The ongoing gusher of oil and gas well development in northwestern Pennsylvania has caused widespread environmental damage in the Allegheny National Forest and overwhelmed regulators, according to a forest conservation organization.
The Clarion-based Allegheny Defense Project said a $657,040 state penalty recently levied against a New York drilling firm shows the U.S. Forest Service is not adequately reviewing oil and gas well drilling operations, some of which have been allowed to encroach on and degrade streams and wetlands in the national forest without getting required state permits.
Those types of permit violations moved the state Department of Environmental Protection to order Synd Enterprises and Vertical Resources to stop all new oil and gas well drilling and earth disturbance last month, citing 98 alleged violations in 2006 at 54 wells, including 40 within the Allegheny National Forest.
The DEP followed up on that action with the announcement this month of the six-figure penalty against those two firms, owned by Stephen and Cynthia Ford of Lakewood, N.Y., for showing "a lack of ability or intention to comply with the provisions of the commonwealth's environmental laws."
"The Forest Service isn't stepping up to do what's right by the Allegheny," said Ryan Talbot, Forest Watch coordinator for Allegheny Defense Project, which has waged legal battles to limit timbering and increase wilderness designation in the forest. "This is just one company and one development that's been cited. I'm afraid it's happening all over the forest. I don't think that the Forest Service or the DEP can keep up with what's going on."
What's going on atop Pennsylvania's northwestern plateau is an oil and gas boom that is among the biggest since 1859 when Edwin Drake drilled the well that launched the modern oil industry in Venango County, south of Titusville.
The DEP issued a record 3,775 oil and gas well drilling permits in 2006, a 24 percent increase over the 3,044 granted in 2005, which was previously the record year for issuance of oil and gas well permits.
"Over the last five years we've been in an upward spiral of oil and gas permits," said Freda Tarbell, a DEP spokeswoman, who noted that the regional office added two new enforcement officers in the past year to an overworked force that now totals 17 working in 27 northern counties.
More than 1,000 of the wells drilled in that region last year were sunk in the Allegheny National Forest. More than 8,000 active wells are operating in the forest, and federal forest officials expect 1,200 additional wells there this year.
That drilling activity is possible because only the surface property rights were purchased because of limited money when the federal government began assembling the 513,000-acre forest in 1923. As a result, oil companies own the mineral rights under 95 percent of the forest.
Although the state issues the drilling permits, the U.S. Forest Service is supposed to review oil companies' operating plans to assure they have the required permits and insure protection of the surface land and water.
"The Forest Service should be making sure that all companies have their required permits before any earth disturbance for oil and gas drilling occurs," said Bill Belitskus, Allegheny Defense Project board president. "This has been an ongoing problem since at least 2002 ... and it's time it stopped."
According to the DEP, the alleged violations by Synd Enterprises and Vertical Resources included unauthorized crossing of Watsontown Run, a small trout stream in the Allegheny National Forest, brine and tank discharges that contaminated surface and ground water, and obstruction of DEP inspections by denying access through gated roads.
Prior to 2006, the two companies had paid state fines totaling $27,855.
"The Fords and their companies operated in a manner that has resulted in the contamination of soil and water in one of Pennsylvania's most pristine areas," said Kelly Burch, DEP northwest region director. "The Fords' failure to comply with standards that protect these environmentally sensitive areas cannot be allowed."
The Forest Service recognized problems at the Synd and Vertical wells, said Steve Miller, an Allegheny National Forest spokesman, and cited the companies for timber damage, the un-permitted expansion of a stone pit and unauthorized road construction. He added that he doesn't think those operators are representative of most companies working in the national forest.
Mr. Miller said the increased oil and gas activity has caused the Forest Service to "rethink" how it handles the well drilling issue and work with operators and the DEP to steer development clear of environmentally sensitive areas.
"We've done a lot of things in terms of personnel and focus on the most critical issues where there is the highest likelihood of resource damage," Mr. Miller said. "The operators have the right to access the minerals under Pennsylvania law, but we are working with them to do the least amount of damage."
Stephen Ford, who owns the two cited firms with his wife, said he is appealing the penalties, but also working with the DEP to correct any problems.
"We hope to negotiate something with them. We expect to," Mr. Ford said, adding that the violation allegations contain distortions and untruths and the order to halt new well drilling has caused him to lay off or idle 100 employees. "Our wells are in old oil fields riddled with turn-of-the-century pipe and as unpristine as can be."
However Vertical Resources recently notified the Forest Service that it planned to drill for oil and gas in the Allegheny Front National Recreation Area, a roadless area protected by the 2001 federal Roadless Rule and proposed for wilderness designation last year by the grassroots group, Friends of Allegheny Wilderness.
The Forest Service has proposed a plan to give the company access to those well locations, according to the Allegheny Defense Project, but Mr. Miller said that's not going to happen.
"Before we can issue a special use permit, an operator must be in compliance with all local, state and federal laws," Mr. Miller said, "and Vertical is not in compliance."
But Cathy Pedler, an ADP board member, said the Forest Service needs to be much more proactive to stop problem companies from operating and limit the impact of the oil and gas well boom.
"The Forest Service did not even file objections to the location of these wells as provided under state law," Ms. Pedler said. "Given what the Forest Service knows about this company, we cannot understand why it would not do what it can to protect an area as special as Allegheny Front. They clearly do not have their priorities straight."
Don Hopey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1983.