices

Sites of capacity, such as the fire and EMS stations, could provide emergency support in the case of an accident. Sites of vulnerability, such as the many schools and day cares, should be aware of and prepared to respond to the various physical and chemical risks associated with ethane crackers.

The census block where the ethane cracker is planned has a population of 1,252. Of this population, 359 are 65 years or older. That is well above national average and important to note; air pollutants released from the plant are associated with health effects such as cardiovascular and respiratory disease, to which older populations are more vulnerable.

Conclusion

PTTGC’s ethane cracker, if built, will drastically alter the air quality of Belmont County, OH, and the adjacent Marshall County, WV. Everyday, the thousands of people in the surrounding region, including the students of over a dozen schools, will breathe in its emissions.

This population is also vulnerable to unpredictable accidents and explosions that are a risk when manufacturing products from ethane, a highly flammable liquid. Many of these concerns were recently voiced by local residents at the air permit hearing.

Despite these concerns and pushback, PTTGC’s website for this ethane cracker, pttgcbelmontcountyoh.com, does not address emergency plans for the area. It also fails to acknowledge the potential for any adverse environmental impacts associated with the plant or the pipelines, fracked wells, and train and truck traffic it will attract to the region.

With this in mind, we call upon PTTGC to acknowledge the risks of its facility to Belmont County and provide the public with emergency preparedness plans, before the permitting process continues.

If you have thoughts or concerns regarding PTTGC’s ethane cracker and its impact on air quality, the Ohio EPA is accepting written comments through December 11, 2018. We encourage you to look through the data on this map or conduct your own investigations and submit comments on air permit #P0124972.

Written comments should be sent to:

Ohio EPA SEDO-DAPC, Attn: Kimbra Reinbold
2195 Front St
Logan, OH 43138
Kimbra.reinbold@epa.ohio.gov

(Include permit #P0124972 within your comment)

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist

The Falcon: High Consequence Areas & Potential Impact Zones

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In this segment of the Falcon Public EIA Project we continue to explore the different ways that pipelines are assessed for potential risk – in this case, relative to population centers, drinking water systems, and sensitive habitats. We outline methods dictated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) called “high consequence areas” (HCAs) and how they determine potential impact zones for highly volatile liquid (HVL) pipelines. These methods are then applied to the Falcon to understand its possible dangers.

Quick Falcon Facts

  • An estimated 940-foot potential impact radius (PIR)
  • 60 of 97 pipeline miles qualifying as High Consequence Areas (HCA)
  • More than 8,700 people living in the “vapor zone”
  • 5 schools, 6 daycare centers, and 16 emergency response centers in “vapor zone”
  • In proximity to 8 source-water (drinking water) protection areas
  • Affecting habitats populated by 11 endangered, protected, or threatened species

Map of Falcon High Consequence Areas

The following map will serve as our guide in breaking down the Falcon’s High Consequence Areas. Expand the map full-screen to explore its contents in greater depth. Some layers only become visible as you zoom in. A number of additional layers are not shown by default, but can be turned on in the “layers” tab. Click the “details” tab in full-screen mode to read how the different layers were created.

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

High Consequence Areas

While Class Locations, discussed in a prior project article, dictate the construction and maintenance of a pipeline, high consequence areas (HCAs) designate when operators must implement integrity management programs (IMP) where pipeline failures could cause major impacts to populated areas, as well as drinking water systems and ecological resources — otherwise defined as unusually sensitive areas (USAs).

Populated Areas

Two considerations are used when determining pipeline proximity to population centers:

  1. High Population Areas – an urbanized area delineated by the Census Bureau as having 50,000 or more people and a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile; and
  2. Other Populated Areas – a Census Bureau designated “place” that contains a concentrated population, such as an incorporated or unincorporated city, town, village, or other designated residential or commercial area – including work camps.

USAs: Drinking Water

PHMSA’s definition of drinking water sources include things such as:

  • Community Water Systems (CWS) – serving at least 15 service connections and at least 25 year-round residents
  • Non-transient Non-community Water Systems (NTNCWS) – schools, businesses, and hospitals with their own water supplies
  • Source Water Protection Areas (SWPA) for a CWS or a NTNCWS
  • Wellhead Protection Areas (WHPA)
  • Sole-source karst aquifer recharge areas

These locations are typically supplied by regulatory agencies in individual states.

With the exception of sole-source aquifers, drinking water sources are only considered if they lack an alternative water source. However, PHMSA is strict on what alternative source means, stating that they must be immediately usable, of minimal financial impact, with equal water quality, and capable of supporting communities for at least one month for a surface water sources of water and at least six months for a groundwater sources.

One very important note in all of these “drinking water” USA designations is that they do not include privately owned groundwater wells used by residences or businesses.

USAs: Ecological Resource

Ecological resource areas are established based on any number of qualities with different variations. In general terms, they contain imperiled, threatened, or endangered aquatic or terrestrial species; are known to have a concentration of migratory waterbirds; or are a “multi-species assemblage” area (where three or more of the above species can be found).

Calculating HCAs

Like Class locations, HCAs are calculated based on proximity. The first step in this process is to determine the pipeline’s Potential Impact Radius (PIR) — the distance beyond which a person standing outdoors in the vicinity of a pipeline rupture and fire would have a 99% chance of survival; or in which death, injury, or significant property damage could occur. PIR is calculated based on the pipeline’s maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP), diameter, and the type of gas. An example of this calculation is demonstrated in FracTracker’s recent article on the Mariner East 2 pipeline’s PIR.

Once the PIR is known, operators then determine HCAs in one of two ways, illustrated in the image below:

  • Method 1: A Class 3 or Class 4 location, or a Class 1 or Class 2 location where “the potential impact radius is greater than 660 feet (200 meters), and the area within a potential impact circle contains 20 or more buildings intended for human occupancy”; or a Class 1 or Class 2 location where “the potential impact circle contains an “identified site.”
  • Method 2: An area within PIR containing an “identified site” or 20 or more buildings intended for human occupancy.

