A Digital Atlas Exploring the Environmental Impacts of a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Extraction in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed
A Digital Atlas Exploring the Environmental Impacts of a Decade of Unconventional Natural Gas Extraction in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed
Fig. 1. Appalachia Midstream SVC LLC , Cherry Compressor Station in Cherry, Sullivan County, PA. (FLIR camera footage by Earthworks, July 2020)
Nestled in Pennsylvania’s scenic Endless Mountains region, the Loyalsock Creek flows 64 miles from its headwaters in Wyoming County near the Sullivan County line, to a peaceful confluence with the West Branch Susquehanna River at Montoursville, east of Williamsport in Lycoming County. The lively, clear water drains 495 square miles, journeying through thick forests of the Allegheny Plateau over a landscape prized for rugged outdoor recreation, bucolic wooded respites, and quaint villages.
Local place names reflect the Munsee-Lenape, Susquehannock, and Iroquois peoples who called the area home at the time of early colonial settlement. The name Loyalsock stems from the native word Lawi-sahquick, meaning “middle creek.”
A favorite for angling, swimming, and whitewater paddling, the waterway supports a notorious resident – the aquatic eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) crowned the Loyalsock “River of the Year,” a program honoring the state’s premier rivers and streams and encouraging their stewardship.
Fig 2. Loyalsock Watershed Overview Map. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)
Nearly one third of the Loyalsock watershed consists of state-owned public lands, including the 780-acre Worlds End State Park; 37,519 acres of state game lands; and, 65,939 acres of the Loyalsock State Forest. The State Forest encompasses two Natural Areas, Tamarack Run (201 acres) and Kettle Creek Gorge (774 acres), as well as a 1935-acre portion of Kettle Creek Wild Area.
Worlds End State Park was originally purchased by the state in 1929 in an attempt to allow the area to recover from clear-cutting. The land was significantly improved due to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. There is some uncertainty about the historical name of the region, and as a result, the park was renamed Whirl’s End in 1936, but reverted to Worlds End in 1943.
The area is a deep gorge cut by water rushing over millions of years through the Loyalsock Creek, over sedimentary formations known as the Sullivan Highlands. The gorge reaches 800 feet deep in some locations, where the fossilized remnants of 350-million-year-old lungfish burrows can be found.
Current amenities include 70 tent camping sites, 19 cabins, as well as group camping options accommodating up to 90 campers. A small swimming area on Loyalsock Creek is open in the summer months, and the Creek is also used for boating and fishing.
The Kettle Creek Gorge Natural Area follows the path of Falls Run, which as the name suggests, contains numerous majestic waterfalls, including Angel Falls, which drops around 70 feet. The Natural Area is buffered by the Kettle Creek Wild Area. Kettle Creek is a Class A Wild Trout stream, meaning that natural populations of trout are sufficient in quantity and size to support fishing activities.
Fig. 3. A view of Loyalsock Creek from the High Rock Trail in Worlds End State Park. (Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, August 2019)
Fig. 4. Tubing on Loyalsock Creek. (Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance, August 2019)
The Loyalsock watershed contains 909 miles of streams, with more than 395 miles (43%) classified as high quality (358 miles) or exceptional value (37 miles). The watershed contains 10,573 acres of wetlands, including 4,844 acres of forested wetlands, 3,261 acres of riverine wetlands, 1,013 acres of freshwater ponds, 761 acres of lakes, and 694 acres of emergent wetlands.
Another popular recreation spot within the Loyalsock watershed is Rose Valley Lake, a 389-acre artificial reservoir managed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The lake contains a variety of fish, including bigmouth bass, bluegill, and walleye. Boating is restricted to electric motors and unpowered craft, making the area an idyllic getaway.
There are 238 miles of trails in the watershed, accommodating a variety of uses, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiles. Some notable examples include:
The Loyalsock Watershed also contains the entirety of state Game Lands #134 and #298, as well as parts of six others, including Game Lands #12, #13, #36, #57, #66, and #133. Not only hunting locations, these tracts preserve habitat for important bird and mammal species, provide opportunities for birding, and offer a variety of outdoor education resources.
