Pennsylvania: examples of oil and gas drilling gone wrong, but an opportunity to get it right

Pennsylvania. My dad was born and raised there. He also retired there, to a magnificent landscape just south of Lake Nockamixon among the rolling green hills, old stone houses, and bucolic countryside of the serene Delaware River Valley.

North of the lake is the Township of Nockamixon. Earlier this year the Township endorsed federal legislation to repeal the hydraulic fracturing exemption in the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Township cited many reasons, including the importance of water to the community as well as its downstream neighbors and the fundamental precept that it is more effective to protect water by preventing contamination than by cleaning it up after the fact. The Township of Nockamixon also passed rules for natural gas drilling that, among other things, require that all drilling and production be at least 600 feet from residences or buildings used for public assembly and require natural gas producers to submit water quality tests for local approval. Too much to ask? The Township was sued by industry over these rules.

Why does Nockamixon feel the need to take action to protect its water and its citizens?

Pennsylvania has over 70,000 oil and gas wells and, unfortunately, has too many examples of the environmental harms caused by oil and gas production operations. I've listed some incidents below:

In Bradford Township, seven water wells on one street--Hedgehog Lane--were contaminated earlier this year. The state has prohibited additional drilling in the area at this time but is allowing fracturing to go forward. In a letter to their town supervisors, over 30 residents of Hedgehog Lane asked for: new water supplies because over ten homes have contaminated water; air pollution controls due to "caustic" and unhealthy air that keeps residents inside their homes; noise controls to protect them from the constant compressor noise that keeps residents from sleeping at night; enforcement of safety regulations against hazardous roadway conditions, road damage, speeding trucks, tanks without placards and pits without barriers; and property tax reductions to in some small way help compensate for dramatic decreases in property values. The letter signers are not opposed to drilling, not even in their own township. They wrote: "We do not want to be difficult or take advantage of anybody; we only want what is fair. Please restore our neighborhood to what it was before this drilling occurred. Hedgehog is a big hill and allows enough room for drilling and people's homes." Their requests have not yet been honored.

In the summer of 2008, contamination of a drinking water well used by two families in Gibbs Hill occurred after hydraulic fracturing of a nearby natural gas well. One resident, a nurse, smelled strong fumes and experienced burning in her lungs and sinuses after showering. Her fiancé drank water and felt immediate burning in his mouth. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) found that pressure in the gas well had exceeded the pressure in the surrounding fresh groundwater system and that there had been unpermitted discharge of hydraulic fracturing fluids, but has not yet issued any final order or enforcement action.

In Dimock Township, a residential drinking water well exploded without warning near a new gas well in January, 2008. At least three other water wells have been contaminated. This case is still being investigated. Dimock has also been the site of two large diesel fuel spills in recent years, as well as torn pit liners and other leaks. In McNett Township , a leaking gas well has contaminated family water supplies as well as two tributaries to Lycoming Creek. In Kushequa, gas drilling is blamed for several explosions in the community water well in September 2007. In Hickory, Ronald Gulla reports that his family farm has been ruined and his fish pond polluted. He has not gotten any help from government agencies. Last year, inadequately treated drilling wastewater contributed to a water quality emergency in the Monongahela River, prompting PADEP to issue a bottled water advisory for 325,000 water customers.

A recent article also discusses accidents in Bridgeville, Vandergrift and, most tragically, Corsica, where three people were killed in a house explosion caused by methane migration from a nearby natural gas well.

On a positive note, the Pennsylvania DEP recently issued a cease and desist order to U.S. Energy Development Corporation, prohibiting new drilling but letting it continue to operate existing wells--after 302 violations over two years.

Pennsylvania--a beautiful state. It can update its oil and gas production rules and strengthen its enforcement activities to catch up with industry expansion and technological advancements. Pennsylvania has a long history of encouraging companies to innovate and adopt new technologies through its Ben Franklin Partnership, which has served as a model for other states. Pennsylvania can now be a model for other states dealing with oil and gas operations by showing the rest of the country how to protect communities, health, and our environment while also stimulating a cleaner and greener oil and gas production industry.