Calculating HCAs
(source: PHMSA)

In these definitions, “identified sites” include such things as playgrounds, recreational facilities, stadiums, churches, office buildings, community centers, hospitals, prisons, schools, and assisted-living facilities. However, there is a notable difference in how HCAs are calculated for natural gas pipelines vs. hazardous liquid pipelines.

Beyond just looking at what lies within the PIR, pipelines that contain gasses such as ethane potentially impact a much broader area as vapors flow over land or within a river, stream, lake, or other means. A truly accurate HCA analysis for an ethane pipeline leak requires extensive atmospheric modeling for likely vapor dispersions, such as seen in the example image below (part of a recent ESRI GIS conference presentation).

Vapor dispersion modelling
(source: TRC Solutions)

 

What HCAs Dictate

HCAs determine if a pipeline segment is included in an operator’s integrity management program (IMP) overseen by PHMSA or its state equivalent. IMPs must include risk assessments that identify the most likely impact scenarios in each HCA, enhanced management and repair schedules, as well as mitigation procedures in the event of an accident. Some IMPs also include the addition of automatic shut-off valves and leak detection systems, as well as coordination plans with local first responders.

The Falcon Risk Zones

Shell’s permit applications to the PA DEP state the pipeline:

…is not located in or within 100 feet of a national, state, or local park, forest, or recreation area. It is not located in or within 100 feet of a national natural landmark, national wildlife refuge, or federal, state, local or private wildlife or plant sanctuaries, state game lands. It is also not located in or within 100 feet of a national wild or scenic river, the Commonwealth’s Scenic Rivers System, or any areas designated as a Federal Wilderness Area. Additionally, there are no public water supplies located within the Project vicinity.

This is a partial truth, as “site” and “vicinity” are vague terms here. A number of these notable areas are within the PIR and HCA zones. Let’s take a closer look.

The PIR (or “Blast Zone”)

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Shell’s permit applications state a number of different pipeline dimensions will be used throughout the project. Most of the Falcon will be built with 12-inch steel pipe, with two exceptions: 1) The segment running from the Cadiz, OH, separator facility to its junction with line running from Scio, OH, will be a 10-inch diameter pipe; 2) 16-inch diameter pipe will be used from the junction of the Falcon’s two main legs located four miles south of Monaca, PA, to its end destination at the ethane cracker. We also know from comments made by Shell in public presentations that the Falcon’s maximum allowable operating pressure (MOAP) will be 1,440 psi. These numbers allow us to calculate the Falcon’s PIR which, for a 16″ ethane pipeline at 1,440psi, is about 940 feet. We’ve termed this the “blast zone” on our maps.

The HCA (or “Vapor Zone”)

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Shell’s analysis uses an HCA impact radius of 1.25 miles. This much larger buffer reflects the fact that vapors from hazardous liquid pipelines can travel unpredictably at high concentrations for long distances before ignition. This expanded buffer might be called the “vapor zone,” a term we used on our map. Within the HCA “vapor zone” we find that 60 of the Falcon’s 97 miles qualify as high consequence areas, with 35 miles triggered due to their proximity to drinking water sources, 25 miles trigger for proximity to populated areas, and 3 miles for proximity to ecological areas.

Populated Areas

Shell’s HCA buffer intersects 14 US Census-designated populated areas, shown in the table below. Falcon’s right-of-way directly intersects two of these areas: Cadiz Village in Harrison County, Ohio, and Southview CDP (Census Designated Place) in Washington County, PA. These areas are listed below. Additionally, we included on the FracTracker map the locations of public facilities that were found inside the HCA buffer. These include 5 public schools, 6 daycare centers, 10 fire stations, and 6 EMS stations.

Area Population State HCA
Pittsburgh Urbanized Area High PA Indirect
Weirton-Steubenville Urbanized Area High WV/OH/PA Indirect
Scio Village Other OH Indirect
Cadiz Village* Other OH Direct
Amsterdam Village Other OH Indirect
Shippingport Borough Other PA Indirect
Industry Borough Other PA Indirect
Hookstown Borough Other PA Indirect
Midway Borough Other PA Indirect
Clinton CDP Other PA Indirect
Imperial CDP Other PA Indirect
Southview CDP* Other PA Direct
Hickory CDP Other PA Indirect
Westland CDP Other PA Indirect
* Indicates an area the Falcon’s right-of-way will directly intersect

While it is difficult to determine the actual number of people living in the PIR and HCA vapor zone, there are ways one can estimate populations. In order to calculate the number of people who may live within the HCA and PIR zones, we first identified U.S. Census blocks that intersect each respective buffer. Second, we calculated the percentage of that census block’s area that lies within each buffer. Finally, we used the ratio of the two to determine the percentage of the block’s population that lies within the buffer.

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Based on 2010 Census data, we estimate that 2,499 people live within a reasonable projection of the Falcon’s PIR blast zone. When expanded to the HCA vapor zone, this total increases to 8,738 people. These numbers are relatively small compared to some pipelines due to the fact that a significant portion of the Falcon runs through fairly rural areas in most places.

PIR est. pop. HCA est. pop.
OHIO
Carroll County 11 47
Harrison County 274 915
Jefferson County 334 1,210
Total 619 2,172
WEST VIRGINIA
Hancock County 242 1,155
Total 242 1,155
PENNSYLVANIA
Allegheny County 186 969
Beaver County 990 3,023
Washington County 461 1,419
Total 1,637 5,410
Grand Total 2,499 8,738


Drinking Water Sources

Shell’s data identified a number of drinking water features considered in their HCA analysis. Metadata for this information show these sites were obtained from the Ohio Division of Drinking and Ground Waters, the West Virginia Source Water Assessment and Wellhead Protection Program, and the Pennsylvania DEP Wellhead Protection Program. The exact locations of public drinking water wells and intake points are generally protected by states for safety reasons. However, we duplicated the 5-mile buffer zones used on Shell’s map around these points, presumably denoting the boundaries of source water protection areas, wellhead protection areas, or intake points.