There are also privately-owned recreational opportunities in the region. A portion of the historic Eagles Mere Country Club has provided golf and other activities for over 100 years. Eagles Mere Lake, just south of the watershed boundary, provides recreation opportunities for members of the privately-held Eagles Mere Association. At the south of the lake is the regionally-famous Eagles Mere Tobaggan Slide, where riders race down a specialized track at speeds up to 45 miles per hour, when winters are cold enough for sufficient ice conditions – a fleeting situation due to climate change.
A few miles to the east of Eagles Mere lies a cluster of lakes that surround the borough of Laporte, in Sullivan County. The largest of these lakes is Lake Mokoma, administered by the Lake Mokoma Association. Participation in the Association is limited to those who own residences or vacation homes in Sullivan County.
Fig. 5. Hiking trail in the Loyalsock State Forest. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
Fig. 6. An interactive map of recreation opportunities in the Loyalsock Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)
Note: Wetland data presented are from the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI), which is a geographically comprehensive dataset compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service from aerial photographs, but not a complete or accurate depiction of regulated wetlands for site-specific purposes. A relatively newer wetland mapping dataset for Pennsylvania appears to identify more areas of potential wetlands than NWI. Nevertheless, the NWI and other available map sources generally underestimate actual wetland coverage in Pennsylvania. Accurate wetland mapping requires the application of technical criteria in the field to identify the site-specific vegetation, soil, and hydrology indicators that define regulated wetlands (25 Pa. Code 105.451).
Stream data presented are from the Pennsylvania DEP Designated Use listing (25 Pa. Code 93.9), which is based on the National Hydrography Dataset. Some streams have updated designations of their existing water uses as depicted on other DEP datasets. Available electronic datasets and topographic maps do not display all permanent or intermittent streams included as Regulated Waters of the Commonwealth (25 Pa. Code 105.1). It is possible to map additional streams with the help of existing photo-based digital elevation models, although use of that technique was beyond the scope of this informational project. Such streams would add significantly to the total mileage, but they have not yet been acknowledged by the Pennsylvania DEP, and therefore are not included in the DEP’s inventories of high quality, exceptional value, or other streams.
The datasets used in this map collection can be found by following the links in the Details section of each map, found near the top-left corner of the page.
Figures 7-9. Aerial imagery of unconventional oil and gas infrastructure in the Loyalsock State Forest. (Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, with aerial assistance from Lighthawk. June, 2020)
On November 17, 2009, Inflection Energy began drilling the Ultimate Warrior I well in Upper Fairfield Township, Lycoming County. In quick succession came Pennsylvania General Energy, Chesapeake Appalachia, Chief Oil & Gas, Anadarko E&P, Alta Resources (ARD), and Southwestern Production (SWN), all of which drilled a well by the end of 2010. It was a veritable invasion on the watershed, one that ushered in a dramatic change from a mostly agrarian landscape, to one with heavy industrial presence.
Residents have to deal with constant construction of well pads, pipelines, compressor stations, and staging grounds. Since each drilled well requires thousands of truck trips, enormous traffic jams are common, with each idling engine spewing diesel exhaust into the once clean air. The noise of drilling and fracking continues into the night, and bright flaring of gasses at wells and other facilities disrupts sleep schedules, and may contribute to serious health issues as well.
Fig. 10. An interactive map of the impacts of the unconventional oil and gas industry to the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. Note: Pipelines may be only partially depicted due to data limitations. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)
Fracking is a nuisance and a risk in the best of times, but the Marcellus boom in the Loyalsock watershed has been notably problematic. The most frequent violations in the watershed are casing and cementing infractions, for which the “operator conducted casing and cementing activities that failed to prevent migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh groundwater.” This particular violation has been reported 47 times in the watershed, although there are dozens of additional casing and cementing issues that are similarly worded (see appendix). Erosion and sediment violations have also been commonplace, and these can have significant impacts on stream system health.
Improperly contained waste pits have leached toxic waste into the ground. A truck with drilling mud containing 103,000 milligrams per liter of chlorides – about five times more than ocean water – was driving down the road with an open valve, spewing fluids over a wide area. Some spills sent plumes of pollution directly into streams.
In short, it has been a mess. Altogether, there have been 631 violations issued for 317 unconventional wells drilled in the Loyalsock, an average of two violations per well.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issues violations on pipelines as well, but we are unable to match pipeline violations to a specific location, so there is no way to know which ones occurred in the Loyalsock watershed.
