Local officials say they aren’t told about spills

PITTSBURGH — Gas drilling-related companies spilled oils, gases or chemicals about 134 times onto land and into water across Pennsylvania since Jan. 1, 2011, but the state rarely, if ever, notified the public.

By law, it doesn’t have to.

Officials from a dozen western Pennsylvania townships affected by the spills want such notification.

State Department of Environmental Protection records obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review show at least 27 spills from shale drilling in 19 townships in the agency’s 10-county southwestern region during that time. Most officials the newspaper contacted said they knew nothing about the incidents.

DEP officials “don’t tell us any more than they have to. I think we … have a right to know,” said Ed Barale, a supervisor in Amwell.

DEP records show Texas-based Range Resources Corp. was responsible for a stream discharge, a drilling fluid leak and an overturned tanker spilling brine in Amwell — all of which township officials learned about weeks later from workers, Barale said. “DEP keeps you in the dark, anyhow. So I don’t have much faith in them,” he said.

The state agency is revising its policy for spill responses, but during 60 days of public comment this spring no municipal officials complained about its communication practices, said Kevin Sunday, DEP spokesman in Harrisburg.

The state’s records can be misinterpreted, he said. What DEP classified as a “stream discharge” in Amwell instead was 200 barrels of brine water in a roadside channel that leads to a lined pond the company created to hold spills, Sunday said.

“It’s just the way they have to enter these things in, which is very, very confusing,” said Matt Pitzarella, Range’s spokesman. “Unfortunately, you have mechanical errors, but they’re engineered so that when these things happen, we’re able to excavate it, and there’s no impact to the environment, including the one with the stream.”

Range agreed in April to pay $18,025 for some violations in Amwell and in Hopewell, Washington County, but a resolution to this spill is pending, Pitzarella said.

Three Amwell families are suing the company and DEP over environmental problems they claim stem from Range’s operations.

DEP issued citations for at least 52 of 134 drilling-related spills, and said 50 of them involved polluted water. Drillers failed to properly report nearly a third of pollution incidents as required, according to the list of violations.

DEP withheld 92 pages of documents about numerous incidents, saying the state’s open records law allows it to keep investigative records and informants’ names confidential, so the total number of incidents could be higher. The records withheld include “emergency response/notification reports, a chronology of an investigation and an investigative report as to a wide assortment of events in and around various well sites.”

According to DEP records, incidents unreported to the public include:

— A drilling wastewater truck overturned on June 28, 2011, on its way to a Chevron well, spilling an unknown amount of diesel fuel into an unnamed tributary of Lilly Run in Redstone, Fayette County. Chevron agreed to pay a $6,000 fine that also covered another diesel spill and sediment pollution at two other Fayette County wells.

— Workers for Williams Companies Inc. illegally dumped sediment and allowed a drilling fluid pit to overflow at separate well sites in Derry in 2011. Williams agreed to pay a $15,500 fine.

— A plastic tank spilled 130 gallons of methanol on the ground at an Exco Resources Inc. well in Cowanshannock, Armstrong County, on March 30, 2011. Workers recovered 70 percent of the liquid before it saturated the soil. The file for the well contained no record of any related fine, though the company agreed in February to pay $15,000 for drilling deeper than the Marcellus shale there without a permit.

The department is required to notify municipal officials about some spills that take more than 90 days to clean, and it must notify water users of any spills that might affect their supply, Sunday said. He said the department notifies local officials during emergencies when violations risk public health or safety though the law does not require that.

Companies must immediately report to DEP any spills that threaten to pollute state waterways — and ultimately must report all spills, Sunday said.

Any brine spill of more than 5 gallons must be reported within two hours of detection, he said, but noted, “This is categorically a different kind of spill, in need of different response measures than a larger-scale accident, where we would need to — and do — coordinate with local officials.”

Municipal leaders in Center in Greene County met with department officials after Downtown-based EQT Corp. spilled 480 gallons of diesel fuel into Patterson Run in December, said Edward “Butch” Deter, chairman of the township’s board of supervisors and president of Center Township Volunteer Fire Department, Company 91. Local leaders didn’t know about the spill until the Tribune-Review notified them in March.

Center officials want automatic notification of any event but haven’t figured out how to mandate that, Deter said. Department officials told them they wouldn’t want to know about every small spill, he said. It isn’t clear that DEP officials should be making that judgment if a 480-gallon spill went unreported to the public, he said.

“Any time a company has to notify DEP, they should have to notify a municipal official,” Deter said. “Let us know about everything, and we’ll decide how we respond to it.”

In West Virginia, drillers must identify anyone living within a mile of their wells and notify them of any accidents or spills, said Kathy Cosco, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. They notify an emergency contact at the county level for emergencies, which aren’t specifically defined, Cosco said.

Ohio has no such requirement, said Linda Oros, spokeswoman at the state’s Environmental Protection agency.

“If there’s some sort of public impact where there’s going to be sheltering action, or evacuation that’s required, then, of course, we would notify the public,” Oros said.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have mandated that drillers register geographic coordinates with state and county emergency agencies.

An idea with bipartisan support in the House would create a real-time network monitoring system to alert municipal emergency managers — and other county and state officials — of any well-site problems, said state Reps. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, and Bud George, D-Clearfield County.