Drinking water buffers in Shell’s HCA analysis

As shown on FracTracker’s interactive map, five of these areas serve communities in the northern portions of Beaver County, shown in the image above, as well as the Cadiz and Weirton-Steubenville designated populated areas. Recall that HCA drinking water analysis only requires consideration of groundwater wells and not surface waters. This is an important distinction, as the Ambridge Reservoir is within the HCA zone but not part of Shell’s analysis — despite considerable risks outlined in our Falcon article on water body crossings.

Ecological Areas

Shell’s permits state that they consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC), and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) on their intended route in order to determine potential risks to protected species and ecologically sensitive areas.

DCNR responded that the pipeline had the potential to impact six sensitive plant species: Vase-vine Leather-Flower, Harbinger-of-spring, White Trout-Lily, Purple Rocket, Declined Trillium, and Snow Trillium. PFBC responded that the project may impact the Southern Redbelly Dace, a threatened temperate freshwater fish, within the Service Creek watershed. PGC responded that the pipeline had potential impact to habitats used by the Short-Eared Owl, Northern Harrier, and Silver-Haired Bat. Finally, the USFWS noted the presence of freshwater mussels in a number of water features crossed by the Falcon.

The presence of these species, as well as the proximity of protected lands illustrated on our map, factored into the Falcon’s HCA designations. A more detailed analysis of these issues is provided in the Falcon Public EIA Project article on Protected Habitats & Species of Concern.

* * *

Related Articles

By Kirk Jalbert, FracTracker Alliance

Photo by Garth Lenz, iLCP - for Ethane Cracker article about risk and disclosure

Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure

By Leann Leiter and Lisa Graves Marcucci
Maps and data analysis by Kirk Jalbert

Highly industrialized operations like petrochemical plants inherently carry risks, including the possibility of large-scale disasters. In an effort to prepare, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders to fully understand the risk potential. Yet, the planned Shell ethane cracker and additional petrochemical operations being proposed for Western Pennsylvania are the first of their kind in our region. This means that residents and elected officials are without a frame of reference as they consider approving these operations. Officials find themselves tasked with reviewing and approving highly complicated permit applications, and the public remains uncertain of what questions to ask and scenarios to consider. Often overlooked in the decision-making process is valuable expertise from local first responders like police, fire and emergency crew members, HAZMAT teams, and those who protect vulnerable populations, like emergency room personnel, nursing home staff, and school officials.

Steam cracker at BASF's Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF - for risk and disclosure article

Example of cracker producing ethylene, located at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF

In the first article in this series , we tried to identify the known hazards associated with ethane crackers. In this article, we look more closely at how that risk could play out in Beaver County, PA and strive to initiate an important dialogue that invites valuable, local expertise.

In keeping with the first article in this series, we use the terms vulnerability and capacity. Vulnerability refers to the conditions and factors that increase the disaster impact that a community might experience, and capacity consists of the strengths that mitigate those impacts. Importantly, vulnerability and capacity frequently intertwine and overlap. We might, for example, consider a fire station to be a site of “capacity,” but if it lies within an Emergency Planning Zone (discussed more below), an explosion at the plant could render it a vulnerability. Likewise, “vulnerable” populations such as the elderly may have special skills and local knowledge, making them a source of capacity.

Emergency Planning: Learning from Louisiana

FracTracker got in touch with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn how a community already living with Shell-owned and other petrochemical facilities manages risk and disclosure. The Emergency Manager we spoke with explained that they designate a two- and a five-mile area around each new facility in their jurisdiction, like ethane crackers, during their emergency planning process. They call these areas “ emergency planning zones ” or EPZs, and they maintain records of the vulnerabilities and sites of capacity within each zone. In case of a fire, explosion, or other unplanned event at any facility, having the EPZs designated in advance allows them to mobilize first responders, and notify and evacuate everyone living, working, and attending school within the zone. Whether they activate a two- or a five-mile EPZ depends on the type of incident, and factors like wind speed and direction.

Based on those procedures, the map below shows similar likely zones for the proposed plant in Beaver County, along with sites of vulnerability and capacity.

Ethane Cracker Hazard Map

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

The map helps us visualize the vulnerability and capacity of this area, relative to the proposed ethane cracker. It includes three main elements: the Shell site and parcels likely to be targeted for buildout of related facilities, two Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) around the Shell facility, and infrastructure and facilities of the area that represent vulnerability and capacity.

vacant-parcels

Vacant parcels near the site

It is important to note that the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County is merely the first of an influx of petrochemical spin-off facilities promised for the area, potentially occupying the various empty parcels indicated on the map above as “vacant properties” and presented in light gray in the screenshot left.

Each new facility would add its own risks and cumulative impacts to the equation. It would be impossible to project these additional risks without knowing what facilities will be built here, so in this article, we stick to what we do know – the risks already articulated by Shell, lessons learned from other communities hosting petrochemical industry in other parts of the country, and past disasters at similar facilities.

Vulnerability and Capacity in Beaver County

Red, blue, and green points on the map above and in the screenshot below stand in for hospitals like Heritage Valley Beaver; fire and emergency medical services like Vanport Volunteer Fire Company; police stations like the Beaver County Sheriff’s office; and daycares and schools like Center Grange Primary School.

Transportation routes, if impacted, could challenge evacuation. Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton pointed out that evacuations due to an event at this facility could also be complicated by the need to stay upwind, when evacuations would likely move in a downwind direction. This map lacks drinking water intakes and other essential features upon which lives depend, but which nonetheless also sit within this zone of vulnerability.

points-within-epzs

Points within EPZS

Vulnerability/capacity within 2-mile zone:

  • 1 hospital
  • 5 police stations
  • 10 fire/EMS stations
  • 23 schools/daycare facilities
  • 47,717 residents*

When expanded to 5-mile zone:

  • 2 hospitals
  • 9 police stations
  • 23 fire/EMS stations
  • 40 schools/daycare facilities
  • 120,849 residents*

*Note: For census tracts that are partly within a zone, a ratio is determined based on the percentage of land area in the tract within the zone. This ratio is then used to estimate the fraction of the population likely within the zone.

Stakeholders’ Right to Know

No person or community should be subjected to risk without the opportunity to be fully informed and to give meaningful input. Likewise, no group of people should have to bear a disproportionate share of environmental risks, particularly stakeholders who are already frequently disenfranchised in environmental decision-making. “Environmental justice” (EJ) refers to those simple principles, and DEP designates environmental justice areas based on communities of color and poverty indicators.

