You are here

The Promise of Fracking - Pt. 2 - The Environment - Lessons from Pennsylvania



Without warning, a New Year’s Day explosion blew a massive cement cover off a residential water well in northern Pennsylvania and destroyed the plumbing in the hole.

The explosion on Norma Fiorentino’s seven acres in Dimock, Pennsylvania, just south of Montrose, marked the start of 2009 with a bang. In many ways, it also would become symbolic of problems with the promise of fracking, and environmental side effects cropping up across rural Pennsylvania.

The shale gas boom was taking off in woods and fields around the Fiorentino homestead – about 20 miles south of the New York border – where Cabot Oil & Gas had leased property to drill into the Marcellus Shale, one of the most prolific gas-producing formations in the country.

What happened to the Fiorentino water and hundreds of other water wells near drilling sites in Pennsylvania would fuel concerns and eventually contribute to the 2014 fracking ban in New York.

The Dimock explosion embodied issues – lack of disclosure, regulatory breakdowns and plenty of spin – that would become the crux of a controversy.

Since the gas rush began in 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has logged about 260 cases of water pollution caused by the drilling. A true total is unknown because of a long-held practice of drilling companies to settle complaints about water quality privately with landowners near gas well operations.

“The biggest problem that Pennsylvania confronted was there were no rules in place on the front end of this,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in an interview earlier this month. “There was no process. It was everyone for themselves and the state has been playing catch up ever since.”

To reach the Marcellus gas, operators had to drill through the water table. And to ease concerns among skeptics, the industry promoted the notion fracking had never polluted a single-water well. When natural gas – known as methane when in the ground – leaked into the Fiorentino well, the company and the industry stood by that claim.

The state of Pennsylvania was taking a learn-as-you-go approach to managing a shale gas boom unprecedented in scope and intensity.

One of the biggest lessons had to do with who controlled the information to assess and address problems. State inspections relied heavily, sometimes exclusively, on industry reports. Many of these reports were incomplete, and some were not filed until after problems began appearing.

An audit by DePasquale’s office released in 2014 found lapses ranging from bad bookkeeping to bad judgment. Nearly 8 percent of inspection reports were incomplete and 29 percent included errors in dates, names, locations, results and permit numbers. In 14 of 15 cases of polluted water, the DEP sought voluntary compliance rather than order drillers to fix the problem.

With the release of the audit, DePasquale likened the state’s regulatory efforts to “firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose.”

He concluded: “There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”


* Pennsylvania Labor Department inflated figures to make shale gas industry job outlook stronger than it is.

* Industry is generating millions of dollars in “impact fees” to small-town economies to buy good will near drilling sites in lieu of a more costly state tax.

* Fracking has brought both a rise in crime and influx of money to help rural poverty and public safety.

Culture of Deference


In the time after Norma’s water well explosion, DEP investigations showed methane escaped Cabot’s pressurized gas wells and contaminated an aquifer that supplied the Fiorentino well and at least 17 others.

Independent tests arranged by property owners found other chemicals in the drinking water, including solvents and petroleum distillates. Some people complained about rashes, stomach problems and headaches, although they had no proof drilling was making them sick.

The burden of proof was high.

Although Cabot spokesman George Stark refused to comment for this article, the company has made its position clear in the past: Methane is naturally-occurring phenomenon in water supplies and sometimes water wells go bad due to natural circumstances. When they do, nearby drilling operations can become scapegoats.

In a full-page advertisement that ran in regional papers in 2010, Cabot CEO Dan Dinges stated: “Cabot does not believe it caused these conditions and intends to fight these allegations through its scientific findings.”

Cabot blamed the problem on naturally occurring methane in the ground. The driller offered water filtration systems and bottled water to the affected families, which some accepted. In other cases, homeowner’s deemed Cabot’s filters ineffective and unreliable. At least 32 of the residents complaining of water problems sued in a legal battle of more than three years, ending in a 2012 settlement that was not publicly disclosed.

Since the Fiorentino well exploded, requirements legislated with Act 13 in 2012 have strengthened reporting requirements on paper. The question remains whether the DEP, which DePasquale recently characterized as “radically understaffed,” has the resources to oversee one of the country’s most powerful industries, or the political will and legal wherewithal to enforce sanctions against it.

Pennsylvania state regulators have long advocated “working with the industry” rather than cracking down, a point of pride in the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett. DEP files documenting water complaints are full of form letters from state officials assuring homeowners the agency was “working with [company name] in an effort to resolve the matter.”

