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Big storms and fracking: what's at stake?

Amy Mall

Posted October 29, 2012

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Here in Washington, D.C. the winds are fast, furious, and loud as we await the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. Winds have been clocked up to 90 mph as the storm hits land with the lowest pressure ever recorded in the northeast. Images of a crane dangling off a Manhattan skyscraper are as scary as the reports that flooding will occur as far north as Vermont and New Hampshire.

West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio are all expected to be hit by the storm. What could it mean for fracking sites in the Marcellus shale?

One of the greatest risks at these sites are spills and what is called "stormwater runoff." 

Under the Clean Water Act, there is something called the Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule which includes requirements for oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response to prevent oil discharges to navigable waters and adjoining shorelines. The rule requires specific facilities to prepare, amend, and implement spill prevention plans. Sounds like a no-brainer. But in Fiscal Year 2011, EPA officials visited 120 sites oil and gas development sites and found 105 were out of compliance-- 87.5%. (Note: these do not have to be oil production sites. For example, natural gas pads may have enough fuel for drill rigs stored on site to trigger this requirement.)

Almost every single oil and gas site inspected lacked a mandatory spill prevention plan meant to protect our rivers and streams. This is an unacceptable flouting of our environmental laws.

In addition to a spill prevention plan, oil and gas companies should have something called a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan. During a rainstorm, flowing water can pick up pollutants along the way, including toxic materials like fracking chemicals or fracking waste. Most companies are required by the Clean Water Act to get a stormwater permit by submitting a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan outlining precautions the company will take to avoid illegal discharge of pollutants and impacts to nearby rivers and streams. Ensuring prevention of stormwater run-off is not rocket science. It requires simple measures such as sufficient berms and containment systems. But the oil and gas industry is exempt from having to get a permit for uncontaminated stormwater discharges, which means regulators do not have to approve a pollution prevention plan--or even see if a company really has one for each site.

This is all increasingly terrifying as Sandy bears down on the Marcellus region, where there are many open pits filled with fracking and related waste. Because the oil and gas industry is also exempt from our hazardous waste laws, no one knows exactly how dangerous the waste at any particular site might be, but we know it can be very toxic and also radioactive. NRDC opposes storing of fracking and production waste in these open air pits, but it is still allowed.

What does a flooded wellpad look like? Here is a photo of a flooded wellpad in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, after Tropical Storm Lee in September, 2011:


Photo credit: Carol French, used with permission.

And here is a photo of how dangerously close millions of gallons of potentially toxic fracking waste can be to homes, in this case in Washington County, Pennsylvania:


Photo credit: Robert Donnan, used with permission. 

NRDC opposes having dangerous fracking waste stored so close to people's homes. Hurricane Sandy is terrifying for many reasons. For people living next to fracking waste sites, one of them is that the storm may flood these sites and cause toxic substances to flow onto their land, their home, or their farm. It is well past due for the toxic waste loophole for the oil and gas industry to be closed.

Corrected version posted on November 14, 2012

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BellaCOct 30 2012 05:15 AM

Big concern.....just a few clarification questions...So during last year's big storm were there any actual cases of contamination or toxic runoff from well pads? Are those yellow things in your first photo contained loop metal tanks designed to prevent runoof or release of fluids? If I blow up same photo, do I actually see earthern berms around the lease?
Just askin'

Rachel TreichlerOct 30 2012 08:15 AM

I don't see an earth berm in the picture attached here.

Michael BerndtsonOct 30 2012 09:44 AM

I was thinking about this exact issue yesterday. Great synopsis and very timely. Put it this way, if a pit is open and bottom lined, chances are extremely high for overflow given this storm. Or if designed as such, the water will be pumped out into ditches, streams and rivers. Either way not good.

I would love to rant on all things energy, climate change and environmental protection - but won't - sort of. The common thread is the putsch by oil and gas, chemical manufacturers and politicians over the past 10 years to defund environmental protection and remediation. I would put the date around June of 2002 when Bush admin decided to defund Superfund. The Gingrich congress in the mid to late 1990s did a good job chipping away at funding. Obama moved some money into the EPA and Superfund in 2009 from the stimulus - but that looks like a one time event. And with this defunding went de- and under- funding of RCRA, CWA, CWW, et al. Sadly, we simply don't have money for protection and remediation be it for land, water and air. Its all sitting elsewhere in private offshore accounts.

If I'm not mistaken (massive reading and skimming literature and regs of late), drillers and gas operators can declare force majeure (acts of god clauses in contracts) and pass its storm mitigation and remediation costs onto insurance and state and federal governments. And again if I'm not mistaken, the insurance companies or if the O&G company is self insured can pass (or write off) its force majeure claims costs onto States and Feds (tax payers).

This fracking overselling and complete disregard for the environment issue and the complete denial of crazy weather and climate change (e.g. Sandy and every multiple other natural disasters of late) is bumming me out.