Presented as blue fields on the map and shown in the screenshot below, several state-designated EJ areas fall partially or entirely within the 2- and 5-mile EPZs (a portion of two EJ areas home to 2,851 people, and when expanded to five miles, two entire EJ areas and a portion of seven more, home to 18,679 people, respectively).

EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site

EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site

The basic ideas behind environmental justice have major bearing in emergency scenarios. For example, those living below the poverty line tend to have less access to information and news sources, meaning they might not learn of dangerous unexpected emissions plumes coming their way. They also may not have access to a personal vehicle, rendering them dependent upon a functioning public transportation system to evacuate in an emergency. Living below poverty level may also mean fewer resources at home for sheltering-in-place during a disaster, and having less financial resources, like personal savings, may lead to more difficult post-disaster recovery.

Local expertise

FracTracker recently consulted with the Emergency Management Director for Beaver County, Eric Brewer, and with Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton. Both indicated that their staff have already begun training exercises with Shell -including a live drill on site that simulated a fire in a work trailer. But when asked, neither reported that they had been consulted in the permit approval process. Neither had been informed of the chemicals to be held on site, and both referred to emergency planning considerations as something to come in the future, after the plant was built.

Unfortunately, the lack of input from public safety professionals during the permit approval stage isn’t unique to Beaver County. Our emergency management contact in Louisiana pointed to the same disturbing reality: Those who best understand the disaster implications of these dangerous developments and who would be mobilized to respond in the case of a disaster are not given a say in their approval or denial. This valuable local expertise – in Louisiana and in Beaver County – is being overlooked.

All Beaver County first responders who spoke with FracTracker clearly showed their willingness to perform their duties in any way that Shell’s new facility might demand, hopefulness about its safety, and a generally positive relationship with the company so far. Chief Carlton believes that the ethane cracker will be an improvement over the previous facility on the same site, the Horsehead zinc smelter, though a regional air pollution report characterizes this as a trade off of one type of dangerous pollution for another. Director Brewer pointed to the existing emergency plans for the county’s nuclear facility as giving Beaver County an important leg-up on preparedness.

But the conversations also raised concern about what the future relationship between the community and the industry will look like. Will funds be allocated to these first responders for the additional burdens brought on by new, unprecedented facilities, in what amount, and for how long into the future? Chief Carlton pointed out that until Shell’s on-site fire brigade is in place two or three years from now, her all-volunteer department would be the first line of defense in case of a fire or other incident. In the meantime, her fire company has ordered a much-needed equipment upgrade to replace a 30-year old, outdated tanker at a cost of $400,000. They are formally requesting all corporate businesses in the township, including Shell, to share the cost. Hopefully, the fire company will see this cost covered by their corporate neighbors who use their services. But further down the road? Once all is said and done, and Shell has what they need to operate unfettered, Chief Carlton wonders, “where do we stand with them?”

Waiting for disclosure of the risks

Emergency preparedness and planning should be a process characterized by transparency and inclusion of all stakeholders. However, when it comes to the Shell ethane cracker, those who will share a fence line with such operations have not yet been granted access to the full picture. Currently, the DEP allows industrial operations like the proposed ethane cracker to wait until immediately before operations begin to disclose emergency planning information, in the form of Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) plans. In other words, when permits are up for approval or denial prior to construction, permit applicants are not currently required to provide PPC plans, and the public and emergency managers cannot weigh the risks or provide crucial input.

Shell’s Acknowledged Risks
According to public information provided by Shell

Sampling of Shell’s Disastrous
Petrochemical Precedents

Fire and Explosions

Shell’s Deer Park, Texas, 1997:
Blast at chemical plant

Leaks

Shell’s Deer Park, Texas refinery and chemical plant, 2013:
Harmful air pollution and benzene leak

Equipment Failures

Shell’s Martinez Refinery in California, 2016:
Equipment failure event; Shell’s refusal to reveal gases emitted

According to Shell, possible risks of the proposed Beaver County petrochemical facility include fire, explosion, leaks, and equipment failures. More than mere potentialities, examples of each are already on the books. The above table presents a sampling. Shell also points out the increased risk of traffic accidents, not explored in this chart. It is worth noting, however, that the proposed facility, and likely spin-off facilities, would greatly increase vehicular and rail traffic.

The ethane cracker in Beaver County plant has not yet been constructed. However, Shell operates similar operations with documented risks and their own histories of emergency events. Going forward, the various governmental agencies tasked with reviewing permit applications should require industrial operations like Shell, to make this information public as part of the review and planning process. Currently they can relegate safety information to a few vague references and get a free pass to mark it as “confidential” in permit applications. Strengthening risk disclosure requirements would be a logical and basic step toward ensuring that all stakeholders – including those with special emergency planning expertise – can have input on whether those risks are acceptable before permits are approved and site prep begins.

Until regulations are tightened, we invite Shell to fulfill its own stated objective of being a “good neighbor” by being forthcoming about what risks will be moving in next door. Shell can and should take the initiative to share information about its existing facilities, as well as lessons learned from past emergencies at those sites. Instead of waiting for the post-construction, or the “implementation” stage, all stakeholders deserve disclosure of Shell’s plans to prevent and respond to emergencies now.

In our next article, we will explore the infrastructure for the proposed Shell facility, which spans multiple states, and sort out the piecemeal approval processes of building an ethane cracker in Pennsylvania.


Sincere Appreciation

Emergency Managers and First Responders in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana and Potter Township and Center Township, PA.

Lisa Hallowell, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, for her review of this article series and contributions to our understanding of relevant regulations.

Kirk Jalbert, in addition to maps and analysis, for contributing key points of consideration for and expertise on environmental justice.

The International League of Conservation Photographers for sharing the feature image used in this article.

The image used on our homepage of the steam cracker at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site was taken by BASF.


