Energy. Environment. Economy.

Pennsylvania’s frack ponds now number more than 500

A sign warns against trespassing on a fracking wastewater impoundment in Bradford County.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

A sign warns against trespassing on a frack wastewater impoundment in Bradford County.

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. 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.”

Manthos continued:

“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. 


  • DeanMarshall

    Sickening! To the environment and me personally!

    • janie sunshine

      We need to END the fossil fuel era, all of it, coal, oil, and shale gas! It’s all destroying the planet. We need Solar Roadways. If a solar roadway grid was subsidized and promoted the way fossil fuel is, there wouldn’t be an energy problem. Check it out

      • AlSever

        Read your Bible! we don’t need solar! God created light 4 days before He created the Sun. Let’s use bible thumper power! Also, bet you can’t count the number of unlined manure storage ponds out there!

  • JimBarth

    Susan, it would be great if you could offer us a clarification. In your article, you divide the impoundments into two categories, toxic flow back waste, and “fresh” water. My understanding is that the industry, and PA DEP, have a different definition of “fresh” water, in that “fresh” simply means recycled and “cleaned” to the point that it may be used to fracture again. “Fresh” water may be posted at the impoundment, but, It is still toxic for wildlife, humans, and if it were to leak into the soil. It still out gasses volatile organic chemicals, and contains them. If this is the case, it is far different than we normal humans understand the definition of “fresh water” to be.
    Do you have knowledge of this issue?

    • Mark Szybist

      The DEP currently has no regulatory definition for “fresh water” (or “freshwater,” as the term is sometimes written). The DEP considers processed gas well wastewater to be clean enough to be stored in an impoundment designed for fresh water (i.e., an impoundment that doesn’t meet the DEP’s regulatory standards for either of the two types of gas well wastewater impoundments) if the processed wastewater does not exceed the pollutant concentration limits in Appendix A of DEP’s general permit known as WMGR123. That permit is available at

      The DEP currently has no mandatory design and construction standards for smaller fresh water impoundments. The DEP has “recommended” standards, which are available at, and the DEP has proposed to codify these standards — to make them the law — in its revisions to 25 Pa. Code Chapter 78. These revisions are pending.

      • JimBarth

        That’s what I thought, thanks. I was hoping Susan Phillips would chime in though, since she wrote the article.

      • suegarelik

        DEP stands for dept of environmental Plunder. Just another example of our state Utterly failing to protect public health or our natural resources.

        • paulroden

          I like your redefinition of DEP better than mine, Dept of Environmental Plunder is spot on. I have been rebranding the DEP as the “Don’t Expect Protection” department, the Department of Health as the “Don’t Offer Help department, and the DCNR, the Department of Consumable or Consuming Natural Resources. All three of these departments have been compromised and are not protecting the environment or us in violation of the PA Constitution of the Commonwealth.

          • Dan Alters

            The state agencies only reflect the administration’s policies. As a 35-year DEP employee, I maintain respect for the vast majority of DEP employees that care about the environment. In your meaningless name-calling I’d appreciate the target be the real culprit in DEP’s inability to do its job properly.

          • paulroden

            I am sure that the remaining DEP employees are trying to do their jobs, but the DEP budget, weak rules, fines and other sanctions are controlled by the Governor and Legislature. The gas industry, the Governor, and the DEP Director has brainwashed and lied to the public that the gas drilling is safe and has had no ill effects to the public or to the environment. Your hands are tied when all reports have to go to the Governors Office before you can even issue a citation. The Department of Health has been ordered to not respond to citizen complaints and questions about fracking and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has been ordered to give leases to the gas drillers in state parks and forests. Your hands are tied! How can you even live up to your oath of office when you can’t do your job to protect the environment without enough staff, budget and the authority to enforce the laws and regulations? Hence my rebranding of your departments name. The government is supposed to protect the people, the environment and the constitution. Right now it is only protecting the gas industry.

          • suegarelik

            Ever heard of whistleblowers?
            Is your duty to the corrupt administrations, the corrupt politicians or the air, land , water and living beings of Pennsylvania?

    • Susan Phillips

      The distinction I was making did not include DEP’s definition or non-definition of fresh water. I use the term as it is commonly defined. I merely asked SkyTruth if they were able to confirm whether these ponds contained toxins as opposed to water that was not toxic. As it says in the article, they were not able to make the distinction.

    • Susan Phillips

      The distinction I was making did not include DEP’s definition or non-definition of fresh water. I use the term as it is commonly defined. I merely asked SkyTruth if they were able to confirm whether these ponds contained toxins as opposed to water that was not toxic. As it says in the article, they were not able to make the distinction.

  • LeftCoastOracle

    If nobody knows where these ponds are how the hell could anybody study their impact on people’s health?

