Energy. Environment. Economy.

Using Abandoned Mine Drainage to Frack

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Seneca Resources biologist Doug Kepler holds up a rock covered in orange slime, a result of acid mine drainage.

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.


Click on the image above to view an infographic explaining where water for fracking comes from.

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.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

An orange colored stream flows from an abandoned mine in Tioga County. This tributary to Johnson Creek supports no invertebrate or aquatic life.

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.”

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Seneca Resources well site in Tioga County. The company uses abandoned mine drainage to frack their wells.

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.”

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Seneca Resources' biologist Doug Kepler looks at the lifeless creek in Tioga County. The stream is one of hundreds across the state contaminated by abandoned coal mine drainage.

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.”


  • Iris Marie Bloom

    This story is quite odd in that it makes it sound like the for-profit fracking industry is motivated by “altruism,” while the many groups who are speaking out all over the state against the overly broad, overly dangerous exemptions (for corporate users of AMD) embedded in SB411, the bill the Pennsylvania Senate is likely to vote on this week, are spoken of “as if” they are only one person, Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

    In fact, SB411 would make gas drillers — not friendly altruistic biologists, but actually big multinational corporations like Shell, aggressive polluters and SLAPP suit litigators like Range Resources, against whom the average landowner in PA is totally helpless — EXEMPT from even having to provide replacement water to impacted people, if they happen to spill toxic flowback, as long as that flowback included some AMD (acid mine drainage) water. This is a really dangerous loophole, and should be voted down.

    Susan Phillips should dig investigatively quite a bit deeper into the overly broad, overly vague, and unnecessarily dangerous exemptions the industry is attempting to win this week in the form of SB411, because these are not good neighbors. These are major polluters, and when they spew poisonous gas into the air, pollute our climate with enormous methane leaks, and turn residents’ water black, their M.O. is: deny, settle, and silence the impacted people. They are trying to use SB411, a “good Samaritan” law, by twisting it into a law which would provide them with a shield to hide behind. They can then use that shield to prevent impacted people from successfully suing them when they handle toxic flowback irresponsibly. And that’s just irresponsible. Protecting Our Waters, Clean Water Action, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and many other groups across the state are urging their Senators to vote “no” on SB411 this week if it comes up for a vote, not because we don’t think the staff biologist for Seneca is altruistic. He probably is! But laws cover bad neighbors, polluters, criminally negligent polluters and huge multinational corporations just as thoroughly as they cover this nice altruistic man who genuinely wants to frack with AMD. By portraying the industry so sympathetically, portraying a broad and wide spectrum of environmental groups as if it’s just one person, and not examining the dangerous exemptions in SB411 carefully, Susan Phillips has, on this occasion, done a disservice to the inquiring minds who might want to know whether those exemptions are just a nice service for altruistic people. They are not. They are a dangerous shield for huge corporations who are, in fact, polluting our water and air every day as they frack with flares (unnecessary), with open plastic lined pits (which should be criminalized and abolished immediately), without vapor recovery units (which would protect against some of the most sickening emissions at the wellhead), without Emissions Reduction Units (which would protect against much of the compressor station pollution) and without blowdown preventors.

    Obviously, the problem is much bigger than whether AMD should be used to frack. Fracking is unsafe. The well casing failure rate in PA went up to 8.9% in 2012, as analyzed by Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea — and that’s just the failures that were actually found and publicly identified by PA DEP.

    We need a fracking moratorium, not greenwashing for fracking companies and yet more dangerous exemptions. If you look at even the most basic regulations for the fracking industry, such as the five I just named, Pennsylvania doesn’t require one of them. This is no time to be handing out even more exemptions to an industry which already is doing much more harm than ever makes the news. Elderly residents in PA having to go to the hospital with severe nosebleeds; PA residents having their throats close up due to chemical inhalation at flare sites; these are the realities.

    Let’s clean up AMD by cleaning it up, not by fracking with it while driving ever more toxic poisons ever deeper undergound, on the surface, in the air and into our climate. Like the song says — when will we ever learn?

  • Mark Wiener

    I see no hard information is Susan’s article and am painfully aware that most journalists are totally ignorant of science and engineering. Compound this with the ongoing legacy of coal damage to air and water and soil and the ugly fact that the worst pollutant in most PA surface water is human feces with agricultural feces and fertilizer-herbicide run off coming in second, I see little hope for Pennsylvania’s USGS 78% non-compliant watersheds.

  • TCarlCoffelt

    Over 1 million wells have been “fracked” with no leaks. This has been publicly verified by Linda Jackson of the EPA. That said, I’m sure if everyone is willing to work together rather than against each other for political ends I’m sure compromises can be made to remediate the existing contaminated water problem while easing the necessity of using fresh water sources in the drilling process. It’s a win-win unless all you want to do is win your own little philosophical battle.

    • Scott Cannon

      You don’t know what your talking about. Leaky wells (methane migration) are documented all over the web by government groups like the EPA and the DEP.

      • TCarlCoffelt

        Scott, the discussion is about “water” used in the process which, as I correctly cited that there are no documented cases of drilling fluid going into an aquifer – not by any State or Federal EPA. Methane migration is naturally occurring and even is discovered in existing old water wells. If you want to document something for me I am more than willing to listen.

        • S. Thomas Bond

          Carl, that is one of many carefully worded myths put out by
          the industry, It would be more exact for
          them to say, “We have never been
          held responsible in court.” The
          reason for that is because whenever they
          get caught (as in the Hollowich Case) they settle out of court, paying the
          victims handsomely to remain quiet. The statement you quote
          is fundamentally at odds with the finding by Dr. Ingraffea cited in the fourth
          paragraph of Iris Marie Bloom’s letter.
          8.9% is more than one in twelve recognized by the state DEP! How many wells were drilled in 2012?

          In PR if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth,

          • TCarlCoffelt

            DEP documented. That a case is settled out of court does not necessarily prove liability. In the Dimock incident the PADEP ruled that the driling company was not libel.You are using anecdotal data. Where do you get your 18% number?

  • Scott Cannon

    Senate Bill 411 proposed by PA Senator Lisa Baker (R) would hold harmless the industry for any accidents, spills, or bodily harm caused while using this mine drainage water. Mix 100,000 of it with frackwater, cause a spill or blow out, and they are not responsible for damages. Who will pay for the cleanup? We will as taxpayers. This is government insanity.

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