Anti-fracking activists contend the record shows a culture of deference within the DEP, putting industry interest over public welfare. “It’s like if somebody robs a bank, the police say they won’t punish them if they put the money back,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Pennsylvania Campaigns Coordinator for Clean Water Action, an environmental group.

Complaints about the DEP’s oversight are not limited to fracking critics.

When discussing fracking, MaryAnn Warren, a Susquehanna County Commissioner, enthusiastically points to the many benefits gas drilling has brought to northern Pennsylvania, including boosting business for local hotels and restaurants, creating construction jobs and providing money ranging from housing to capital improvements for local government projects and buildings.

At the same time, she said the DEP needs to rely less on industry reports and more on close inspection of all critical phases of drilling and fracking.

“They [energy companies] came in like cowboys,” she said. “Things were unruly and unregulated, and they [the DEP] didn’t know what they were doing.”

Things have improved but not enough, she said. “They need to be on site more … They need more boots on the ground. They need to be more proactive than reactive.”

That could be a tall order in a Pennsylvania political culture sympathetic to a powerful gas industry lobby with continual complaints about the burden of regulation and taxation.

Current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf advocates a severance tax on the industry, but the Republican-controlled General Assembly opposes replacing the present impact fee program with the potentially more lucrative tax. Meanwhile, Wolf has been stymied in his attempt to restore funding to the DEP’s budget, cut during the Corbett administration.

The DEP’s 100 inspectors are tasked with overseeing 131,283 active oil and gas wells. Since 2006, the agency has issued more than 20,000 permits for the larger and more complicated unconventional gas wells.

“There is no way they can keep up given the volume of permits that have been issued,” said Nadia Steinzor, eastern program coordinator for Earthworks, an environmental lobbying group.

In some cases, pollution from gas drilling has turned into high profile cases and large penalties. This summer, an $8.9 million penalty was assessed by the DEP against Range Resources, of Fort Worth, Texas.

The penalty came after Range refused to fix a methane leak from a cement casing on a natural gas well that polluted water in Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania, according to the DEP findings. Range denies the finding and is appealing the fine.

But environmental groups say fines are discretionary, come too infrequently, reserved for serial offenders, and small compared to the money and health and environmental issues at stake.

“For every one of the high-profile cases, there are hundreds of other violations that remain unresolved and unaddressed,” Steinzor said.

Water problems in Dimock, where the well cover blew off the Fiorentino family well, have proven to be chronic.



Every Tuesday is water delivery day for Ken Morcom and Kim Grosso, owners of a hog farm off State Route 2023 in Dimock, about a mile and a half from the Fiorentino property, which now sits vacant after Norma used her settlement money to move to a small house in Elk Lake.

Morcom recalls the day they stopped using their farm’s well water, shortly after Cabot Oil & Gas fracked a nearby gas well in 2013.

“I came home one night and turned on the faucet and it was coming out brown as coffee ... They [the DEP] knew it was caused from the gas pressure underneath the water table forcing it up through the well,” he said.

Already a common and persistent problem, methane from another gas well – this one near Morcom’s farm – was leaking into the water table, the DEP determined.

Methane is not acutely toxic. But it can cause explosions when it seeps into enclosed spaces – with sometimes fatal results. In 2004, gas from drilling operations collected in the basement of the Harper residence in Jefferson County in western Pennsylvania. Charles Harper, his wife Dorothy, and their grandson Baelee were killed when the furnace kicked on and triggered an explosion, according to DEP records.

As methane escapes faulty well casings and pushes through the ground, it can stir up unhealthy or toxic elements such as brine, arsenic and heavy metals.

In response to the pollution on Morcom’s hog farm, Cabot drilled a new water well, Morcom said. But that well also was polluted with methane percolating from the ground and stirring up sediment.

Now, the every-Tuesday water delivery is made on the doorstep – five gallons for drinking. Water for other purposes – animals, laundry and washing – is stored in large plastic holding tanks and refilled periodically by Cabot contractors.

Cabot’s Stark had no comment on this case.

The Morcom hog farm sits within a nine-square mile area where the DEP has determined drilling has polluted water wells. DEP files show 19 cases of drilling-related water pollution documented in Dimock, although that number does not appear to square with more some 32 plaintiffs who settled with Cabot in 2012.

Victoria Switzer, one of the plaintiffs who agreed to a settlement, declined to discuss the case.

But Switzer has this general advice for anybody who lives over a shale gas resource: “Suck it up and work with the company on friendly terms. You won’t get anywhere on your own, and the state is not going to help you.”

