In 2005, Pennsylvania had 11 frack water pits. Just eight years later, aerial maps show that number has jumped to 529. It’s unclear how many of these sites store fresh water used for fracking, and how many store the toxic wastewater that results from oil and gas drilling operations. The Department of Environmental Protection could not provide the data to public health researchers working with Geisenger on an NIH funded health impact study. So the researchers turned to the nonprofit data sleuths from SkyTruth, who have documented the impoundents with the help of USDA aerial imagery and citizen scientists from around the world. Smithsonian.org recently reported on how the project was initiated by public health researchers from Johns Hopkins:
Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and his colleagues have teamed up with Geisinger Health System, a health services organization in Pennsylvania, to analyze the digital medical records of more than 400,000 patients in the state in order to assess the impacts of fracking on neonatal and respiratory health.
While the scientists will track where these people live, says Schwartz, state regulators cannot tell them where the active well pads and waste pits are located. Officials at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) say that they have simply never compiled a comprehensive list.
A spokesman for DEP told the Observer-Reporter that the department can’t produce a list of impoundments that include smaller wastewater storage sites because they have a different classification. The DEP sent the reporter to another nonprofit that tries to fill the state’s data and information gap – FracTracker. But FracTracker says the data they get from DEP on the location of frack ponds is “woefully incomplete.”
“We are big fans of the SkyTruth dataset here at FracTracker, but it is a shame that it is needed,” said Matt Kelso, manager of data and technology at FracTracker Alliance. ”We wish that the PA DEP would publish better data about this aspect of the oil and gas extraction business.”
Since state environmental regulators have no reliable knowledge of where these sites are located, volunteers from across the globe studied the aerial images from 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013. The accuracy of the data was carefully vetted by SkyTruth’s methodology, which included training on how to distinguish a frack pond from a duck pond. But the organization has not yet figured out how to distinguish the toxic from the non-toxic fresh water holding ponds.
“It is an important distinction that we’re looking into,” wrote SkyTruth’s David Manthos in an email, “but not one we were ready to make yet.”
“Between the backlog of reporting, and these smaller impoundments that also hold toxic chemicals but which DEP classifies differently, the location of these features is effectively a mystery to the general public and researchers who are trying to measure the potential health impacts of [those] living near drilling sites and drilling-waste impoundments.
Skytruth researchers also documented the increase in the size of these impoundments over the last eight years.
From 2010 to 2013 the median area of drilling impoundments more than tripled, and the average area (which also includes small fluid reserve pits located right on the wellpad) more than doubled. As of 2013, the total impoundment surface area measures nearly four million square meters, scattered across the Commonwealth. (New York’s Central Park measures 3.4 million square meters.)
Many of these impoundments are reclaimed after a period of time. For example, the 2010 maps showed 581 frack water storage facilities, while in 2013, Skytruth documented 529. The data is now searchable through an interactive map on the Skytruth website. The project was conceived to help Hopkins researchers link possible health impacts to the wastewater ponds, which contain toxic chemicals that can emit dangerous air pollutants. The Department of Environmental Protection has also documented leaks from these sites. In October, the DEP announced it was seeking to fine EQT corporation a record $4.5 million dollars for a leaking impoundment. The Attorney General has also filed criminal charges against the driller. In September, DEP handed Range Resources a $4.15 million fine for violations at six wastewater impoundments in Washington County.
Centralized open storage pits containing gas drilling waste water have to be double-lined in Pennsylvania, and include a leak-detection system. The smaller, on-site ponds do not have to be double-lined. The industry standard advocated by the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, whose members include the recently sanctioned shale driller EQT, says hydrocarbons should be removed from the wastewater before storage.
Correction: A previous version of this story reported that SkyTruth used NASA satellite imagery. It was actually from the USDA. Also double-lined pits are not required for the smaller on-site frack ponds.