Nearly a year ago, as Chief Oil & Gas drilled the first Marcellus Shale natural gas well in Blair County, representatives of the Texas-based company listened to public concerns about the hydraulic fracturing of the deep, gas-rich shale layer.
Through the fracking process, up to 5 million gallons of chemical-laden water is pumped into the shale to break it up and release the gas.
“I think we’ve proven we can drill in these areas,” Chief Regulatory Manager Jason de Wolfe said in February, noting a third of Chief’s drilling in Pennsylvania is in watersheds with high quality or exceptional value designations.
The Bobs Creek Stream Guardians, including chairman Tim Clingerman, were among those with concerns. The pad for the drilling operation is just off Route 164 in Juniata Township, sitting on top of the mountain above the headwaters of Bobs Creek, a state-designated Class A trout stream.
In May, the concerns became reality after a reserve pit at Chief’s Ritchey Unit lease had a spill of flowback water – the salt-saturated fracking fluid that comes back to the surface during the process.
While preliminary data collected by the watershed group and company officials suggests the creek suffered no long-term damage from the spill, Clingerman said there was a temporary spike in monitor readings but no indications of macroinvertebrate or fish kills.
“When they had that frack spill, we were very lucky,” Clingerman said.
In February, de Wolfe had given the Bobs Creek Stream Guardians a $10,000 check to purchase water monitors for the creek, which collect pH, temperature and conductivity readings every 15 minutes, Clingerman said. Every couple of weeks, he and another volunteer collect the data and send it to the state Department of Environmental Protection for analysis.
Clingerman said the goal of the Stream Guardians is to protect the stream, acting more like a third-party watchdog that will leave the findings up to DEP.
A Chief spokesman said late last week the spill was reported to DEP as required and that the company’s spill response systems worked to prevent the flowback from reaching the stream.
“It was a spill that ran off the pad site into our containment pit. This is a backup method to control spills,” said Chief’s Vice President of Public Affairs Kristi Gittins. “DEP thought that some of the flowback could have reached the stream, but there has been no evidence of such and no immediate or long-term environmental impact or damage was noted by DEP in subsequent tests.”
The pit was removed after the flowback from the well had ceased, Chief officials noted in an Aug. 27 letter to DEP detailing the company’s response to the spill. In that letter, officials said the spill was small and that an inspection of the pit’s liner indicated several holes were subsequently patched. Chief then removed the fluids in the pit and 645 tons of waste associated with the drilling of the well.
The liner also was removed and sent to an Irwin landfill. Soil samples were taken and sent for analysis before the pit was backfilled and regraded, the letter explained.
According to DEP, Chief supplied the state with documentation on the spill and the agency has yet to make a final determination on the incident.
“Last summer, Chief fully removed the pit contents, liner and excavated additional soil,” said DEP spokesman Jamie Legenos. “Our biologists also did a stream survey but that data is not available yet. Final enforcement action is pending.”
Clingerman said despite the spill, Chief has done everything it promised last year.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about Chief Oil & Gas,” Clingerman said. “They’ve held up their end.”
Since the February public meeting Chief hosted at Blue Knob, the company has drilled four more wells in Juniata Township, including its 100th in Pennsylvania, Gittins said.
Gittins stressed that “Chief has not, does not and will likely never” store frack flowback water in open water ponds.
“Our open water impoundments store fresh water only,” she said.
The company has also started recycling its frack water, taking it to a treatment facility so it can be used again and not released into any Pennsylvania streams, she said.
While contamination or other environmental problems tied to the hydraulic fracturing process haven’t surfaced in Blair County’s limited experience with gas drilling, it continues to be a major concern for the state’s environmentalists and sportsmen.
Chuck Winters, a regional vice president and state board member of Trout Unlimited, said while DEP “is doing better,” more money is needed and more attention should be paid to the activities of drillers.
“Everyone wants to be proactive but there’s not enough money to do it,” said Winters, who noted a bulk of the monitoring has been taken up by nonprofit volunteer groups that, like the Stream Guardians, rely on grants or large donations to undertake projects.
Winters said there were 900 incidents at gas drilling operations last year and he expects that number to triple as the number of wells in the state multiplies.
Winters worries that, without vigilance, Pennsylvania streams and rivers could experience the same devastating effects delivered by mine drainage.
“We may not have any fishing left in Pennsylvania,” he said.
For now, though, there’s still good fishing along Bobs Creek. There is currently no drilling at the Chief site, but the wells remain.
“I was up there fishing today,” Clingerman said last Sunday.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.