From state regulators’ perspective, all the spills, leaks and fires in the Marcellus Shale well field the past eight years were simply part of the learning curve.
“Sometimes you need to learn from your mistakes,” said Scott Perry, a deputy secretary with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection who oversees the oil and gas bureau.
State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne, who proposed a moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling in 2010, sees it differently: “We were guinea pigs in certain respects, there’s no question about it.”
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of thousands of documents related to every fine assessed against a Marcellus driller through June 1 of this year, 568 incidents resulting in $5.7 million in fines, shows how such incidents led to new state laws and changes in the industry.
Patrick Creighton, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an advocacy group that represents nearly every major driller in the state, said in an email statement: “When incidents occur — as they do in any industrial process, and as rare as they may be — corrective action is taken to mitigate future events. Our member companies are doing just that.”
The state has changed rules over time and overhauled regulations in 2012.
When there is a major accident, things happen quickly.
Even before the fire that followed a fatal explosion was brought under control earlier this year at a Chevron-owned Marcellus well in Greene County, officials were considering expanding the required perimeter for such wells.
Often, particularly in the earlier years of shale development here, the state and the drilling companies were slow to stop troubling practices that led to potentially serious accidents at well sites, even when multiple incidents made clear the risks.
Carol and Don Johnson were never happy about the East Resources Marcellus Shale well that went in on their property behind their home and barn on their 500-acre Tioga County farm.
They signed a lease for less-invasive shallow wells years before the Marcellus boom was underway. The company they leased it to later sold those rights to East Resources.
East Resources then drilled a Marcellus well on a 40-foot-tall well pad that looms over their home, and the well site created traffic and other problems that remain unresolved six years after it went in.
On May 1, 2010, moisture on the side of the well pad became a steady flow of hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid mixed with water that leaked from an impoundment on the well site. An impoundment is a man-made pond used to store fluids.
It pooled in a pasture where their beef cattle grazed, killing the grass. The Johnsons and the state feared the cattle had drunk the salty-tasting fluid, potentially contaminating 28 cattle and calves, plus 11 unborn calves, with strontium and other heavy metals.
“It was a disaster, let’s put it that way,” said Don Johnson, 77, whose maternal grandfather bought the farm in the 1800s, and whose son, Joel, 52, continues to work it with him.
Four days after the spill, the state’s Agriculture Department quarantined the Johnsons’ cattle for at least eight months until the heavy metals dissipated, a decision that, coming at the beginning of the Marcellus boom, drew attention from around the world.
At the time of this well-publicized incident, state regulators and drillers were well aware of the potential dangers of open impoundments. East Resources already had four other leaking impoundments that would result in fines, and the company had decided to stop using open impoundments and switch to holding tanks.
Nearly every driller in Pennsylvania had experienced problems similar to East Resource’s with leaking liners that made them change to holding tanks, some sooner than others.
Other practices changed after spills include use of plastic liners and secondary containment walls on well pads and around storage tanks, changes many companies made before state law required it.
Accidents also led drillers to stop storing large amounts of hazardous fluids such as diesel fuel and hydrochloric acid on site and led the state to ban drilling wells in flood plains.
Though leaking impoundments were a known problem, drillers were slow to make simple changes in protocols to address it.
When filling or dewatering an impoundment or pit, drivers would throw filling hoses or suction hoses into them. When they pulled the them back out, the head of the hose sometimes snagged on the plastic liner, ripping it, or they might allow the suction hose to come in contact with the bottom, where the suction could cause a tear.
Even a hole an inch or two wide can cause huge problems.
Beginning in 2010, just about every driller began using devices that prevent hoses from sitting on the bottom of the impoundments or pits.
Despite that industry-wide knowledge, the problem continues to show up in state documents.
DEP fined Snyder Brothers $5,275 for a July 2012 spill from a leaking holding pit at a well site that contaminated two nearby homes when the hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid in the impoundment got into the ground water.
A state inspector found tears in the holding pit’s plastic liner, and the company said in the future it would try to use some method to keep hoses from coming in contact with the plastic liner.
Horizontal drilling was common in Texas and other areas when it came to Pennsylvania. The state benefited from the experiences of those drillers, but its topography and weather created new problems. Again regulators and drillers were slow to recognize practices they needed to use to mitigate problems.
In the early morning hours of July 23, 2009, Mary Ann Hutchison’s three young grandchildren woke up screaming during a rain storm. Muddy runoff was cascading down a cliff several feet behind their Fayette County mobile home.
“It sounded like a waterfall,” Mrs. Hutchison said.
The sediment-laden stream of water was powerful enough to crush an above-ground swimming pool on her property.
She called police, who with state DEP inspectors figured out what had happened.
Atlas Resources had built a Marcellus well site on the hilltop above Mrs. Hutchison’s home but failed to install adequate erosion and sedimentation controls around the site, allowing all the exposed soil to run off, and down, the nearby hillside onto Mrs. Hutchison’s property.
It took Atlas 86 truckloads to clean up her property, but the company, which would not comment for this story, never compensated her in any way for the incident, she said.
Police called the local Area on Aging, which was concerned enough about the safety of her home that it took her grandchildren away, at first to a shelter and then to their father’s home, until Mrs. Hutchison, who lives on disability, could get a new home. That process took four years.
“That was the worst part of everything, she said.
Another serious runoff problem happened in 2011 in a small Potter County community where Chesapeake, the state’s largest Marcellus driller, planned a well.
Chesapeake sent two contractors, TAW and Phillips & Jordan, to the site on a hilltop in the borough of Galeton, population 1,149, in early March.
The location wasn’t necessarily a problem, but locals recognized that the timing might be, coming during “break-up season” when the hard, snow-covered ground can quickly turn to rivers of water and mud as the weather warms up.
“We figured they didn’t know what they were doing up there that time of year,” said Tom Smith, Galeton’s sewer operator for the past 34 years.
His colleague, Joe Cimino, the borough’s water operator, noted: “Our guess was they were hired to do the job and get it done by a certain date. If they had waited a month, they probably wouldn’t have had a problem.”
Documents show a state inspector first visited the well site and found problems with the erosion and sedimentation controls on March 8 and revisited the site at least three more times in the next two weeks and issued a formal notice of violation on March 15, but neither Chesapeake nor the contractors, none of whom answered questions for this story, did enough work to solve the growing problem.
It came to a muddy fruition March 22 when rising temperatures began melting snow, which combined with a rainstorm to create a deluge that flowed off the side of the hill and into the Right Branch of Westmore Run, a stream that provides about 30 percent of Galeton’s water.
So much mud flowed into the creek that it clogged the borough’s filters. The intake would stay closed for three months until Chesapeake paid about $190,000 to Galeton to help pay for repairs. The state issued one of the largest fines in state history for the incident: $215,000.
“It was a jaw dropper for sure,” Mr. Perry of DEP said.
Patrick Henderson, Gov. Tom Corbett’s energy executive, does not think the trial-and-error history of the industry paints nearly as dire a picture as opponents believe: “I don’t think it has been a horrible transition. The earth still rotates. The sun still comes up.”
Mr. Perry believes the industry had to go through a period of transition, pushed by the state. Had the drillers been following better practices, the 2012 revamp of oil and gas law known as Act 13 might not have been necessary, he said.
“Maybe we would have said, ‘Hey, everything is working great, everything is under control,’ ” he said.
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579.