We also know that pipeline construction is a process filled with mishaps. Specifically, there is a technique for drilling a pipeline segment underneath existing obstacles – such as streams and roads – known as horizontal directional drilling (HDD). These HDD sites frequently bleed large quantities of drilling mud into the ground or surface water. When these leaks surface, these spills are known euphemistically as “inadvertent returns.” Sometimes, the same phenomenon occurs but the fluid drains instead to an underground cavity, referred to as “loss of circulation.” We do not have data on either category for pipelines in the Loyalsock watershed. However, the DEP has published inadvertent returns for the Mariner East II route to the south, and when combining spills impacting the water and ground, these occur at a rate of about two spills for every three miles of installed pipe. Many of these releases are measured in thousands of gallons.
Unfortunately, drilling and all related activity continue in the Loyalsock Creek watershed. As the industry has proven incapable of conducting these activities in an unsullied manner that is protective of the environment and the health of nearby residents, we can expect the litany of errors to continue to grow.
In 2016, a major incident was reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a federal agency under the Department of Transportation (DOT). On October 21, a Sunoco pipeline ruptured, spilling 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Run, a tributary of Loyalsock Creek. The eight-inch pipeline burst when high winds and heavy floods triggered mudslides, sweeping away at least two homes and leaving flooded roads impassable. Water suppliers and national and state agencies advised locals to conserve water, and the DEP and water supplier American Water shut down intake valves until they had measured contamination levels in three water supplies serving thousands of people downstream, including populations in Lewisburg, Milton, and Gamble Township.
Limited access to the area delayed identifying the source of the rupture, though Sunoco shut off the pipeline that runs from Reading to Buffalo, NY. When waters receded, Sunoco officials replaced the broken pipe, which they said was broken by debris from a washed out bridge ten feet upstream. The pipeline was buried five feet below the creek, but heavy rains exposed it.
Agency authorities later found that heavy rains had flushed out much of the pollution, though they recorded the highest levels in the Loyalsock Creek. While this is obviously a weather-related event, local residents questioned the placement of a hazardous liquids pipeline crossing at such a volatile location, noting that the same pipeline had been exposed, (although not breached), just five years earlier.
Sunoco tops the list of U.S. crude oil spills. Sunoco and their subsidiaries reported 527 hazardous liquids pipeline incidents between 2002 and 2017, incidents that released over 87,000 barrels of hazardous liquids, according to Greenpeace USA and Waterkeeper Alliances’ 2018 report on Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) & Sunoco’s History of Pipeline Spills. Sunoco and its subsidiary ETP are developing the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Mariner East pipeline, and the Permian Express pipeline, sites that have already seen construction errors causing leaks and spills.
The area suffered another heavy spill in 2017, when a well operated by Colorado-based Inflection Energy leaked over 63,000 gallons of natural gas drilling waste into a Loyalsock Creek tributary. The spill occurred when waste was being transferred from one container to another, a neglect of the contracted worker who had fallen asleep. DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the waste – called “flowback” – was filtered and treated, but this brine can contain chemicals, metals, salts, and other inorganic materials that can pollute soil and groundwater. Carol Parenzan, at the time serving as Middle Susquehanna’s Riverkeeper, said many residents are supplied by well water, and were not alerted of the spill until a local began investigating and calling local and state authorities.
Fig. 16. At the Chesapeake Appalachia LLC Manning Well Site and Lambert Farms Well Site, the emissions sources appear to be engines or combustion devices. (FLIR camera footage by Earthworks, July 2020)
One of Earthworks’ trained and certified thermographers visited the Loyalsock watershed and surrounding area in mid-July with a FLIR optical gas imaging (OGI) camera. This industry standard tool can make visible pollutants that are typically invisible to the human eye, but that still pose significant risks to health and the environment–including 20 volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogens benzene and toluene, and methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Oil and gas air pollution isn’t isolated to the Loyalsock watershed, and Earthworks has gathered optical gas imaging evidence of leaks and other air emissions on more PA public lands–like the Allegheny National Forest and the Pine Creek watershed area.
