Chesapeake Accused of Moving Wastewater Sites Ahead of Permitting
Gas Company Working with DEP to Iron Out Wrinkles in Permit Language
By Rick Hiduk
A group of neighbors whose properties straddle the border between Terry and Asylum Townships have accused Chesapeake Energy of operating several wastewater treatment facilities in the area that were either improperly permitted, not permitted at all, or operating on sites that were not adequately prepared for such usage. Others are blaming the company for tainted well water, dead pets, and unexplained illnesses among family members during the course of time that the gas company has operated the treatment centers and moved them from one well pad to another.
Over the course of several weeks of trying to get to the bottom of the story with the help of Pennsylvania DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) representatives, it appears that each of the parties involved in the situation has some facts that support the legitimacy of their claims and actions, including the gas company. While Chesapeake maintains that the uproar from farm owners in the area is effectively much ado about nothing, DEP disclosed that the gas company has misused a well pad site, operated a separate wastewater treatment facility to an extent that was not consistent with the permit associated with the site, and continued to operate at a site under consideration for legitimate wastewater treatment even though the permit for it was initially rejected due to incomplete application information.
It is the perceived boldness of the company and initial oversights by DEP that anger Terry and Asylum landowners like David Bohlander and Patrick Blow. Blow, in particular, insists that he is not an anti-gas advocate. He appreciates the economic boost that the industry has brought to the area, but he sees the fields around him as delicate watersheds and wetlands that are endangered by drilling activities, especially if they are not conducted precisely as DEP requires. Bohlander, Blow, and their neighbors are also confused as to why their quiet “neighborhood” was selected as the best place to operate what Bohlander refers to as a regional facility.
“There is a disproportionate amount of wastewater treatment here, and we don’t know why,” he stated.
“I am not saying that there should not be drilling or fracking, but they are cutting too many corners to save money,” Blow said of Chesapeake’s operations in the area. “They think that, once you give poor people some money, they won’t say anything.”
Although there are about a half dozen sites in the general area that have seen some sort of use in the past three years by Chesapeake, the locations that have garnered the most attention recently are the Hershberger pad on Viall Hill Road in Terry Township and the Arnold pad on Kerrick Road in Asylum Township. When Chesapeake started rolling tanker trucks filled with both fracking and drilling wastewater onto the site last fall, residents cried “foul,” and DEP found that the pad, which had been dormant for more than a year, was supposed to have been restored rather than appropriated to a new use.
Chesapeake Energy started the application for the Arnold Centralized Fluids Processing Facility in March while conducting similar activities at the Hershberger pad several miles away. At the same time DEP was kicking the application back to Chesapeake due to eight cited technical deficiencies, residents in the area of the Hershberger pad were questioning its use after a 14-month lull.
In a DEP report dated April 1, special projects section environmental engineer Keith Allison noted to DEP’s facilities section environmental waste manager Lisa Houser and environmental program manager Patrick Brennan—both representatives of DEP’s waste management division—that Chesapeake Energy had failed to complete several sections of the application, including providing specifics about the treatment process and how bag filters will be disposed of. The permit application also did not include plans to address potential spills during the loading and unloading process nor “how accumulated precipitation in the containment area…will be removed while preventing a discharge of any potentially contaminated water to the water of the commonwealth.” On April 5, Houser directed a letter to Chesapeake’s supervisor of regulatory compliance Eric Haskins that requested compliance to the aforementioned discrepancies in the form of a resubmitted application with changes clearly indicated.
Bohlander was following the process closely and found another deficiency that alarmed him. He did not see anything in the permit application that mentioned testing for and dealing with potentially radioactive waste from fracking operations, which DEP’s environmental engineer specialist Success Kalu brought to the attention of Houser and Brennan in a memo dated July 7. As the application process dragged on, the neighbors reverted their focus to the Hershberger site, which is located in a corner of a pig farm owned by Daniel and Gayle Hershberger far from the barn and farmhouse.
In a letter to the Hershbergers dated July 20, seventy neighbors accused the couple of being careless, absentee landlords, who were apparently in total agreement of Chesapeake’s use of their property.
“Your integrity is questionable,” the letter charged Daniel Hershberger. “We are shocked that you would enable all of us to be harmed while you enjoy the tranquility of Quarryville (Lancaster County). This is wrong, not neighborly, and your actions affect our health and continued quiet enjoyment on the land that many of our families have owned for generations.”
Bohlander noted that Hershberger has appeared in Chesapeake commercials. In the letter, the neighbors accuse the landowner of initially denying knowing what was happening on his property, denying signing a letter of consent for the wastewater operations, and then saying that he really hadn’t read the letter. When he was apprised verbally of the situation, Hershberger supposedly stated that he and his wife would contact DEP to withdraw their consent, which they did not do.
Bohlander and his wife traveled to Lancaster County on Aug. 20 and met with the Hershbergers, who told the Bohlanders that they had been misrepresented by the letter, copies of which had fallen into the hands of other local advocates, one of whom shared elements from it with Bradford County Commissioners at a weekly meeting in July.
“Nonetheless, they said that they would like to be good neighbors. In that regard, they informed us that they would be writing a letter this week formally withdrawing their consent to Chesapeake,” Bohlander stated, adding that the Hershbergers told him that Chesapeake was no longer pursuing the permit for the Hershberger site, a fact that Bohlander has asked DEP to confirm but has not yet received a response.
