In the Susquehanna River Basin, just one well can use an average of 4.4 million gallons of water during a frack job, which can last several days to a week. The majority of that water comes from Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 miles of streams polluted by abandoned coalmine drainage flow through Pennsylvania’s forests, killing all aquatic and invertebrate life. And it would take an estimated $15 billion to clean up these dead streams. Some environmentalists and at least one Marcellus driller have decided there’s an opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone. Using the abandoned mine drainage to hydro-frack wells, they say, could help clean up the coal industry’s toxic legacy while simultaneously reducing water withdrawals from the state’s rivers and streams.
Other environmentalists think it’s a very bad idea, saying it would make a dirty process even dirtier.
The debate has suddenly heated up in Harrisburg, as the Senate considers a bill to encourage more drillers to use the mine water by reducing their liability. And despite the fact that it’s been promoted by watershed groups, the idea is getting some serious push back from environmentalists who think the bill gives industry a green light to pollute without any consequences.
Abandoned mine drainage is known more commonly as acid mine drainage. But not all of that drainage is acidic. In fact, not all mine drainage is created equal.
Orange Slime and Lifeless Creeks
Far from the debate in Harrisburg, however, deep in the Tioga State Forest, near the tiny town of Arnot, one natural gas producer is already using abandoned mine water to frack its nearby Marcellus wells. Water gushing from an abandoned coal mine, through a hole in the mountain, forms an unnamed tributary to Johnson Creek, which flows into the Tioga River, forming part of the Susquehanna River watershed. The abandoned Arnot #5 coal mine stretches beneath this mountain and is one of hundreds of abandoned coal mines scattered across the state. About 50 yards downstream, the water starts to turn orange.
Doug Kepler, a biologist with the energy company Seneca Resources, points toward the rocks lying at the bottom of the stream. He explains their connection with the abandoned mine.
“We’re standing immediately downslope of the coal mine,” says Kepler, pointing toward the opening in the mountain where water is rushing out. “So this would have been an opening area and the mine would extend above you into the woods.”
What’s left of that abandoned mine forms a gaping empty basin stretching underneath the forest, collecting rainwater over time. When the water comes in contact with buried rock, exposed by coal mining, it absorbs the minerals. In this case it’s iron sulfide. When that iron sulfide in the water comes in contact with air, it picks up oxygen and the iron literally falls out, landing at the bottom of the creek.
“So you can see how the rocks are coated orange here,” said Kepler. “And that’s what basically suffocates the invertebrate life in the stream. That’s why you don’t have any bug life or fish life in the stream.”
Kepler is a big proponent of using this water to frack the Marcellus Shale. Seneca Resources operates a number of gas wells in the Tioga State Forest. The company leases the mineral rights from the state and it uses this abandoned mine drainage to frack virtually all of its wells in Tioga County.On a section of private land, Seneca has set up a withdrawal pump and five large water storage tanks. This particular mine water does not have to be treated before using it to frack. But since each acid mine drainage has its own set of pollutants, not all of it would be suitable as frack fluid unless it received treatment beforehand. Seneca uses a pipeline that pumps this orange water directly to their well sites, where the company adds sand and chemicals to hydro-frack the wells.
It helps that this polluted water from the coal industry is so close to so many Marcellus wells. But Kepler says there’s no financial benefit to the company from using the abandoned mine water.
“There’s no advantage to us to use this water. It doesn’t really make any difference to us to use this water as opposed to other sources of water nearby,” said Kepler. “The overall advantage would be that we’re helping to take the pollution load out of the nearby river.”
Kepler himself is driven by altruism. Before he worked at Seneca Resources, he ran his own environmental consulting company that worked on mine drainage issues. He says when he proposed this project to company executives, they were supportive. But Seneca is one of only several companies using this mine drainage water.
Mine Water Liability
The state Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a “white paper” meant to encourage the use of mine water to frack. The idea was also proposed in Governor Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission report. But little incentive exists. And there’s another reason Seneca Resources is one of the few producers using acid mine drainage to frack.
Peter Fontaine is an attorney with the Philadelphia lawfirm Cozen O’Conner, which is a member of the industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Fontaine used to work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has written in support of producers using the abandoned mine water to frack. But he says right now, the state’s Clean Streams Law could make producers liable for cleaning up the mine water that they didn’t pollute, in perpetuity.
“It’s called the perpetual treatment liability and it’s been imposed multiple times by DEP under the Clean Streams Law.”