Water is the lifeblood of the Loyalsock watershed, as it is in any basin. However, in the Loyalsock, water is of particular importance. As we have seen, recreation opportunities in the area are defined by water, including fantastic fishing streams and lakes, meandering trails passing many waterfalls, various boating sites, and inviting swimming holes. For one reason or others, most visitors come to the Loyalsock to enjoy these natural aquatic locations.
Perhaps the most important water assets are underground aquifers. The majority of the watershed is rural, and private wells for potable household water are typical. Even the municipal water supply for the Borough of Montoursville is fed by groundwater, including five wells and an artesian spring.
For a region so dependent on surface water for tourism, commercial activities, and groundwater for drinking supplies, the arrival of fracking is a significant concern. Unfortunately, spills and other violations are common at well pads and related infrastructure, with over 631 violations in the watershed since 2010.
Even pipelines that are not yet operational can have impacts on the waterways in the Loyalsock Creek watershed. In September 2012, for example, a “significant amount” of sediment and mud spilled into the Loyalsock Creek during the construction of Central New York Oil and Gas’ Marc I pipeline project. Such incidents introduce silt and clay into waterways, fine sediments that have the potential to deplete aquatic fauna. These types of episodes have received considerably more attention since this event, and it turns out that they are quite common during pipeline construction. For example, the Mariner East pipeline has had hundreds of these so-called inadvertent returns, many of which directly affected the waters of the Commonwealth.
Fig. 17. Trucks withdrawing water for drilling-related activities at the Forksville Heritage Freshwater Station, operated by Chief Oil & Gas. Photo from FracTracker mobile app report.
Fig. 18. The average amount of water used per well in the Loyalsock Watershed has increased over time. In recent years, several wells exceeded 30 million gallons (FracTracker Alliance, 2020).
In addition to contamination concerns, unconventional oil and gas wells are extremely thirsty operations. FracTracker has analyzed wells in the watershed using the industry’s chemical registry site FracFocus. Of the 274 wells in the watershed reporting to FracFocus between January 2011 and April 2020, 38 did not include a value for total water usage. These wells were all fracked on or before September 13, 2012, when the registry was still in its early phase and its use was not well standardized. Two wells fracked in 2018 by Pennsylvania General Energy had very low water consumption figures, with one reporting 2,100 gallons, and the other reporting 6,636 gallons. These two reports appear to be erroneous, and so these wells were removed from our analysis.
Of the remaining 234 wells in the data repository, one reported using less than one million gallons, although it came close, with 925,606 gallons. Another 63 wells used between one and five million gallons, 137 wells used between five and ten million gallons, 25 wells used between ten and 20 million gallons, and eight used more than 20 million gallons. The average consumption was 7,739,542 gallons, while the maximum value was for Alta Resources’ Alden Evans A 2H well, which used 34,024,513 gallons of water.
The well’s operator has a tremendous impact on the total amount of water usage reported on FracFocus in the Loyalsock watershed.
However, it is worth noting that time factors into this analysis. None of the three companies averaging less than five million gallons of water per well – including Anadarko, Atlas, and Southwestern – have records after 2014, and water consumption has increased dramatically since then. Still, Alta’s average of nearly 24.7 million gallons per well stands out, with more than twice the amount of water consumed per well, compared to the next highest user.
Altogether, the wells on the FracFocus registry in the Loyalsock watershed consumed over 1.8 billion gallons of water, enough water to supply nearly 36,000 households for a year, assuming an average of 138 gallons per household, per day. This is a real need in the United States, as a 2019 report by DigDeep and US Water Alliance estimated that there were two million people in the U.S. without running water in their homes.
|Operator||Average Gallons per Well|
|Anadarko Petroleum Corporation||3,320,469|
|Atlas Energy, L.P.||4,926,427|
|Chesapeake Operating, Inc.||6,572,047|
|Chief Oil & Gas||8,537,475|
|Inflection Energy (PA) LLC||7,716,069|
|Pennsylvania General Energy||11,680,249|
|Seneca Resources Corporation||8,410,013|
Fig. 19. Total amount of water usage reported by oil and gas operators in the Loyalsock watershed. (FracFocus, 2020)
Fig. 20. An interactive map of oil and gas related water sites in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)
Between January 2011 and April 2020, two conventional wells and 297 unconventional wells combined to produce 7,017,102 barrels (294.7 million gallons) of liquid waste, and 340,856 tons (681.7 million pounds) of solid waste.
