Firms tell Peters that seismic testing is safe

April 25, 2013 5:15 AM
By Janice Crompton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peters council members on Monday heard from officials representing seismic testing companies, who came to reassure council that their work is safe. Despite those assurances, council voted to go forward with a new ordinance governing seismic testing for Marcellus Shale gas formations.

"We have a good track record," said Ronnie Keith McKay, project manager for Geokinetics, a Houston, Texas-based seismic testing firm. "We take all the precautions we possibly can."

Mr. McKay came to council as the contractor hired by local gas well drilling company EQT, which owns drilling leases with several township residents. A subcontractor, Doug Garrett of Cougar Land Services, also addressed members.

Though EQT is not proposing drilling in the township yet, the property in question is near the Peters border with Nottingham and Finleyville, on McClelland Road.

Geokinetics is proposing seismic testing of 68 square miles around the planned drill site, which would include a small part of Peters. The testing would be done primarily with "thumper" or "vibrator" trucks, which use a steel plate to pound the ground, causing vibration that underground data sensors use to chart rock formations -- such as the Marcellus Shale -- deep in the Earth.

In areas where the 47,000-pound, garbage-truck-sized vehicles can't drive, explosives, such as dynamite, are set off in small drill holes to gather the data.

The data is used to map subsurface formations and give drilling companies a better idea of where natural gas deposits may be located.

The trucks would be at least 50 feet from any structures. The level of vibration on nearby structures is of utmost concern to the company, Mr. McKay said.

"We couldn't stay in business if we damaged water wells or houses," he said.

Mr. McKay said he would soon visit council again to ask for permission to use township roads to access the testing area. He said the company uses traffic control workers to steer motorists around testing sites and said the thumper trucks are not stationary but move every few minutes.

"We try to use roads with two-lane traffic," he said. "It's a continuous moving operation."

Manager Michael Silvestri said the area is littered with unmapped coal mines, ranging in depth from 10 to 30 feet underground.

"That is a concern we have in that area," he said.

Mr. McKay said his company can avoid hitting the mines "if we know where they are."

He said the preparation and permitting for the seismic testing takes several months, and that data recording -- the actual seismic testing -- would take about 35-40 days.

"This is very early in the process," said Mr. McKay, who said the company has yet to file an application with the state Department of Environmental Protection for testing in the area.

EQT community adviser Jessica Carpenter told council they could contact her if they had any questions or concerns during the seismic testing or drilling process.

In related business, council decided to go forward with a seismic testing ordinance that would be included in the township's mineral extraction ordinance, passed last year.

The township is using an ordinance drafted by Robinson, Washington County, and used by Cecil, which includes safety requirements, bonding of companies for potential road damage, limits on hours of operation, and other regulations.

"As we learn more about the impacts, it's wise to prepare," Councilwoman Monica Merrell said.

Members are expected to consider the ordinance at their next meeting, on May 13.

Mr. McKay and Ms. Carpenter said they were not disappointed by the decision.

"We work with townships all the time which have ordinances," Mr. McKay said.

In other business, council:

• Approved a $489,200 contract with East West Mechanical of Castle Shannon for an overhaul of the HVAC system in the municipal building. The current system is 25 years old and out-of-date.

• Set 7:30 p.m. June 10 as the public hearing date for a revised electronic sign ordinance. The proposed amendment would allow some electronic signs with color along Route 19. Council decided to revisit the ordinance last month after a complaint from a new business owner who said advances in electronic sign design could address many of the concerns council had about bright signs.

• Approved a DEP grant application for automated recycling collection carts, which could cost the township as much as $50 each, for a total of $375,000. The 96-gallon carts have wheels, are easily maneuverable and could save the township on recycling collection costs. The carts are emptied through an automated arm on a garbage truck, rather than by hand as it is currently collected.

The new process has been safer and more cost efficient for other municipalities, such as Plum, Murrysville and Shaler, which have increased recycling collection by as much as 90 percent since they made carts available to homeowners.