Fontaine says Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law is one of the toughest in the country. So drillers are worried. If they use abandoned mine drainage, someone, somewhere down the road, could sue them, and the courts could hold them liable for cleaning up a particular stream that they did not pollute.
The Clean Streams Law was enacted, in part, to prevent a repeat of the coal industry’s devastating impact on water quality. It empowers the Department of Environmental Protection to manage waste water discharge and enforce penalties on industries that pollute. The DEP has suggested some work-arounds in its white paper that could reduce liability issues for drillers that use mine water. But Fontaine says those proposals don’t go far enough.
“It’s kind of a reactive policy,” said Fontaine. “It basically says OK, if you want to do this you have to provide us with this information and if you’re concerned about liability we can try to address it under the Environmental Good Samaritan law or enter into a consent decree. But it doesn’t incentivize the kind of outcome that would be good to see.”
The state enacted the Environmental Good Samaritan Act back in 2000 to provide some protection from liability to volunteer watershed groups cleaning up abandoned mine drainage. Seneca’s Kepler says he’s done his regulatory homework and says he’s not worried about liability.
But Fontaine says the state could do more to assure energy companies that they won’t get sued. “It provides a defense, if someone were to sue,” said Fontaine. “But it doesn’t remove full liability.”
In fact, although the dozens of watershed groups across the state continue to clean up abandoned mine drainage, technically, they could still be held liable should something go wrong during the clean-up. Fontaine’s vision, outlined here in this article in Pennsylvania Lawyer magazine, is to have the state encourage private enterprise to develop mine water treatment facilities, thereby centralizing the use of mine drainage water for fracking. That way, a third party entity could negotiate its own protection from liability with the state, and the gas drillers would be immune.
Watershed Groups Behind the Idea
For those who have worked to clean up abandoned mine water for years, it sounds like a good plan. Andy McAllister works with the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. McAllister wants to take the idea one step further. He wants gas drillers to partner with these groups, and pay for the cleanup of the acid mine drainage that continues to flow downstream.
“Money is hard to come by in the environmental movement in general,” says McAllister, “and in particular the work that we all are doing and the watershed groups in relation to cleaning up abandoned mine drainage.
McAllister sees this as a win-win, although not a panacea for mine drainage. Cleaning up abandoned mine drainage is not difficult, but considering how many miles of stream need treatment, McAllister says the largest obstacle is money.
“There’s really not enough money to go around, let alone enough money to address the operation and maintenance of treatment systems that the watershed groups are actually operating and running,” said McAllister. “So this is a way for our community to find some money to keep these systems operating in perpetuity, to keep these streams clean, to keep the trout running and living.”
Environmentalists Waving Red Flags
But not every environmentalist is jumping on McAllister’s bandwagon.
Tracy Carluccio is with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that works on water quality issues in the eastern part of the state. Carluccio opposes fracking altogether, saying the process could pollute the aquifer through leaks in the well casings.
“Our concern is that you’re making a dirty process dirtier,” says Carluccio. “You’re just moving the pollution around.”
Carluccio worries about what would happen if the abandoned mine water were to spill during transport.
“But even if you say, OK, there’s never going to be an accident or spill,” says Carluccio, “you are injecting into the aquifer polluted material that’s more polluted than fresh water. You are compounding the pollution problems that you’re posing to the wellsite. Should there be leaks from the well casing or during the fracking [process] you would compound the pollution problems.”
Carluccio says some abandoned mine drainage is full of total dissolved solids, and magnesium as well as sulfates and iron.
But Doug McAllister, from the watershed group, says industry is not likely to use any water that has a high level of total dissolved solids.
“Seems to me the best way for the industry to use AMD is to look for the best quality and most appropriate quality discharges,” says McAllister. ”We [want industry] to work with the local watershed groups to help the groups with an existing treatment system and provide funding for long term maintenance after the industry is gone.”
McAllister says building and maintaining treatment systems can cost between $100,000 and $500,000. A more complicated treatment system could cost up to $10 million.
It’s unclear what industry as a whole thinks of McAllister’s idea. But Seneca Resources’ Doug Kepler says he’s all for helping local watershed groups. He’s reached out to the sportsmen’s club in the nearby village of Arnot and says Seneca would be willing to pay for a treatment system that would clean up the unnamed orange-colored tributary to Johnson Creek.
“This is a legacy impact that a new energy industry has the opportunity to help clean up. We’ll continue to use this water, and hopefully get it cleaned up and it’s kind of a nice win-win story for everyone.”