Fig. 21. Liquid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in barrels. Note that 2020 includes data from January to April only. (FracTracker Alliance, July 2020)
Fig. 22. Solid oil and gas waste produced in the Loyalsock Creek watershed, in tons. Note that 2020 includes data from January to April only. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
For sake of comparison, this amount of liquid waste could fill the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool more than 43 times, while the solid waste from this modest-sized watershed exceeds the weight of three Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
This averages out to 23,469 barrels (985,680 gallons) and 1,140 tons (2,279,973 pounds) per well drilled in the basin, and most of these wells are active and continue to produce waste. Many of these wells have generated waste quantities in great excess of these averages.
Unlike gas production, which tends to drop off precipitously after the first year, liquid waste production remains at an elevated level for years. For example, the Brooks Family A-201H well, the well reporting the largest quantity of liquid waste in the basin, produced 1,499 barrels in 2017, 28,847 barrels in 2018, 35,143 barrels in 2019, and 23,829 barrels in the first four months of 2020. The volumes from this well increase substantially each year.
For all wells in the watershed reporting liquid waste between 2018 and 2019, waste totals decreased by almost 42%. While a significant decrease, these 237 wells still generated 829,267 barrels (34.8 million gallons) of waste in 2019, and some have been generating waste since at least 2011. Wells will continue to produce waste until they are permanently plugged, but unfortunately, there are plans for more drilling in the watershed. There are 17 active status wells that have been permitted and not yet drilled. Important to remember is that fracking waste is often radioactive, and laden with salt, chemicals, and other contaminants, making it a hazardous product to transport, treat, or dispose.
Fig. 23. Cumulative liquid waste totals produced by oil and gas wells in Loyalsock Creek watershed between January 2011 and April 2020. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
Fig. 24. An interactive map of oil and gas waste generated in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed between January 2011 and May 2020. (FracTracker Alliance, July, 2020)
On a sunny Friday in June 2020, a group of 18 FracTracker staff members and volunteers gathered in the Loyalsock watershed to document activities and infrastructure related to unconventional oil and gas activities. FracTracker’s Matt Kelso used a variety of data from the DEP to prepare maps depicting an array of infrastructure, including 317 drilled wells on 110 different pads, five compressor stations, a compressed natural gas truck terminal, and 24 water facilities related to oil and gas extraction – including five surface water withdrawal sites and 19 storage reservoirs. He then divided an area of about 496 square miles into five sections, and at least two participants were assigned to explore each section.
Using the FracTracker mobile app, cameras, and other documentation tools, the group was able to verify the location of 91 infrastructure sites, including well pads, compressor stations, pipelines, water withdrawal sites and reservoirs, as well as significant truck traffic. As they made their way over the rural back roads, many participants were struck by the juxtaposition of a breathtaking landscape and peaceful farmlands with imposing, polluting fracking sites.
The day was also documented by Rachel McDevitt from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a reporting project of NPR member stations, as well as the filmmakers Justin Grubb, Alex Goatz, and Michael Clark from Running Wild Media.
With the geolocated photos and site descriptions documented on this day, FracTracker was able to compile this story atlas to serve as an educational tool for concerned residents of the Loyalsock.
You can find these reports and many more by downloading the FracTracker app on your iOS or Android device, or by going to the web app at https://app.fractracker.org/.
Click on various elements in te map to see visualizations such as videos, FLIR camera footage, gifs, and photos.
Fig. 32. An interactive map of community-led documentation of oil and gas related impacts in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed. (FracTracker Alliance, 2020)
Barb Jarmoska is a lifelong environmental and social justice activist with property adjacent to the Loyalsock State Forest that has been in her family for five generations. She has witnessed a dramatic and devastating transformation of the pristine area surrounding her home as the fracking industry moved into what they consider the Marcellus Sacrifice Zone.
This is Barb’s account, in her own words:
“For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple,” wrote poet Mary Oliver. I understand those words, they are part of my lifetime of lived experience in the Loyalsock watershed.
I am a retired special-ed teacher and a business owner – a mother and a grandmother – and someone who treasures and reveres the rapidly dwindling wild places in Penns Woods.