Switzer, who lives off State Route 2023 near the Morcom farm, added: “It continues to be the driller’s dirty secret: Play nice and you get water. Buck the system and you’re on your own.”

Cabot also refused to discuss the settlement.

As part of the settlement, Cabot bought the Dimock house of high-profile anti-fracking activists Craig and Julie Sautner. The ranch, located between the Morcom farm and the Fiorentino property, was valued at $167,500.

Cabot hired a wrecking crew to tear it down.

When all traces of the house were gone, the crew filled the basement with dirt and sold the 3.3-acre parcel to a neighbor for $4,000. A “land covenant,” or condition, was written into the deed: No residence could ever be built there under any circumstances.

Stark said the company maintains the mineral rights to the property. As for the surface, he said, “we thought it should be preserved for green-space.”

County records show that in 2013, around the time the Morcom hog farm’s water went bad, Cabot paid $140,000 for the 12-acre property of Michael Ely, who lived a half mile from the Sautners, and less than a quarter mile from the hog farm.

Ely also had explosive levels of methane in his water. The company removed a doublewide modular home from the lot, which now remains vacant and posted with a sign that reads “Danger. No trespassing. No smoking. Authorized personnel only.”

A similar story unfolded on Paradise Road in Bradford County, where Chesapeake Oil and Gas in 2012 paid three families $1.6 million, minus legal fees, ending years of litigation about the source of pollution in their water.

The three upscale homes, on the country road with scenery that lives up to its name, remain padlocked and vacant with security cameras stationed at the main entrances.

“The reason nobody lives there is they can’t fix the water – it’s ruined,” said Michael Phillips, a math teacher at Wyalusing Valley High School who owned one of the homes and moved with his wife and infant daughter to another neighborhood.

County records show that the Phillips’ house, which Chesapeake bought for $225,000, is now appraised at $36,902. As part of a settlement, Chesapeake bought neighboring houses at market values of $250,000 and $150,000, which are now appraised at $35,520 and $29,400 respectively. All of them are near a problem gas well.

While some affected families received enough from settlements to move, Morcom and Grosso, who support gas development as a matter of principal, are resigned to living with water problems.

“If you get a lawyer, this is done,” Morcom said, pointing to a grey shed that houses his water supply – a plastic reservoir called a “water buffalo.” “You will loose. They have hundreds of lawyers and very deep pockets.’

Ken, loquacious and upbeat, is animated when he talks about his farm, his pigs, and the economic boost shale gas has brought to the area. He, like some other gas proponents, believes the benefits of fracking outweigh the problems.

“You hear about all the negativity,” he said. “There are many positives that you don’t hear about.” Those benefits have a lot to do with the welfare of his friends who have found work driving trucks and landing construction and contracting jobs, he said.

“Some people have more patience than others,” he added “We have way more patience then most.”

But, his wife added about the every-Tuesday water deliveries: “It’s getting old.”

Better than coal?


John Hanger was DEP Secretary under the administration of former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell when the Cabot investigation began in Dimock. In 2010, Hanger ordered Cabot to install a $12 million water line to restore water to the homes in an attempt to resolve the issue in Dimock once and for all.

But Cabot outlasted Hanger, who left office when Corbett took office. The company refused the water line, but offered landowners systems to filter their water, and cash payments worth twice the value of their property if they dropped all current and future litigation – a deal said to total just over $4 million.

After an unsuccessful run for governor, Hanger now serves as Director of Planning and Policy for Tom Wolf. Although he was a harsh critic of Cabot, Hanger defends both the DEP and shale development, which he says is good for the state and the country.

“I don’t want to understate the problem for the families who are affected,” he said. “For them the probability of impact is 100 percent.”

But, he added, fracking represents a minor environmental threat compared to run-off from agriculture, burning of coal that emits mercury and acid drainage from coal mines polluting more than 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s water ways.

“There needs to be an honest discussion on both ends of this [fracking],” he said. “There were those who thought it would be the end of the world and those who said there had never been a problem. We know that both of them are wrong.” He added, “It’s not fracking that’s polluting the Chesapeake Bay. It’s sewage, sedimentation and agricultural run-off.”

Don Siegel, an industry consultant and hydrology professor at Syracuse University who specialized in drilling issues, said lessons from Pennsylvania show “that small leaks and spills and assorted regulatory violations of various things happen at drilling sites, but we see no evidence of harm from these.” Damaged ecosystems “naturally repaired themselves—much like what happens after any salt spill.”