By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for FracTracker Alliance and the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project and Lisa Graves Marcucci, PA Coordinator, Community Outreach of Environmental Integrity Project

With maps and analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

Drilling, Emergency Preparedness, & Public Engagement

By Danny Kallich, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project

This article examines whether emergency responders are prepared in rural areas for oil and gas drilling emergencies, how people may be put at risk if the proper procedures aren’t in place, and other critical safety questions that citizens in Southwest Pennsylvania should be asking.
Drilling and populations as they relate to emergency preparedness in SW PA

Maps of wells per sq. mile and people per well in Washington County, PA

The rapid spread of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) across Pennsylvania has highlighted the need for state, county, and municipal agencies to regulate industry activity and protect the public on several fronts. In particular, comprehensive emergency preparedness and response specific to natural gas development is an obvious necessity for residents living within close proximity of wells, compressor stations, and other stages of UNGD.

While experts in the field of emergency planning are rightfully responsible for creating and executing emergency plans, the Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA) defines citizens’ rights to engage in the process, both through open records requests and public meetings with local emergency planners. EPCRA establishes roles and requirements for emergency planners while clarifying the rights of citizens to engage in dialogue with those responsible for safety about potentially harmful industrial activity in their community.

Unique Emergency Preparedness Challenges

UNGD presents a unique set of challenges for residents and emergency planners. The high likelihood that UNGD will be located in a rural area not typically supporting industrial use argues for the need for special treatment by emergency planners. Furthermore, responding to a UNGD emergency requires specialized training that is not mandated for local first responders, often volunteer fire fighters. While local first responders cannot be expected to specialize in UNGD related emergencies, it takes many hours for the contracted well-fire specialists, Texas-based Wild Well Control, to arrive and mitigate an emergency situation. The interim period between the arrival of local and county first responders and the arrival of Wild Well Control is, nonetheless, a critical time during which a system for consistent updates to nearby residents should be a priority. An emergency situation, as demonstrated by the February 11, 2014 Chevron Appalachia well fire, discussed below, can affect a community in a variety of ways, even if evacuation is not necessary.

Chevron Appalachia Incident, Greene County, PA

Testing The System:

Using Right-To-Know requests to gauge transparency & citizen awareness

The opportunities for citizen comment and engagement with emergency planners are limited and not well publicized. The dearth of clear and consistent means of communication between residents and those responsible for emergency planning provides a noteworthy opportunity to test the provisions of EPCRA as they relate to UNGD.

In this regard, testing the emergency response system related to oil and gas drilling emergencies is intended to analyze existent emergency plans, municipal preparedness, communication between county, municipal, and industry emergency planners, and perhaps most importantly, how much of this information is available to citizens.

The transparency of the system was tested by filing Right-To-Know requests. These public information requests were filed with nine municipalities in various counties across the state of Pennsylvania. All filed requests specifically asked for “all available county, municipal, and company generated emergency plans” in relation to specific well sites. One request asked for emergency plans generated by an elementary school in relation to a well site within approximately a half-mile.

Of these nine requests, three were fulfilled with returned emergency plans. Of the remaining six requests, five were not fulfilled because no emergency plan existed on record in the municipality. Initially, the request for the elementary school emergency plan was unable to be met by the municipal open records officer because no plan existed. Two months after that request, an unsolicited response from the same individual was received stating that the now-existent plan could not be shared because of security issues. A final question posed to the open records officer asked what concerned parents might be able to do to prepare themselves for emergency situations. This question, too, was deemed unanswerable due to security reasons. Another unmet municipal request was redirected to a county emergency planner who stated that the company generated plan was not theirs to distribute. Of the three emergency plans received, only one made any specific mention of residents living within close proximity; this response merely stated the number of nearby houses. Excluding GPS coordinates, no plan addressed any other infrastructure specific to the surrounding area, indicating a broad generality to their application.

The fact that six out of nine queried communities in PA were unable or unwilling to provide emergency response plans is highly concerning. These findings, when considered in the broader national context, indicate a significant chance that UNGD specific emergency planning and necessary communication with the public is deficient, particularly on the municipal level.

What Communities Need

Lack of specificity, inter-agency communication, and transparency indicate that the potential of EPCRA to benefit citizens has been largely untapped during the Marcellus Shale boom relative to emergency planning. Residents living within close proximity to UNGD should not only be apprised of emergency risk and strategy before an emergency arises, they should have a clearly accessible venue through which to voice concerns, needs, and recommendations. Furthermore, residents have valid reason to demand greater public oversight of current emergency planning efforts when the overwhelming majority of publicly available emergency plans fail to provide any information useful to a layperson.

Currently, there are communities in which the questionable practice of locating UNGD within a half-mile of elementary schools and other sensitive areas continues. In such areas, every effort must be made to develop, institute, and practice emergency plans prioritizing the concerns, safety, and coordination of local residents. Recommendations for improved transparency include:

  1. Make publicly available site-specific plans,
  2. Hold regular public meetings, and
  3. Prioritize communication between emergency responders and residents during emergency events

We encourage residents who are concerned about what their community is doing for UNGD-specific emergency planning to contact their local emergency responders and attend Local Emergency Planning Committee meetings in their county to advocate for such measures.

About EHP

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit environmental health organization created to assist and support Washington County residents who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities. Their Mission is to respond to individuals’ and communities’ need for access to accurate, timely and trusted public health information and health services associated with natural gas extraction.

In-depth Review of the Statoil Well Pad Fire

Commentary on Shale Gas Operations: First in a Series of Articles
By Bill Hughes, Community Liaison, FracTracker Alliance
Statoil Well Pad Fire: June 28-29, 2014

The early riser residents along Long Ridge Road in Monroe County are among the first in Ohio to see the sun coming up over the West Virginia hills.  It rose about 6:00 am on the morning of June 28th.  Everyone assumed that this would be a normal Saturday morning.  Well, at least as normal as it had been for the better part of two years since the site preparation and drilling started.

For those residents on Long Ridge who were not early risers, the blaring sirens, the smell of acrid smoke, and the presence of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles shortly after 9:00 am must surely have made them wonder if they were in the midst of a nightmare. A quick glance outside toward the Statoil Eisenbarth well pad and they would have seen this view:

Statoil 1

Figure 1. View from the southeast, as the fire spread on Sat. June 28th

The image in Fig. 1 would be enough to make most folks feel somewhat panicky and consider evacuating the neighborhood. That is exactly what soon happened – definitely not the start of a normal Saturday morning.