    • livinginthefield

      In fact that is the whole point isn’t it? And just because you can’t study it doesn’t mean there are none.

  • Steve Todd

    PA government has abandoned its responsibility to protect the people of this state. Case in point: the 3,000+ folks we pay to these ponds could not say how many they permit and monitor, so the Federal govt turned to web users, who counted them.

  • Hugh Kimball

    Just more proof that PA was not ready to commence fracking years ago and still has not caught up with the dangers and problems the process is causing. Do those signs at the sites help wildlife to avoid any of the ponds that do not contain fresh water? I think not, and I would not want to eat a duck or animal that may have drunk from wastwater or from water cleansed to the point it could be used to frack again.

  • Pat Goldsmith

    I find it shocking that the state is not keeping track of these ponds in a comprehensive way and is effectively unable to locate sites containing fracking wastewater. As we all know, in 2005 Congress exempted fracking from the federal Clean Air, Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, and Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Acts, which is the ultimate origin of this lack of accountability. Clearly, state agencies have not been able to replicate the rigor of the federal laws. So now we have to just wonder how people are being affected by carcinogens injected into the ground, start up academic studies as best we can, and rely on citizen scientists. Meanwhile, people exposed to the carcinogens emitted into the air or leaching into the ground are quietly getting sick. These are men, women, children, and babies, who did not agree to live in a toxic dump. Let’s remember the definition of carcinogens: poisons that are not excreted by the body. They build up in our tissues over time and at a certain point will cause cancer. No one knows how much has already built up in any one person’s system over the course of their life, so any exposure is unacceptable because it may be the tipping point, and of course we all have different genetic predispositions. In other words, people should not be exposed to carcinogens! Period! This fundamental understanding was the basis of the laws from which fracking is now exempted, all for the sake of greed and for the enrichment of multinational corporations. Fracking is unsafe, and greed is no excuse.

  • paulroden

    “Officials at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) say that they have simply never compiled a comprehensive list” (of impoundment ponds). Why am I not surprised that they don’t know how many fresh water or “flow back, ” “waster water, ” or “produced water” ponds are in the Commonwealth of PA? Cutbacks in funding and staffing under Rendell and Corbett have transformed the DEP into the “Don’t Expect Protection” Department. The gas drillers have bought off the government and silenced any meaningful inspection or compliance with environmental regulation at the state level. They are already exempt at the Federal level under the “Halliburton Loophole” of the 2005 Energy Policy Reform Act. The fox has been guarding the hen house.

    • KeepTapWaterSafe

      I agree with you 100%, Paul. This is a direct legacy of the Corbett-Krancer era, and we’re going to pay for it for a long, long time.

  • paulroden

    We don’t even know the number of previously drilled oil and gas wells, test well drilling sites, so with all of this mad “drill baby drill” activity, it is no wonder we have seen “methane gysers”, explosions and well fires. Don’t you feel protected by the DEP, the DOH, the DCNR and the EPA? And the gas drillers want less regulation, no taxes and for us the public to trust them to police themselves? And we need this gas as a “transition fuel” and “for our energy independence,” when they are trying to export it overseas with LNG terminals? They are liars, We don’t need this gas for our energy needs. Go to . Fracking is too dangerous, too expensive and totally unnecessary for our energy needs.

  • Julieann Wozniak

    And I’m willing to bet that most of them leak.

    • paulroden

      Using the DEP published data on “well integrity,” all wells eventually will all leak, according to Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, in a recent study he co-authored for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even if the ponds and wells while active never drop a single drop of fracking fluid, the deadly chemicals can get into aquifers, through cracks in the well casings and the failure of the cement seals between sections of the well casings. Add to that “produced water” being accidently spilled on way to disposal or being spread on highways for de-icing or “wintry road preparation” after being classified as “having beneficial use,” you have a ticking time bomb here that we have no idea when it will go off. Add that to the coal mine acid run off and previous oil and gas extraction and you have a real environmental nightmare ahead of us. It will make the” Love Canal” disaster a picnic in comparison because of the amount of chemicals and geographical areas involved. That is why it needs to be outlawed.

  • JoanneCorey

    It’s disturbing that DEP doesn’t even have an accurate and reliable list of impoundments to share with the health researchers. How can DEP be providing oversight and enforcing regulations if they don’t even know where all the impoundments are located?

  • DoryHippauf

    In a letter to the Editor (Feb 2013), John Krohn, a team member from Energy-In-Depth stated:

    ….wastewater management as a concern noting the use of “frack ponds” poses a risk to the health of nearby residents. The good news for those residents is that whatever a “frack pond” might be, they aren’t being used in Pennsylvania. Here, the natural gas industry uses closed-loop management systems which ensure fluids and other wastes never come into contact with the environment.

    see letter here:

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