August 22, 2012

Explosion, Flaring, and More Fracking for Susquehanna County

[Video by Frank Finan: Volunteer firefighters respond to the Chief Oil’s Phelps gas well explosion in Lathrop Township last night]

" home in northeastern PA, is not a place that I feel safe. No one should ever have to say that." - Kelly Finan

Susquehanna County, PA is under a major assault by the drilling industry. Yesterday, the Corbett Administration’s Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection authorized Cabot Oil and Gas to begin hydraulically fracturing again in Dimock at seven Marcellus Shale wells that were drilled but not stimulated with "fracking" in 2010. From the Scranton Times:

DEP curbed Cabot’s operations [in 2010] in the Susquehanna County township after it found that faulty Cabot wells allowed methane to seep into 18 Dimock drinking water wells.

Cabot denies that it caused the contamination but it agreed to a $4.6 million settlement with the state in December 2010 that required the driller to fix leaking or overpressured wells and stop the gas from tainting aquifers.

Cabot tested or patched dozens of Dimock wells, but DEP told the company in May 2011 that flaws appeared to persist in 22 of 43 of the company’s gas wells, including two wells that were never fracked, the Ely 1H and Kelly 1H, that needed additional tests to prove they were structurally sound.

Three more tests on the wells have since shown that any gas between the cemented strings of steel casing is now below pressure limits set by state regulations and is not escaping from the wellbore, Scott Perry, DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management, wrote to Cabot on Tuesday.

The company must perform and report pressure tests on both wells within 60 days of fracking them, Mr. Perry wrote.

Scott Ely, whose house is near the Ely 1H well, is continuing with a lawsuit against Cabot alleging damage to his family’s health and property. Several of his neighbors have signed settlement agreements in the suit. “My methane level hasn’t changed,” he said, adding that the pH of his water keeps rising and is now “close to Drano.”

He is concerned that the same well-construction flaws that first caused the methane migration might exist in the wells that were never fracked.

“Are we going to see more problems? Are we going to see higher methane readings?” he asked. “We’re just going to hope and pray that everything works out OK.”

Last night, I got a text from Kelly Finan, Susquehanna County, PA native, “The Phelps well blew up.”

Chief Oil’s Phelps Marcellus Shale well pad resides up the road from the Finan household in Lathrop Township. The gas well, drilled in 2010, is supposed to be safely producing gas into a gathering pipeline. Kelly’s father, Frank, was home when he got a call from neighbors saying that the explosion at the well shook their home and asked him to go take look. The Finan home is also within earshot of two roaring gas flares that were turned off yesterday afternoon.

“A couple months ago there was an uncontrolled release of gas from the Phelps well. The PA DEP official told our local reporter that last night was a fire from a faulty valve. However, witnesses say there was a ‘loud boom,’” Frank told me.

Pictured (above) is Frank’s photo of the gas release earlier this year.

Kelly explained to me, “The landowner [Elwood Phelps] is also my township supervisor and was my school bus driver as a child.” She’s upset that emissions from his gas well are potentially impacting her and her family’s health when they are in their own home.

In addition, Frank has documented waste removal from the Phelp’s pad where sludge from the waste pit was mixed with wood chips and delivered to the Keystone Landfill in Throop, PA near Scranton. The Keystone Landfill is owned by the DeNaple’s family and Louis DeNaples has been proven through a grand jury investigation to be a known associate of the Bufalino crime family.

Currently, I believe that only radioactive drill cuttings, not fracking waste is being delivered to Keystone, which maintains a leachate system that discharges into the Lackawanna river watershed, part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Since the PA DEP approved the new acceptance of 7,250 tons maximum daily acceptance of drill cuttings laced with radium 226 this spring, Throop township supervisors threatened and then abandoned an effort to appeal the permit, without explanation…

Pictured (above) is the Phelp’s frack pit sludge being mixed with wood chips to be transported to the Keystone Landfill.

Kelly just posted a blog about the situation here:

Small Pennsylvania Town Sets Stage for New Michael Bay Movie


image (c) 2010 Frank Finan, all rights reserved.

“Name three of your favorite places” and “where do you feel safe?” are two questions that came up on a get-to-know-you questionnaire today, administered by a UVM professor whose class I will begin TAing next week.* This really struck a nerve with me. When the time came to discuss our answers in a group, I realized that my favorite place, my home in northeastern PA, is not a place that I feel safe. No one should ever have to say that. Now, just stunned into wakefulness by more appalling news, I sit alone in my camper in Burlington, VT**, too angry to sleep.

Allow me to explain.

My parents built our house together in the late 70′s. Overlooking a field and a little pond, it’s a marvel of stonework that took my father over ten years to complete. My parents fully intended to spend the rest of their lives there together. Sadly, my mother did, for she passed away just over four years ago. I am not willing to part with this piece of property, its air quality, or its water quality, under any circumstances.

When it comes to gas leasing, our home is the single unleased property in a sea of leased land. This sickens me.

Flaring is the gas industry’s way of reducing pressure after they have fracked a well; they burn off raw gas, along with flowback/produced fluid and whatever else happens to be in the well, to relieve pressure that would otherwise be placed on a gathering pipeline. It’s a disgusting thing to live next to, and our home is currently within earshot of two (one between Hop Bottom and Nicholson, and one closer to Brooklyn).

Here are a few of the chemicals that my father (my favorite person ever and the only other member of my immediate family) is likely breathing while being wrongfully sentenced to live near a flare, according to this article by the EPA:

  • carbon particles (soot), [Fine particulate matter is a health concern because very fine particles can reach the deepest regions of the lungs. Health effects include asthma, difficult or painful breathing, and chronic bronchitis, especially in children and the elderly. Fine particulate matter associated with diesel exhaust is also thought to cause lung cancer and is therefore listed as a mobile source air toxic. Fine particulate matter can travel long distances on air currents and is also a major cause of haze, which reduces visibility, affecting cities and scenic areas throughout the United States” (EPA).]

  • unburned, partially burned, and altered hydrocarbons [“contributors of ground-level ozone, which is linked to difficulty breathing, lung damage, and reduced cardiovascular functioning. Also, hydrocarbons are often known human carcinogens” (EPA).]

  • CO [“Carbon monoxide is harmful because it reduces oxygen delivery to the body’s organs and tissues. It is most harmful to those who suffer from heart and respiratory disease. High carbon monoxide pollution levels also affect healthy people. Symptoms may include visual impairment, headache, and reduced work capacity” (EPA).]

  • NOx [Nitrogen oxide: another smog contributor (EPA).]

And that was a conservative estimate. Dr. James Argo thinks that a “sweet gas” flare (“clean” gas under optimal conditions) produces even more emissions than that - see table 1, page 8. I really don’t have the time to look up the known health impacts off all of this sh*t.

As an added bonus, “since flares do not lend themselves to conventional emission testing techniques, only a few attempts have been made to characterize flare emissions” (EPA). Apparently our poor little EPA thinks that testing emissions from natural gas flares is too hard. Better to use the citizens of Susquehanna County as lab rats instead.

Anyway, you’re probably wondering what pissed me off so thoroughly that after a long day of TA training, I have been compelled to sit up in the middle of the night pounding feverishly away at my keyboard.

Just as I was falling asleep, my father called me to inform me that our neighbor’s gas well had exploded. EXPLODED. Bursting flames, loud booms, the whole nine yards. No one was hurt, but it took quite some time for firefighters to control the blaze, during which my father was told “there’s nothing to see here”.

I am glad that no one was hurt, and I hope the scare slaps some sense into my neighbors. Neighbors that I have cared about and trusted. Neighbors that include my former school bus driver/current township supervisor, friends from high school, and other long time acquaintances. Some have been bought* by the industry, others by settlements with non-disclosure agreements. Those who haven’t been bought are considered ecoterrorists, and are harassed by state police, the secret service, their bosses at work, Energy in Depth, or people they formerly considered friends. You wouldn’t believe what gas drilling has done to our community, or the sense of betrayal that I feel, but that’s a story for another day.

For now, I’m just going to plead with the universe for a day free of fireballs… or that Optimus Prime will come and save us all from this invasion.


* For some reason, University of Vermont let me into their Field Naturalist program. I will spend the next two years bumbling around in the woods while earning a master’s degree in plant biology.

** Also, as I await the availability of my apartment, I am squatting in a camper in the backyard. I may be a mere sqatter, but the 100 square feet of land that my camper occupies will never be fracked, thanks to Vermont governor’s choice not to be a dipshit. He banned fracking back in May.

* Apparently the gas industry is not only successful in purchasing mineral rights, but also opinions.