Pennsylvania's Gasland Spill

by |April 25, 2011

Towanda Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. 2009, photo by Labenedict via WikiCommons

Last week, a year after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a steel coupling failed at a natural gas well in Northern Pennsylvania, gushing tens of thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water into nearby Towanda Creek. No injuries were reported, but seven families had to be evacuated from their homes as Chesapeake Enegery, LLC, which operates the well, figured out how best to stop the flow of water, which contained heavy metals, lubricants, and other contaminants.

Chesapeake uses a controversial practice called hydraulic fracturing at the Leroy Township well — one of more than 80,000 natural gas wells in Pennsylvania. Known as fracking, the process involves injecting large volumes of water — often millions of gallons per well — at pressures as high as 9,000 psi thousands of feet below ground level. Injection water is mixed with a slurry of chemicals which help break up shale to release tiny bubbles of natural gas embedded in the rock. Typically a third to a half of the water pumped into the ground comes back up with the gas, and is usually contained in pits near the drill pad. In Leroy Twp., the well’s coupling failed after heavy rain, so the pits quickly overflowed. Chesapeake finally fabricated a temporary plug for the well with ground up tires and bits of plastic several days after the leak began, but the environmental damage assessment is ongoing.

Fire boats battle the blaze after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 21, 2010. USCG image

That the spill occurred on the anniversary of one of the United States’ worst environmental catastrophies is a strange coincidence, but activists bent on keeping fracking from expanding into New York have been quick to point out that the accident in Leroy Twp. hasn’t been the only one in Pennsylvania. In February, an explosion at another Chesapeake well site in Western Pennsylania injured three workers. The company has been cited on nearly 300 violations by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection since 2008, 30 of them this year.

The number of wells in the Marcellus Shale — a massive natural gas deposit that lies beneath seven U.S. states — has increased exponentially since Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, exempting fracking from the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. Despite industry claims that fracking is a clean, safe way to extract natural resources, the number of violations racked up by natural gas companies across the country over the past four years is close to 3,000. The drilling boom has come at a time when state budgets stressed by a poor economy have been unable to keep up with the demands of gas well inspection. The Pennsylvania DEP has less than 200 inspectors to keep tabs on the state’s expansive inventory of gas wells. That begs the question, if Chesapeake has logged 30 violations this year, how many have gone by undetected?

Josh Fox, director of Gasland, a documentary exposing the environmental damage caused by the recent oil and gas drilling boom, spoke at Columbia University after a screening of his film Friday evening. Fox, a Pennsylvania resident, had just returned from Leroy Twp., one of many sites he’s visited while filming Gasland II.

“What’s needed right now is massive protest and civil disobedience,” said Fox, opining that the only way to stop unsafe energy development practices is to push lawmakers toward renewable energy resources. Although the oil and gas industry touts natural gas as a clean-burning fossil fuel, Fox pointed out that chemical contaminants, prodigious truck traffic, and the staggering amount of water consumed by fracking make it not so clean. “[In Leroy Twp.] it took me an hour to drive three miles. It was gas truck, water truck, gas truck, gas truck, gravel truck — there were so many trucks, all from fracking.”

NYC City Councilman James Gennaro (L) with Gasland director Josh Fox at the film's HBO premiere. 2010, photo by Jim Gennaro via WikiCommons

Wearing his trademark hornrim glasses, a black hoodie, and a New York Yankees cap, Fox pointed out that the only reason fracking hasn’t yet come to New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale is that New York City residents concerned about potential impacts to the city’s water supply have refused to let the issue rest.

Although Fox has relied upon gimmicks such as playing a banjo while wearing a gas mask to draw attention to the dangers of fracking, his message has reverberated with millions of people concerned about the future of their water supply. Gasland has come under attack by the oil and gas industry for what they say is the film’s lack of a factual basis. A Google search for the film reveals an advertisement by America’s Natural Gas Alliance titled, The Truth About Gasland. At Friday’s screening, Fox countered industry claims that tap water ignited in the film was “biogenic,” or naturally occurring.

“Sure it was naturally occurring, but it didn’t start getting into people’s drinking water until gas wells were drilled nearby,” he said.

Perhaps one of the most jarring features of Gasland — a 2011 Oscar nominee for best feature documentary — is the film’s aerial views of gas wells in the West. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that there are 461,388 gas wells in the United States. That figure is two years out of date.¬†From Wyoming’s Bureau of Land Management rangelands to the Louisiana low country (where a surfeit of drilling operations has led to intense, precipitously catastrophic erosion), fossil fuel extraction has turned once-pristine lasndscapes into a swiss cheese of industrial development. Even the remotest places have been affected, and since gas deposits often exist in sparsely populated areas with little regulatory infrastructure, they are most at risk of being destroyed. But whether or not a person gets sentimental about loss of natural beauty, contaminated water supply — Gasland’s main issue — is something most people can agree they don’t want to have to deal with.

Fortunately, there are enough New Yorkers worried about the future of the city’s currently unfiltered drinking water reservoirs that serious questions are being asked of state lawmakers as they consider a possible extension on the state’s fracking moratorium. The current ban is set to expire on July 3.

Pennsylvania has been slower to hold frackers accountable for environmental damage, but last week’s mishap prompted the state’s DEP to crack down on gas companies dumping hydrofrack effluent into sewage treatment plants unequipped to handle the chemicals coming out of the wells.

Chesapeake hasn’t yet released the list of chemicals spilled into Towanda Creek, but at a well the company operates nearby, it uses hydrochloric acid, ethanol, formamide, methanol, didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride, propargyl alcohol and glutaraldehyde among others. The Pennsylvania DEP took samples along Towanda Creek as well as further downstream on the Susquehanna River, but results aren’t expected until later this week. Officials said that field testing indicated minimal damage, a claim corroborated by Chesapeake. In the meantime, Chesapeake shut down all of its wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia as it investigates the cause of last week’s well failure. One area resident who spoke with an AP reporter said that regardless of what testing shows at this point, he’s been drinking bottled water.

An Appalachian gas drilling rig. 2008, photo by Meredith w via WikiCommons

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Although Gasland was nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, “Inside Job” won.

Oscars: ‘Inside Job’ wins for documentary feature
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/awards/2011/02/oscars-wins-for-documentary-feature.html

Also, feel free to check this post about the impact of Gasland and some other environmentally minded Oscar nominees:

Do Oscar Nominations Influence Environmental Movements, Policies? Go Gasland!
http://www.ecocentricblog.org/2011/02/15/do-oscar-nominations-influence-environmental-movements-policies-go-gasland/