Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Gas Drilling Spills Go Unnoticed

  • Shale gas drillers spilled waste water and other liquids 137 times in seven years in Pennsylvania, and a lot of those times the companies didn’t even notice. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

September 5, 2014

Shale gas drillers spilled waste water and other liquids 137 times in seven years in Pennsylvania, and a lot of those times the companies didn’t even notice. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Sean D. Hamill investigated 425 fines for 48 companies from 2005 through the end of 2012 for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The fines totaled $4.4 million. A spreadsheet disclosing the fines and an interactive map of Pennsylvania Marcellus shale wells are included in his reporting.

Hamill found through the course of his investigation that the majority of spills happened at the drilling pads, rather than from trucks traveling to and from the sites. The typically 5-acre sites house several chemicals, and accidents and human errors involving on-site vehicles and equipment often lead to the spills, Hamill says. Additionally, the fact that a drilling company will coordinate several different subcontractors on one site leads to confusion. He says the industry has acknowledged this issue.

“The well drilling company does very little activity on the well site itself,” Hamill tells The Allegheny Front. “Coordinating all that effort can involve hundreds of people.”

Meanwhile, the PA Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged that ambiguous laws governing drilling in Pa. created the potential for some of the spills.

The DEP put a new spill policy into action last fall in an effort to clarify the reporting process for spills.

Here are some of the highlights of Hamill's comments from the interview.

Lack of oversight in the 'wild west'

To put it a little bit crassly, and many people will tell you this, in the early years of the Marcellus drilling from 2005 to maybe as recently as 2012, it was a little bit of a Wild West out there. The industry itself will acknowledge, and they will quietly tell you that some of these companies were not nearly as careful as they could be, that speed was more of the essence. The laws we had in the state were not as clear. The state told us this, and it’s in our story. They don’t believe they were nearly as clear as they needed to be about what their expectations were.

These spills get big, fast

Range Resources had one [a spill] in 2009 that was one of the worst.  It contaminated about a half mile of streams, killed a lot of fish, small fish. Interestingly, and I think this is worth noting, one of the analyses I did with the spills was looking at ‘Well if you had spills on this list, did you catch them?’ And Range, and possibly as a result of that 2009 spill, seems to have been fairly vigilant. But Range is also the second largest drilling company in the state, so just as a mere measure of that, they really aren't out of line. The biggest driller in the state is Chesapeake. They’re both going to have had a lot of spills. They've both been fined for a lot of spills. Range has been fined through 2012 for 14 spills, but they caught and reported 11 of those themselves.

After the Policy Change

I’m currently trying to update this list looking at the most recent 18 months I could get a hold of. I’d like to see and compare to see if we could see some impact, if we see a fewer percentage of spills that were not caught initially by the drillers. I think that would be a good indication of the industries reaction to this law because the thing that’s obviously most insidious is that these things get big fast.

On Repercussions

What I’ve heard from readers is 'Good gosh those are small!' and 'Why on earth would a billion-dollar company care about a $20,000 fine?' We’ll have another story that’s coming out looking at what do companies care about. And what they do care about is the publicity surrounding a spill, and the result and the impact, and they don’t say it this directly, but the share price. The specter of public attention cannot be missed. And so I think we’ll be able to make the case that it is in the state’s best interest to publicize when they have a problem. I think they’ve been better in the last year. I’d like to think we had something to do with that cause we’ve been talking with them about this...

...Most of the sites they’ve drilled to date have been in more rural areas, but as they move close to Allegheny County, where some of drillers said they believe there’s going to be some good gas wells, I’m sure everybody wants to know that if they do have an accident, they’re gonna catch it and prevent it from getting any further than the well pad.