Great job (scrolling up to get the post's authors name) Amy. And for all living along the east coast my heart goes out for you.

Environmental EngineerOct 30 2012 09:55 AM

Amy, I think you've got this exactly wrong.
The right place for energy development is where people can see it. That leads to better practices by the developers, and better oversight by the regulators. NIMBY is the enemy of good environmental practices. Developments that are in places that are almost impossible to reach are much less likely to have effective oversight.
Now, to the photos: In Photo 2, if you look closely at the green tanks in the lower left corner, you will see a retention liner around the tanks, as required by SPCC planning. Whether or not it is appropriately sized is impossible to judge from the photo. But it is there. Also, you will note that just above and to the right of the tanks there are about 20 rolls of black plastic liner. Probably the same impermeable liner as used in the retention pond, and can be seen on the outer edges of the pond. You will note that the black liner extends from within the pond (it is covered with silt on the lower portions) to outside the upper lip of the pond. I make note of that because, in the FIRST photo, if you look closely in front of the yellow steel tanks, you will see a similar black line -- probably the impermeable liner that lines that impoundment area. From the photo, it is impossible to conclude, as you claim, that the tanks are in a flooded area. The fact that the black plastic liner can be seen above the waterline would seem to dispute that. Sure, it is possible that they are. But without something more substantial, I see no indication that the are. What I do see in the second photo is some substantial planning, investment, and implementation of SPCC and SWPPP.

Russell S. DonnellyOct 30 2012 12:51 PM

Hello Amy; the industrial operations do exhibit their given BMP requirements; yet that is just the point; these measures and the operations are still profit oriented; as opposed to Public Health; Welfare; Safety; and the Environment (Title 42). I believe;at the time of this posting; in the aftermath of Nature's fury; the key points of environmental inadequacy in corporate machine methodology are painfully illustrated. Every wellhead and holding pond operation has been compromised; this event alone will take years to assess the acute, chronic, and cumulative damages incurred on living entities and their ecosystems. For the sake of enterprise; we are mindlessly sacrificing our resources and the very continuance of our species on this planet. " An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure". Mankind must learn to be commensalistic; not parasitic or viral.

ICOct 30 2012 02:30 PM

First, I would like to respond to "Environmental Engineer": NIMBY is not the enemy of good engineering practices. NIMBY (not in my backyard) is a term commonly used by developers to imply those who are against a proposed development, are selfish in the face of our collective greater good. When in reality, it is often people fighting to prevent the devaluation of their property, degradation of the local environment, and negative impacts to their health. What leads to bad engineering practices are a wide range of factors, namely a blatant disregard for industry, local, state, federal guidelines (cheaper to pay the fine, if caught); insufficient funding for a project, leading to short-cuts; shoddy workmanship/lack of managerial and engineering oversight/failure to execute; the lack of a holistic, or multidisciplinary approach to a problem; and often, a failure to properly engineer a solution to the appropriate risk level or failing to account for probable scenarios in the design ("it wasn't considered in our model"). NIMBY has nothing to do with this.

With regards to the notion that remote areas are more difficult to inspect or provide appropriate oversight, and hence, it is best to co-locate gas development in populated areas: if the area, no matter how remote, was accessible for gas/oil development, then is sure as hell is available for oversight ad management. If not, then the energy developer did not account for long-term oversight and management of the remote facility. This would lead me to believe that the solution was not properly engineered or the energy developer simply does not want to make the necessary expenditures to ensure that the facility has the appropriate oversight and maintenance. Unless, of course, you are suggesting the purpose of locating industrial gas and oil facilities close to residential areas is a means of oversight and failure detection. That is, the people located near the facility become the canary in the coalmine, so to speak.

Perhaps this is what you meant by good engineering practices.

Mary SweeneyOct 30 2012 04:03 PM

To Environmental Engineer:

I sure hope you will be in the market for a new home if/when gas drilling/fracking drives my husband and me out of our beloved home of 28 years. Since you obviously think it's a great deal to have to live literally side-by-side with the gas industry and to simultaneously assume the unpaid position of monitoring the gas industry's activities, I imagine you will be delighted to pay full price for my home!!!!

cdanon76Oct 30 2012 08:41 PM

Mary Sweeney,

Enough of the emotional hyperbole already. You have no reason to move out of your "beloved home of 28 years" other than to play the victim and flaunt the the misplaced hysteria so common among the anti-gas zealots. And why do you feel put upon to pay attention to this matter? Just give it the same attention that you would give to any other matter in your community and mind your own business otherwise. Do you feel put upon to report a suspicious prowler or to stop a friend from driving drunk? Of course not! But yet you're not out looking for these situations like some nosey busy body. Or are you?
As environmental engineer stated, you have it exactly wrong. And not just the technicalities related to drilling, storms, and flooding.