'Black Box' for fracking


The Pennsylvania DEP has been working on upgrading regulations to address health and environmental issues of shale gas development since April 2011.

Reforms, expected to be issued by the end of this year and rolled out in 2016, will be the most recent product of a contentious learning curve featuring hearings, intense lobbying efforts and more than 30,000 public comments from interested parties and the public at large.

Rules, now in draft form, are “long overdue,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley.

The overhaul deals with a spectrum of impacts, ranging from noise to public health protections including “vital considerations” for public resources like playgrounds, nursing homes, and schools.

Open waste pits would be restricted and the scope of pre-drilling surveys to establish a baseline for water quality would be increased. One important provision would require water supplies polluted by drilling to be restored to conditions better than before, or compatible with Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

With more comprehensive surveys and tests to gauge water quality prior to drilling, proving cases of water pollution will be easier, but enforcement may be still problematic.

Loopholes in federal laws allow drillers to inject the ground with undisclosed chemicals. They also provide exemptions from hazardous waste disposal laws that allow fracking waste to disposed of at treatment plants and landfills.

Not knowing the specific chemicals that drillers work with makes it hard to track problems when they show up in wells, Susan Brantley, professor of geosciences at Penn State University, said in a recent interview.

The DEP determined that the polluted water wells on Paradise Road contained methane. But the water was also curiously foamy, Brantley said, which is not typically a characteristic of methane contamination.

Using a set of instruments not typically used by commercial laboratories, Brantley and a team of researchers found traces of 2-n-Butoxyethanol, or 2-BE and a broad category of “unresolved complex mixtures” in the foamy water on Paradise Road. The elements did not appear in previous tests by the DEP or environmental consultants, and the Penn State study concluded they were from drilling additives or fracking fluids.

Although the pollutants were found in trace amounts at levels not known to pose health risks, the fact that they were there at all had important implications, Brantley said, because it showed something the industry has always denied – that chemicals injected into the ground to produce a well can end up in drinking water wells.

The study shows the need for more public disclosure, Brantley said, so testing equipment and protocols around drilling sites can be upgraded to suit the unique environmental threats that might be going undetected. “Airplanes occasionally have problems and fall out of the sky, and we don’t tolerate it,” Brantley said. “We demand science to tell us what went wrong so we can fix it. But we have to start with data … we have to put a black box on this airplane called fracking.”

Chesapeake Spokesman Gordon Pennoyer did not return calls for this article.

Chemicals stay in ground


Fracking’s environmental controversy has a lot to do with what goes into wells to stimulate gas production. It also has a lot to do with what comes out, and what remains indefinitely trapped in the ground.

Flowback, the main waste product of shale gas production, is a cocktail of the unidentified compounds injected by operators and naturally occurring elements freed by the process. What goes into each well — biocides, acids, anti-corrosives, lubricants, and friction reducers — comes out with millions of gallons of brine, metals, and radioactive material common to black shales.

Flowback goes to treatment facilities or to depleted production wells, mostly in Ohio, where it is injected back into the ground. Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor who specialized in the mechanics of fracking, views injections of undisclosed chemical mixtures as a catastrophic practice, whether its for production or waste disposal.

Ingraffea, formerly a consultant for the fracking industry and now one of its harshest critics, is a founder of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Health Energy, which compiles an archive of peer-reviewed literature on fracking and other issues. “You have to go by the rules, and the gas industry is free to ignore those rules,” Ingraffea said in a recent interview. He cited the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which has restrictions and disclosure requirements about what can and cannot be put in the ground.

Under an exemption, commonly known as “the Halliburton Loophole,” drillers and companies inject millions of gallons of pressurized fracking solution into each well to stimulate production, and they recover a fraction of it. The exact percentage is not documented and varies from well to well. The rest stays in the ground or comes out with the gas over time and is bled off into holding tanks.

From an environmental standpoint, the production wells with the un-retrieved flowback present the same risk as waste injection wells, in Ingraffea’s view, although they are not subject to the federal standards or oversight that apply to injection wells.

“Somewhere down the line, somebody will discover that Susquehanna County is sitting over a massive pool of waste that is uncontained, unconstrained and undefined,” Ingraffea said. Even under the best circumstances, cement casings that separate pressurized chemicals and gas from water tables break down over time.

Scientific consensus, including a comprehensive review of the literature by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency released earlier this year, now supports that both fracking and drilling can pollute water. But there are few reliable numbers that quantify the risks, and much is open to interpretation.