Pennsylvania farming community turned into natural gas waste zone

The following is a guest post researched and written by NRDC legal fellow John Wood:

The Titchen-Bohlander family has managed its farm, nestled in a lush agricultural community in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, for over 150 years in relative peace and quiet.  But this year is different. 

Chesapeake Energy Corporation was granted a residual waste general permit by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the processing, transfer and beneficial use of natural gas well waste at a regional treatment plant on land belonging to the Titchen-Bohlander farm's neighbor. The waste, including used drilling fluids, used frack fluids, and produced water, can be contaminated with hazardous chemicals and radioactive elements.

Generally NRDC is strongly supportive of the recycling of oil and gas waste. Recycling the waste and reusing it in future operations can reduce water demand and toxic waste and help protect clean water as well as air quality and land. Recycling of waste, however, has to be done right--just like any other aspect of the oil and gas extraction process. 

According to a detailed letter sent to the DEP by PennFuture, Chesapeake is also processing solid waste or "tank solids" at this facility, even though its permit is only for liquid waste. In addition, PennFuture states that Chesapeake failed to construct secondary waste containment structures in its truck loading and unloading area and failed to build permanent buildings to house its treatment facilities as its permit required. DEP notified the company of these violations, but allows it to continue this operation.

In order to treat all of this solid waste, Chesapeake is using equipment that was never disclosed in its permit plans. PennFuture has demanded that Chesapeake be required to apply for a more stringent individual permit for its plant, and that the DEP shut down the plan until Chesapeake has obtained such a permit.

David Bohlander now looks out the window of the family farm at a landscape transformed into an industrial nightmare. He reports that the open-air waste treatment process gives off noxious fumes as "sludge cake" is loaded on a conveyor belt, compressed and heated to remove the water.

According to an appeal he has filed, the chemical fumes created by this process are strong enough to burn one's skin if standing nearby.

Mr. Bohlander says his neighbors have observed that chemicals leaking from these operations run off onto the ground after rain and that a drainage ditch running into a wetland appears to be contaminated with strange ooze. He also reports that what was once a quiet country road has now been paved to carry 1,200 truck passes each day, which would be about one truck every minute. The truck traffic goes on 24/7, and the invasive noise includes truck idling, pumping out frack waste, using back-up signals, honking, and using "Jake brakes.”

Instead of building in an industrial park to service its regional operations, Chesapeake leased land from Mr. Bohlander's neighbor in the midst of a residential and agricultural area—in a township with no zoning ordinance at all. Mr. Bohlander's community is bearing the brunt of the associated environmental and human health impacts of natural gas production, without any economic benefit.

As oil and gas drilling activities expand, so will the amount of toxic waste that has to be managed. Currently, waste from oil and gas production is exempt from the federal rules that govern hazardous waste of other industries--even when it is very toxic. NRDC has petitioned the U.S. EPA to get rid of this special loophole and to subject toxic oil and gas waste to federal hazardous waste regulations. Further, states should ensure waste generated within their borders is managed responsibly--but very few have updated their oil and gas waste management rules. Until stronger protections are in place, we expect to hear more first-hand accounts like Mr. Bohlander's. At the end of the day, someone always pays for environmental degradation. If it's not the industry, it could be you.