On July 20, DEP issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) to Chesapeake concerning its operations at the Hershberger site. The primary contention was that no drilling had been done at the site since Oct. 10, 2009 and completion of the two wells on the pad was dated March 5, 2010. DEP cited Chesapeake for “Failure to restore the well site within nine months after completion of drilling,” as required by Section 206(c) of the Oil and Gas Act, 58 P.S. Even if the pad had not been idle for more than a year, DEP contended that the wastewater being treated there was from other sites, which was not allowed as per the permit associated with the Hershberger pad. “Your company’s unpermitted use of the Hershberger Well Pad as a residual waste processing facility is considered unlawful,” the document stated.
The NOV goes on to list specific fines associated with continued misuse of the property, including $25,000 in civil penalties plus $1,000 per each day of violation. Residents in the vicinity of the pad, most of whom did not want to be identified by name, contend that the treatment operations continued until Chesapeake was ready to move the recycling operations to the nearby Arnold site. DEP community relations coordinator Dan Spadoni would not confirm further violations nor did he indicate that any fines had actually been levied against Chesapeake Energy. He asserted that the NOV was not a “shut-down” order. He related that the NOV is a formal request for a response to violations and a schedule to shut down operations.
“The need for further enforcement will be evaluated after Chesapeake’s response is received and reviewed,” Spadoni stated, adding that DEP’s Oil and Gas Program staff had inspected the site on July 26 and had determined that the only continuing activity there was that of vacuum trucks cleaning out storage tanks.
Meanwhile, across the township border, Bohlander and other “watchdogs” insisted that the gas company simply moved its operations to the Arnold site, despite the fact that the permit was on hold and that the pad was not yet up to standards required by DEP for such operations.
“They are flaunting the law and showing a blatant disregard for the fines and penalties,” Bohlander said of Chesapeake’s activities at both the Hershberger and Arnold pads. “It’s very discouraging because our regulatory agencies aren’t enforcing the laws as they are written.”
Chesapeake Energy public relations coordinator Brian Grove countered that the perceived violations and disregard for the law stem from Pennsylvania’s antiquated oil and gas laws, which were last updated in 2001, long before serious discussions had begun about the development of the Marcellus shale. Grove contends that the company has done everything it can do to comply with DEP regulations as they are being updated.
“The DEP is currently transitioning the way it permits these important, centralized water recycling sites,” Grove explained. “We are and have been working with DEP during this process to systematically adjust our operations with DEP’s evolving approach.”
In the meantime, he noted, Chesapeake stands by its wastewater recycling efforts and wants the public to understand that the process benefits the area as a whole.
“Chesapeake is proud of the leadership role we have taken in water recycling and reuse in the Marcellus shale,” Grove stated. The company has no plans to discontinue the management of wastewater in Terry and Asylum Townships and, in fact, plans to build “additional locations that will be able to filter produced water and drilling fluid through the Aqua Renew process in an environmentally sound and beneficial way.” Grove further maintains that “erosion and sediment controls are in place and effective at our pad sites and maintained in strict compliance with the applicable permit requirements.”
In the meantime, Asylum Township supervisors have taken an active role in questioning the operations, asking in an Aug. 6 letter to DEP if hazardous materials would be stored on the site during or after construction. The township also noted that no Land Development Application had been submitted to the municipality as required by the township’s 2008 subdivision/land development ordinance, which addresses storm runoff management. Asylum Township chairman Lee Allyn also suggested that increasing truck traffic to the site from other municipalities would have a significant impact on roads there.
“Chesapeake Energy is committed to environmentally conscious and responsible operations,” Grove stated. “We take very seriously any concerns from residents in our areas of operation and, when a question is raised, we notify the appropriate regulatory authority immediately and quickly begin to investigate.”
Bohlander and Blow are clearly not satisfied with the concept of the gas companies policing themselves and continue to confront DEP on a regular basis to achieve their goals. They contend that they might be willing to put up with 300 to 600 trucks daily passing their homes on their way to the Arnold pad if there were more assurances from both DEP and Chesapeake that everything has been done to protect the vital watershed in which they reside.
“It’s not about the money,” said Blow, who claims to have lost two parakeets and a dog to contaminated well water. “It’s about what is going to happen to today’s children and those to come. It’s a health issue.”
Spadoni reported on Aug. 30 that an inspection conducted the previous day by DEP Waste Management Program staff members determined that the Arnold facility “is currently being used to treat waste drilling mud prior to it being sent off-site for final disposal.” He also related that Chesapeake submitted a Residual Waste General Permit application for the Hershberger site on July 30 and that no violations were found there during an Aug. 23 inspection.
Bohlander submitted a 20-point appeal against Chesapeake’s Arnold site permit to the state’s Environmental Hearing Board on Aug. 30, which Spadoni acknowledged in his latest communication with the Rocket-Courier. It appears that Chesapeake will continue to work with DEP to legitimize its wastewater recycling operations in the area, a conclusion that both the gas company and the state agency maintain that the process is safe, necessary, and friendlier to the environment than continuously obtaining and transporting fresh water for drilling and fracking operations.