Where my front yard ends, the Loyalsock State Forest (LSF) begins. Access to my property is via a no-outlet gravel road that dead-ends in the Forest.
In 1933, my grandfather bought 20 acres with an old cabin and barn bordering what is now the LSF.
As a child, I didn’t miss indoor plumbing or air conditioning in that cabin beside the Loyalsock Creek where we spent our summers. I now live on the land year-round, in a home I built in 2007, before I had ever heard the words Marcellus Shale. I have indoor plumbing now, but still no desire for air conditioning, preferring to rely on open windows and big shade trees.
The memories my family has made on this land are priceless, and my grandchildren are the fifth generation to run in the meadow, swim and fish in the creek, climb the trees, and play in the nearby woods of the PA Wilds. In our increasingly transient society, roots this deep are precious and rare.
My appalled, angry, and admittedly frightened response to the gas industry invasion of the Loyalsock watershed began in 2010, when a parade of trucks spewing diesel fumes rumbled up the no-outlet road I live on, enroute to leased COP tracts in the LSF.
That dirt trail that we loved to hike was the first thing to go. Dump trucks carrying fist-sized gravel and heavy equipment transformed the forest trail into a road – gated off and posted with trespass warnings carrying severe penalties. In my neighborhood, as in so many places in the watershed, land that legally belongs to the citizens now carries grim warnings of the consequences of trespassing.
When the drilling and fracking equipment passed my driveway, the ground shook. Oftentimes, I had to wait 15 or 20 minutes just to leave – or come home. There was a flag car pretty much permanently blocking my driveway for a while. I also walked out for the mail one day and found a porta-potty had been set up on my land. No one thought to ask permission. They just put it on my property – a few yards from my mailbox.
Life in my Loyalsock watershed neighborhood has forever changed at the hands of industry permitted to remove millions of gallons of water for fracking from the Loyalsock – the beautiful Creek that carries the designation “Exceptional Value”. Named PA’s River of the Year in 2018, the Loyalsock Creek begins in the endless mountain region of the PA Wilds, and travels 64 miles on its way to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
The beloved Loyalsock Creek provides recreation for hundreds of fishermen, kayakers, inner-tubers, swimmers, and summer cabin dwellers – offering clear water that to this day supports abundant fish, amphibians, birds, and wildlife – clear water the gas industry now pumps out by the millions of gallons, to be mixed with toxic chemicals and forced at great pressure through boreholes a mile deep and miles long, to release methane trapped in the Marcellus Shale.
In 2018, about two miles from my home, an estimated 55,000 gallons of “produced water” spilled from a well pad ironically named TLC. This toxic fluid ran downhill into a tributary and directly into the Loyalsock Creek. On its approximately two-mile path, the chemicals flooded a little tributary that runs through a rural neighborhood where children play in the water. Frightened residents gathered to question DEP about the safety of their private drinking water wells, and they expressed concern over the tadpoles and frogs, and in the deeper, shady pools – native trout they were used to seeing.
Pennsylvania lawmakers could obey the Constitution, protect the watershed, and choose a way forward that leads to a future of renewable energy and well-paying green jobs for Pennsylvania citizens, as well as the promise of a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.
Time is running out.
I look at my grandchildren and believe that such a shift of consciousness and political will is truly their last, great hope.
Keep It Wild
-By Barb Jarmoska
On its own, climate change brings with it a wave of new and/or intensified challenges to PA’s state forests, parks, and natural areas. Flooding and erosion, insect-borne illnesses, invasive species, and changes to plant and animal life are ongoing issues the state’s natural resource managers have to consider as the climate changes. These interactive stressors will continue to disrupt ecosystem function, processes, and services; result in the loss of biodiversity and shifts in forest compositions; and negatively impact industries and communities reliant on Penns Woods.
Over the past 110 years, PA’s average temperature has increased nearly two degrees Fahrenheit, and the Commonwealth has also seen a gradual uptick in annual precipitation, but a decline in and shorter span of snow cover. As ranges shift, the state will see the distribution and abundance of native plants and animals change, a pattern that will continue to accelerate.