Adjusting to the New Normal

The traffic in the area had been a problem ever since site preparation started on the nearby well pad. The State expected the drillers to keep up the road. Crews also provided lead escort vehicles to help the many big trucks negotiate the narrow road way and to clear the residential traffic. Access to the well site required trucks to climb a two-mile hill up to the ridge top.

Statoil 2

Fig. 2. Neighbors’ views of the fire

Until June 28th, most folks had become accustomed to the extra noise, diesel fumes, and congestion and delays that always come with any shale gas well exploration and development in the Marcellus shale gas active area. Most of the neighbors had gotten used to the new normal and reluctantly tolerated it. Even that was about to change, dramatically.  As the sun got higher in the eastern sky over WV, around 9:00 AM, suddenly the sky started to turn dark. Very dark. Sirens wailed. Red trucks started a frenzied rush down Long Ridge from all directions. There was a fire on the well pad. Soon it became a very large, all consuming fire.  Smoke, fire, bitter fumes, and no one seemed to know yet exactly what had happened, and what was likely to happen soon.

This gas well location, called the Eisenbarth pad, recently changed operators. In January 2013, the well pad property and its existing well and equipment were bought out by Statoil, a company based in Norway.  Statoil had since drilled seven more wells, and even more were planned.  The original single well was in production.  Now in late spring and early summer of 2014 the new wells were to be “fracked.”  That means they were ready to be hydraulically fractured, a procedure that follows the completion of the drilling process.

Statoil hired as their fracturing sub-contractor Halliburton. All of the fracturing pump trucks, sand kings, Sand Castles, and control equipment were owned and operated by Halliburton.  The fracturing process had been ongoing for some weeks when the fire started. The eastern Ohio neighbors now watched ~$25 million worth of equipment go up in smoke and flames (Fig. 2). The billowing smoke was visible for over 10 miles.

Industrial accidents are not rare in the Ohio Valley

Many of the residents nearby had worked in the coal mining industry, aluminum plants, chemical plants, or the coal fired power plant that were up and down the Ohio River. Many had since retired and had their own industrial accident stories to tell. These were frequently private stories, however, which mostly just their co-workers knew about. In an industrial plant, the common four walls and a roof kept the dangerous processes confined and enabled a trained response to the accidents. The traditional, industrial workplace had well-proven, customized workplace safety standards.  Professional maintenance personnel were always nearby.  In stark contrast, unconventional gas well pads located in our rural communities are very different. They are put in our hayfields, near our homes, in our pastures and just down the road. You cannot hide a community accident like this.

Sept 2014 Update: Video of the fire, Copyright Ed Wade, Jr.

Print Media Coverage of the Fire

Within days, many newspapers were covering the well pad fire story. The two nearby weekly newspapers, one in Monroe County, Ohio and the other in Wetzel County, West Virginia both had detailed, long articles the following week.

Statoil 3

Fig. 3. View from the east as the fire started

The Monroe County Beacon on July 2, 2014 said that the fire spread quickly from the small original fire which was totally surrounded within the tangled complex of equipment and high pressure piping.  Early Saturday morning, the first responder would likely have seen a rather small somewhat localized fire as shown in Fig. 2. The photo to the right (Fig. 3) is the view from the east, where the access road is on Long Ridge road. This point is the only access into the Statoil well pad. The view below, showing some still intact tanker trucks in the foreground, is looking west toward the well location. Pay attention to the couple of trucks still visible.

The Monroe County emergency director said it was his understanding that the fire began with a ruptured hydraulic hose. The fluid then ignited on a hot surface. He said, “…by 9:10 AM the fire had spread to other pumps on the location and was spreading rapidly over the well pad.”   Emergency responders needed water now, lots of it. There is only one narrow public road to the site at the top of a very long, steep hill and only one narrow entrance to the densely congested equipment on the pad.  Many Volunteer Fire Departments from both Ohio and West Virginia responded.  A series of tanker trucks began to haul as much water to the site as possible.  The combined efforts of all the fire departments were at best able to control or contain but not extinguish the powerful, intensely hot and growing blaze.  The Volunteer firemen did all they could. The EMS director and Statoil were very grateful for the service of the Volunteer Fire Departments. There was a major loss of most equipment, but none of the 45-50 workers on site were injured.

Statoil 4

Fig. 4. Well pad entrance

The article from the Wetzel Chronicle also praised the coordinated effort of all the many fire departments. At first they attempted to fight the fire, and then prudently focused on just trying to limit the damage and hoping it did not spread to the well heads and off the well pad itself. The New Martinsville fire chief also said that,  “… the abundance of chemicals and explosives on the site, made attempts to halt the fire challenging, if not nearly impossible… Numerous plans to attack the fire were thwarted each time by the fires and numerous explosions…”  The intense heat ignited anything nearby that was at all combustible. There was not much choice but to let the fire burn out.

Eventually the view at the well pad entrance as seen from the east (Fig. 3) would soon look like the overhead view (Fig. 5). This aerial imagery shows what little remained after the fire was out – just some aluminum scrap melted into the decking is left of the original, white Hydrochloric Acid tanker truck. Everything near it is has almost vaporized.

Statoil 5

Figure 5. Post-fire equipment identification

Efforts to Limit the Fire

Statoil 6

Fig. 6. Protected white trailer

An excellent example of VFD’s successfully limiting the spread of the fire and controlling the extreme heat can be seen in the photo to the right (Fig. 6). This white storage trailer sure seems to be a most favored, protected, special and valuable container. It was.

It was filled with some particularly dangerous inventory. The first EPA report explains it thus:

A water curtain was maintained, using pump lines on site, to prevent the fire from spreading to a trailer containing 1,100 pounds of SP Breaker (an oxidizer), 200 pounds of soda ash and compressed gas cylinders of oxygen (3-2000 lb.), acetylene (2-2000 lb.), propane (6-20 lb.), among miscellaneous aerosol cans.

Statoil 7

Fig. 7. Post-fire pad layout

Yes, this trailer got special treatment, as it should. It contained some hazardous material.  It was also at the far southwest corner of the well pad with minimal combustibles near it.  That was also the closest corner to the nearby holding pond, which early on might have held fresh water. Now the holding pond is surely very contaminated from flowback and runoff.

The trailer location can be seen in the picture to the right in the red box (Fig. 7), which also shows the complete well pad and surrounding area. However, in comparison to the one white storage trailer, the remainder of the well pad did not fare so well. It was all toast, and very burned toast at that.

Columbus Dispatch and the Fish Kill

Besides the two local newspapers, and Wheeling Jesuit researchers, the Columbus Dispatch also covered the story and provided more details on the 3- to 5-mile long fish kill in the stream below the well pad. Additional facts were added by the two EPA reports:

Those reports list in some detail many of the chemicals, explosives, and radiological components on the well pad.  Reader note: Get out your chemical dictionary, or fire up your Google search. A few excerpts from the first EPA report are provided below.

…Materials present on the Pad included but was not limited to: diesel fuel, hydraulic oil, motor oil, hydrochloric acid, cesium-137 sources, hydrotreated light petroleum distillates, terpenes, terpenoids, isoproponal, ethylene glycol, paraffinic solvents, sodium persulfate, tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride and proprietary components… The fire and explosion that occurred on the Eisenbarth Well Pad involved more than 25,000 gallons of various products that were staged and/or in use on the site… uncontained run-off was exiting the site and entering an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek to the south and west and flowback water from the Eisenbarth Well #7 was spilling onto the well pad.

Reader Warning:  If you found the above list overly alarming, you might choose to skip the next equally disturbing list. Especially since you now know that this all eventually flowed into our Ohio River.

The EPA report continues with more specific chemical products involved in the fire:

Initial reports identified the following products were involved and lost in the fire: ~250 gallons of hydrochloric acid (28%), ~7,040 gallons of GasPerm 1000 (terpenes, terpenoids, isopropanol, citrus extract, proprietary components), ~330 gallons of LCA-1 (paraffinic solvents), ~ 1900 gallons of LGC-36 UC (hydrotreated light petroleum distillate, guar gum), ~1000 gallons of BC-140 (monoethanolamine borate, ethylene glycol), ~3300 gallons of BE-9 (tributyl tetradecyl phosphonium chloride), ~30,000 gallons of WG-36 (polysaccharide gel), ~1,000 gallons of FR-66 (hydrotreated light petroleum distillate), ~9000 gallons of diesel fuel, ~300 gallons of motor and hydraulic oil.

Even more details of the incident and the on-site chemicals are given in the required Statoil 30-day report (PDF).

The EPA reports detail the “sheet” flow of unrestricted contaminated liquids off of the well pad during and after the fire. They refer to the west and south sides. The below Google Earth-based map (Fig. 8) shows the approximate flow from the well pad. The two unnamed tributaries join to form Opossum Creek, which then flows into the Ohio River four miles away.

Statoil 8

Figure 8. Map showing path of unrestricted flow off of the Statoil well pad due to a lack of berm

After describing some of the known chemicals on the well pad, the EPA report discusses the construction of a new berm, and where the liquid components flowed. Below is a selection of many excerpts strung together, from many days, taken directly from the EPA reports:

…unknown quantities of products on the well pad left the Site and entered an unnamed tributary of Opossum Creek that ultimately discharges to the Ohio River. Runoff left the pad at various locations via sheet flow….Initial inspections in the early hours of June 29, 2014 of Opossum Creek approximately 3.5 miles downstream of the site identified dead fish in the creek…. Equipment was mobilized to begin constructing an earthen berm to contain runoff and to flood the pad to extinguish remaining fires…. Once fires were extinguished, construction of a berm near the pad was begun to contain spilled liquids and future runoff from the well pad… Statoil continued construction of the containment berm currently 80% complete. (6-30-14)… Assessment of chemicals remaining on the well pad was completed. The earthen berm around the pad was completed,  (7-2-14)… ODNR Division of Wildlife completed their in stream assessment of the fish kill and reported an estimated 70,000 dead fish from an approximately 5 mile stretch extending from the unnamed tributary just west of the Eisenbarth Well Pad to Opossum Creek just before its confluence with the Ohio River… Fish collection was completed. In total, 11,116 dead fish were collected (20 different species), 3,519 crustaceans, 7 frogs and 20 salamanders.

The overall conclusion is clear. Large quantities of various chemicals, mixed with very large amounts of already contaminated water, when flooding a well pad that had no berms around it, resulted in a significant fish kill over several miles. After the fire Statoil then constructed a berm around the well pad. If there had been a pre-existing berm – just 12 inches high and level – around the well pad, it could have held over 600,000 gallons of runoff. That amount is twice the estimated quantity of water used to fight the fire.  (Note: my old 35 HP farm tractor and a single bottom plow can provide a 12-inch high mound of dirt in one pass.)

The significance for safe, potable drinking water, is that all the chemicals and petroleum products on the well pad either burned and went up in a toxic plume of black smoke, or were released in liquid form down into the well pad or flowed off of it. Since the original liner on the well pad also completely burned and there was no overall berm on the well pad, there was nothing to restrict the flow of polluted liquid. Therefore, it all seeped into the ground and/or ran off of the pad with the 300,000 gallons of water that was estimated to have been sprayed onto the burning equipment fire.

Follow Up Questions

Since this fire happened over 6 weeks ago, there have been many opportunities for nearby citizens and neighbors to meet and discuss their many concerns.  Many of the question have revolved around the overall lack of information about the process of shale gas fracturing, the equipment used, and the degree of risk that it all may present to our communities. These communities include the nearby residents, the travelling public, and all of the first responders. Unless someone has a well pad on or near their property and they are able to actively follow the process, it is usually difficult to find out the details of a specific gas operation. (We have even known of operators that have told landowners to get off of their own property both during drilling and fracturing operations and afterwards.)