Michael BerndtsonOct 31 2012 12:10 PM

Using a pseudonym to comment upon another commentor's real-life concerns, is kind of pusillanimous, no? Environmental Engineer is a contracted troll, period. Or is he you? His statement, which is very rigorous btw, appears a bit too defensive (almost personal) for just a concerned citizen commenting on a blog post.

Mary SweeneyOct 31 2012 01:12 PM

I'm genuinely uncertain how to take cdanon76's comments. I'm wondering if perhaps they were intended as satire. It's tough to see why anyone would think that a responsible person would fail to report a suspicious prowler or stop a friend from driving drunk, and it's also tough to see how someone could look at the photos accompanying Amy Mall's blog post and then refer to someone who is concerned about shale gas extraction as a "nosey busy body."

At any rate, I'll state for the record (using my own name, not a pseudonym) that my husband and I are 100% serious about leaving our home if fracking is permitted in our area. We have come to this decision after a great deal of thought and careful research. Our research included going to PA to see fracking operations firsthand.

We are not alone--we know other local residents who plan to leave the area if fracking is permitted here.

Amy MallOct 31 2012 03:26 PM

Thanks for all the comments. The photos are meant to illustrate that these pits can be very close to homes, and that the environment is not sufficiently protected. There are good reasons why industrial activities involving toxic materials are generally banned from residential and agricultural areas. The oil and gas industry certainly needs better oversight--but community members should not be required to do the job of regulators. Too often, problems come to light only because a community member reported it -- instead of a company reporting it or a regulator identifying it. Instead, the strongest protections should be in place, like requiring enclosed tanks instead of open air pits to store toxic waste. And these facilities should not be near homes or schools, where they can spill, emit dangerous air pollutants, or seep into groundwater.

David SteinOct 31 2012 04:04 PM

Amy Mall clearly intends to use Sandy as a publicity machine against the oil & gas industry. While doing so may serve her political interests, it demonstrates a preference for mitigating certain sources of pollution – without consideration of relative impacts of other sources.

Amy Mall and NRDC will find vindication if her volunteers can produce photos that evidence sedimentation reaching roadside ditches near wellsites.
We know that millions of gallons of untreated sewage was discharged from New York City directly into the Hudson and East Rivers. We witnessed significant numbers of flooded and overturned boats and cars. Those vehicles, along with submerged heating oil tanks, likely discharged significant amounts of hydrocarbons.

Unfortunately, NRDC appears less interested in the real and substantial environmental impacts of the storm – and more interested in developing talking points to further their political goals.

Mary Sweeney - It would be unfortunate if you and your family felt compelled to leave the state. You would be joining the thousands of families that have been forced to leave since July 23, 2008. Our communities are hungering for leadership from Albany to help steer Upstate New York out of its economic abyss. Albany told our geologists and engineers to seek work elsewhere.

Governor Cuomo passed the tax cap limiting our schools abilities to raise funds. My Daughter’s sixth grade is doing without a math teacher. My son’s fourth grade class is now 24 students per teacher, up from 17 two years ago. The Ad Valorem Tax generated by a single Utica wellbore in my school district could completely cover our school’s budget shortfall.
NRDC doesn’t seem terribly concerned with how their policies are affecting our local governments and schools.

Amy MallOct 31 2012 06:17 PM

Dear Mr. Stein: While my blog focuses on oil and gas development issues, NRDC is absolutely concerned about protecting the environment from all threats. We are also concerned about communities having strong economies to fund good schools and other essential programs.

Environmental EngineerNov 1 2012 11:59 AM

Hello Amy, and thank you for your blog and response. I agree that oil and gas production activities need effective regulation. But I disagree that such activity is, should be, or realistically could be, banned from from residential and agricultural areas. That is, if the banning was based on good science, and not just on hyperactive speculation. "Activites involving toxic materials" is pretty broad. It would be interesting to calculate the relative health risk from breaking a CFC lightbulb in my kitchen as compared to living near the storage pond in Photo 2 that would temporarily contain recovered fracking water. My expectation is that neither would pose a significant health risk, but neither would be zero risk. Both fracking and CFCs have benefits that would outweigh those risks.

Amy MallNov 1 2012 12:09 PM

Environmental Engineer: Here is background information on the family that had to live next to that pit:
Unfortunately, many of these pits are in place for long periods of time.

cdanon76Nov 2 2012 07:47 PM

In regards to the pits, the simplest solution is to do as NY is proposing, require closed loop operations. It is a best practice that is being adopted voluntarily, but it won't hurt to require it across the board. Risk mitigated, problem solved, move on to next problem, find a solution, repeat.
Beyond that the pit in the photo appears to be a fresh water storage facilty, not waste water holding. Fresh water storage will not present a risk assuming the retaining is properly engineered. But properly engineering a retaining berms is no different than doing the same for any other manmade body of water. We've been doing such efforts for centuries and can do it safely. The one in the photo appears to be a completely dug pit with no raised retaining berms, so it is safer yet.

Comments are closed for this post.


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