Penns Woods are home to over 100 species of trees. Oak/hickory forests contain primarily oaks, maples, and hickories, with an understory of rhododendrons and blueberry bushes. Northern hardwood forests are composed of black cherry, maples, American beech, and birch, with understories of ferns, striped maple and beech brush. But the composition of PA’s forests are changing. Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute compared colonial-era data to recent U.S. Forest Service data, and found that maples have increased by as much as 20%, but beeches, oaks and chestnuts – important foliage for wildlife – have declined. The presence of pine trees has been more volatile, seeing increases in some areas, and decreases in others.
Overall, PA’s forests are becoming more unsustainable, conditions compounded by misaligned harvesting, suburban sprawl, insect infestations, and disease. These impacts trickle down to the wildlife that call Penns Woods home. PA’s Natural Heritage Program has begun to compile this Environmental Review List, to identify threatened and endangered species, species of special concern, and rare and significant ecological features.
One of the most notable among these is North America’s largest salamander, the eastern hellbender, designated PA’s official amphibian in April 2019. This salamander is a great indicator of clean and well-oxygenated water, as it requires fast-flowing, freshwater habitat with large rock deposits to thrive. Originally dispersed across the Appalachians from Georgia to New York, the eastern hellbender’s population has suffered greatly from the impacts of pollution, erosion and sedimentation, dams, and amphibious fungal disease.
These salamanders can reach lengths up to two feet, and live for as long as 50 years, so their presence is a key indicator of long-term stream and riparian health. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has monitored their habitats throughout PA since 2007. Though named the state’s official amphibian, this title does not incorporate its special protection.
Fig. 33. An aerial view of the Loyalsock Creek. (Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, June 2020)
In its recent Loyalsock State Forest Resource Management Plan (SFRMP), PA DCNR states that “Natural gas development…especially at the scale seen in the modern shale-gas era, can affect a variety of forest resources, uses, and values, such as:
• recreational opportunities,
• the forest’s wild character and scenic beauty, and
• plant and wildlife habitat.”
Despite extensive areas marred by well pads and other fracking infrastructure, the Loyalsock watershed retains resplendent beauty and pastoral character. Natural resources have endured spills, leaks, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, and increases in impervious buildout related to the gas industry. While a global pandemic and cascading company debts have diminished extraction activities, the region remains vulnerable to future attempts to drill more — on both private and public lands.
Indicative of the omnipresent threats, Pennsylvania General Energy Company, LLC (PGE) intends to develop a substantial pipeline corridor across the Loyalsock Valley. According to PA DEP public records, the project includes the construction of the Shawnee Pipeline, with over 15,000 linear feet of an existing eight-inch diameter gas pipeline to be replaced with a 16-inch pipeline. It will be supplemented by the Shawnee Pipeline Phase 2, encompassing an additional 189 linear feet of gas pipeline.
Arranged to accompany the pipelines is a temporary waterline to extend from planned pump stations on both sides of the Loyalsock Creek, to a proposed impoundment site within Loyalsock State Forest.
The company envisions cofferdams and trenches to cross the Loyalsock Creek. Other streams and wetlands will also be traversed, further degrading and endangering these vulnerable resources. Visible scarring from the pipeline cut is a major concern adding to the diminishment of the valley’s lush, green slopes. Methods exist to minimize the visibility of such development, but no one knows if PGE will follow those practices, or if regulators will require this of them. Some believe the project portends more fracking — with ceaseless demands for more water, and endless production of noxious waste and climate-killing emissions.
Only a few miles northeast of the watershed, New Fortress Energy is constructing a 260-acre complex near Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, to convert fracked gas into liquified natural gas, or LNG. The LNG will be dangerously transported by truck and rail to a planned export facility in Gibbstown, New Jersey, to send these private exploits overseas. A local group, Protect Northern PA, has formed to encourage a more sustainable path forward for the area, one that values people and the planet. The New Fortress Energy plant, if completed, would create inertia for extended extraction across the Marcellus Shale.
But hope abides in the Loyalsock. Hikers flock to enchanted trails, revelers rejoice on graveled shores. The place exudes an invisible elixir called stewardship, rippling through the air, nourishing receptive hearts and minds. Brandished for free, it shares this necessary ethos, seeking more followers.
Thank you to all of the inspiring and steadfast environmental stewards who have contributed to the creation of this digital atlas:
Project funding provided by The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds