By Cat (Cathy) Lodge, Washington County Resident
My family’s home is in Washington County and we have more Marcellus and Utica Shale natural gas industrial facilities than any other county in Pennsylvania.
Marcellus shale drilling in Pennsylvania began two decades ago. Counties across the state have witnessed harm from the heavy industrial activity associated with natural gas exploration. Damage to water, air and land continues.
Well pads are just the beginning. Natural gas development has added compressor stations, pig launchers/receivers to clean out pipelines, cryogenic/fractionation plants, cracker plants, injection wells, residual waste storage tanks and impoundments as well as frack water and freshwater impoundments, metering stations and miles of gas pipelines throughout rural Pennsylvania.
Within two miles of my home there are 10 well pads, 4 compressor stations, 2 cryogenic natural gas processing plants, 1 metering station, 1 residual waste landfill, multiple pipelines and pig launcher and receivers throughout our farming areas.
Accidents, equipment failures and improper operation of these facilities can result in explosions that damage property and injure people, cause natural gas leaks, spills and leaks of dangerous chemicals into the air and water, wastewater spills and contamination of water wells and groundwater.
A quick look at hazardous incidents just in December of 2022 and it’s plain to see that the risk is real from these industrial facilities–
— Leaking Gas Storage Facility: On December 9, the Department of Environmental Protection issued three orders to Equitrans related to the uncontrolled venting of an estimated 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas from an underground gas storage facility in Cambria County stating, “Equitrans has failed to properly maintain and operate the wells (failing) to minimize the potential for well control emergencies constitutes an ongoing threat to the environment and to human health and safety.” Read more here.
— Explosion At Cryogenic Processing Plant: On December 25– Christmas morning– Energy Transfer’s Revolution cryogenic processing plant off Point Pleasant Road in Bulger, Washington County had a valve break which leaked product onto a piece of equipment that ignited then exploded rocking a family in their house 1,500 feet away. There was no notice to the public of the explosion. By the time a “shelter-in-place” order was given, the family had already evacuated. Read more here. This is the same company that in 2018 blew up a house near its Revolution pipeline in Beaver County. Read more here.
— Bursts Of Intense Natural Gas Emissions From Pigging Unit: On December 27, CNX Gas Co LLC’s Oak Springs stand-alone pig launcher/receiver along Farmer Lane in South Franklin Township, Washington County released bursts of dangerous methane emissions into the air around homes 1,500 feet away for over an hour. This is the same company, location and pig which received criminal charges from the Pennsylvania Attorney General in 2021 for misreporting air pollution from its pigging equipment in Washington County.
— 12-Inch Natural Gas Pipeline Broke Free Crashed Into A Home: On December 28, a 12-inch natural gas main broke loose from supports, slid down a hill and crashed into a house in Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County. The 700 feet of pipe, weighing 3,500 pounds, belonged to Olympus Energy’s Hyperion Midstream company. The pipe is for its Porter to Zeus pipeline project connecting well pads.
— Air Emissions Exceeding Permit Limits: On December 14, Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC was issued a notice of violation for exceeding allowed emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) into the air in September and October 2022 at its Beaver County plant. Read more here.
Even though these public hazards are real and happen frequently in shale gas development areas, they are not often evaluated very well in the state and county Emergency Hazard Mitigation Plans.
Washington County Plan
In 2015 Washington County adopted a Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP) which included language identifying environmental hazards due to Marcellus gas drilling.
According to the Washington County HMP, Environmental Hazards are “hazards that pose threats to the natural environment, the built environment, and public safety through the diffusion of harmful substances, materials, or products. For the purposes of this HMP, environmental hazards include both unconventional and conventional oil and gas well incidents; including the release of harmful chemical and waste materials into water bodies or the atmosphere, explosions, fires, and other hazards and threats to life safety stemming from oil and gas extraction (Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Disaster PSAs, 2009).”
Environmental hazards include spills, fires and explosions leading to polluting streams and drinking water. Also, air releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as methane, benzene, xylene, propane, and butane gas increases risks to human’s health, welfare, and safety. Areas within closest proximity to releases are generally at greatest risk.
The impacts of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania range in magnitude and extent. Counties in PA should include in their HMP a Vulnerability Assessment.
For example, Washington County’s 2015 HMP Vulnerability Assessment for well pads states– A worst-case scenario for an oil or gas well incident would be if there was a discharge of pollutant material like frac fluid into the waterways of Washington County.
There are several potential impacts, including those on water, land, and air. Common accidents involving gas well sites include “blowouts,” which are an explosion or failure of the rig, as well as the potential for chemical contamination.
The water used for hydraulic fracturing is composed of 87 chemicals, some of which have the potential to cause a danger to health of life (PA DEP, 2010).
Beyond the purely environmental impacts of drilling, Washington County is likely to see significant indirect effects on its transportation infrastructure and land cover.
Vulnerability to oil and gas well incidents is defined as being located within 1,000 yards of an unconventional oil or gas well. This buffer is what DEP uses as its “zone of culpability” for oil and gas well incidents.
While explosions or other catastrophic incidents at an oil or gas well could cause property damage, of primary concern is the population living near these wells.
Identifying a buffer of 1,000 yards from a well pad pig launcher/receiver, impoundments, compressor station or any processing plant including an ethane cracker plant allows better protection to humans and the environment from risks associated with the gas industry.
Even though DEP and Washington County have established this zone of vulnerability and identified a necessary set-back requirement for well pad placement, many communities listen to the industry’s request to locate gas development activity only 1,000 feet or less to homes, schools, waterways, etc.
Keep in mind, 1,000 yards is much more protective than 1,000 feet.
Although DEP regulates natural gas development, the agency’s response time to environmentally hazardous incidents have been criticized over the years in part because risk is being seen more and more as development occurs within the zone of vulnerability. Yet DEP regulators and inspectors are understaffed and unable to oversee the boom in natural gas development.
PEMA Inviting Comments
The 2018 State Hazard Mitigation Plan is now being updated and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is asking for comments.
PEMA relies on input from leaders of all 67 counties in the state. County leaders were supposed to request input from locals.
This would mean identifying natural gas activity in the area that poses or could pose a risk to humans and the environment.
In counties such as Beaver, Cambria, Washington, and Westmoreland whose government leaders are greatly in favor of the Marcellus and Utica shale development, admitting that the industry poses a risk to the community may not sit well with them, especially since many leaders have leases with the industry.
PEMA is asking for comments on issues like this to include in the State Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Comments are due by January 7, 2023.
County and the state Hazard Mitigation Plan is required in order to make federal money available to townships and municipalities across Pennsylvania, should they need it to mitigate hazards.
Sound hazard mitigation in communities assures public safety and welfare, assists in economic development, and protects the environment.
(Photos: Top- Washington County Natural Gas Facilities in 2004, and 2022 (Cat Lodge); 2018 Energy Transfer Revolution Pipeline explosion, Beaver County; Middle- Energy Transfer Cryogenic Gas Processing Plant explosion/fire Washington County; Repairing damaged caused by explosion; Natural gas pipeline fire in McKean County; Bottom- Construction fluid spill into Marsh Creek State Park Lake, Chester County; Equitrans natural gas storage facility uncontrolled venting from space; Burning flares at Shell Petrochemical Plant in Beaver County after plant malfunction.)
Cat (Cathy) Lodge lives in Bulger, Washington County.