Questions that follow incidents like this one typically look like this:

  1. Why was there no perimeter berm?
  2. Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost? What did this site look like in the beginning?
  3. Why was there so much equipment onsite? Is this typical? What is it all called and how is it used?

1. Lack of Berm

The first and somewhat unanswered question concerns the absence of a simple containment berm around the completed well pad. Statoil must not have thought one would be very helpful, and/or the State of Ohio must not require them.

However, I had raised concern over this very topic more than a year ago from WV. In response, I received a letter in September 2013 from Statoil North America to the WVDEP. It provides some insight into Statoil thinking. Based on my interpretation of that letter, the official position of Statoil last year was that berms around the well pad do not help and are not needed. Given the recent fire, perhaps that position has changed. All we know for sure now is that at least their Eisenbarth well pad now does have a complete perimeter berm. We now have empirical proof, if any was ever needed, that in the presence of spills the absence of berms makes for greater and more expensive downstream problems.

2. An Obstinate Fire

Setting aside the berm problem, I will attempt to address the next set of questions: Why could the fire not be put out quickly and easily? What all was lost ? What did this site look like in the beginning?

The simplest way to start on such questions is to look at other hydraulic fracturing sites to identify what is there and why, and then to compare those with the charred remains on the Statoil Eisenbarth well pad in Monroe County.  Since Statoil’s contractor was Halliburton, it would help to look at their equipment when in process elsewhere.  In Figure 9 below is a clean, bright red and grey Halliburton fracking fleet.

Statoil 9

Figure 9. Example of Halliburton fracking fleet

It needs to be stated up front that I consider Halliburton to be among one of the more reputable, experienced, and dependable fracturing companies. We have seen way worse here in Wetzel County over the past seven years. Halliburton has good equipment and well-trained, safety-conscious employees. It seems to be a well-run operation. If so, then how did this massive fire happen? It simply seems that it is the nature of the beast; there are many inherent dangers to such operations. Plus there is an enormous amount of equipment on site, close coupled and stuffed into a small amount of real estate. Not to mention, the whole setup is temporary – with a lot of fuel and ignition sources. Therefore, many of the available engineered-in safeguards that would normally be installed in an industrial, fixed, permanent location, just cannot be incorporated on my neighbor’s hay field, creek bottom, or farmland.

The whole process has many risks, and many of them cannot be eliminated, just minimized. I do not think that anyone could have predicted a weak hydraulic hose. Some accidents are just that — unpreventable accidents. This is why we need to be very careful with how close we allow these sites in residential areas.

3. Serious Equipment

In Figure 10 below is a wide-angle composite photo of a Halliburton fracturing project in process. Given the shallow angle viewpoint, not all equipment is visible or numbered. The photo is still very representative of frac sites in general and equivalent to what can be seen in the scorched remains on the Statoil Eisenbarth site. The major qualification on the fracturing pumps above and the ones below, is that they are a newer generation of Halliburton dual fuel pumps. They can run on natural gas.

Statoil 10

Figure 10. Halliburton fracturing project in process

Just about everything seen in the above bright red and grey hardware can be seen in Figure 11’s charred leftovers on the Statoil site from July 5, 2014 below (six days after the fire). It is also all Halliburton equipment. The quantities and arrangement are different, but the equipment and process are the same. The numbers on the provided legend or chart should help identify the specific pieces of equipment. The newly constructed containment berm is also clearly visible here.

Statoil 11

Figure 11. Statoil site post-fire equipment identification

The above or a similar photo has been seen by many neighbors both in OH and WV. Hardly anyone can recognize what they are looking at. Even those people who are somewhat familiar with general hydraulic fracturing operations are puzzled. Nothing is obvious when viewing charred remains of burned iron, steel, and melted aluminum. All tires (over 400 of them) have been burned off the rims. Every bit of rubber, foam, composites, plastics and fiberglass truck cabs has been consumed – which is what made the black plume of smoke potentially so dangerous.

Statoil 12

Fig. 12. 16 fracturing pumps

Statoil 13

Fig. 13. 18-wheeler

What might not be so obvious is why the fire could not be extinguished.

If we look at a close-up of a small section of the well pad (Fig. 12) it is easy to see how crowded the well pad is during fracturing. The 16 fracturing pumps are all the size of a full-length 18-wheel tractor trailer (Fig. 13). Note the three fuel tanks.

The fire began between the blender-mixer trucks and the 16 hydraulic fracturing pumps. The blenders were between the fracturing pumps and the sand kings. Halliburton always keeps fire extinguishers available at every truck. They are put on the ground in front of every pump truck. Everyone knows where to find them. However, on any fracking project that location is also the most congested area. The fracturing pumps are usually parked no more than two feet apart. It is just enough room for an operator or maintenance fellow to get between them. With high pressure fluid spraying and the fire already started and now spreading, there is precious little room to maneuver or to work. It is a plumbing nightmare with the dozens of high pressure pipes connecting all the pumps together and then to a manifold. In those conditions, in the face of multiple fuel sources, then the many small explosions, prudence and self-preservation dictates a swift retreat.

To their credit, Halliburton employees knew when to retreat. No one was injured. We just burned up some trucks (and killed some fish). All the employees and all the first responders were able to go home safely, uninjured, to their families and friends. They survived a very dangerous situation to come back again in the service of their employer or their community. We wish them well.

Some Observations and Conclusions

  1. The hydraulic fracturing process is dangerous, even when done properly.
  2. Environmental and employee safeguards must be in place because “accidents will happen.”
  3. Setbacks from personal farm and residential buildings must be great enough to protect all.
  4. Setbacks from streams and creeks and rivers must be taken very seriously, especially when private or municipal water supply systems are downstream.
  5. Our communities must know what all chemicals are being used so that correct lab protocols are established ahead of time to test for contamination.

This now ends this first article addressing the Statoil Fire, its burned fracturing equipment, and the resulting water contamination. Later, I will show many examples of the quantity of equipment used on fracturing sites and why it is there. You patient readers thought this would never end. You now know more about Statoil, well pad fires, and fracturing hardware than you ever wanted to know. We will soon address the more generic questions of fracturing equipment.