Firm ordered to remove shale-site explosives

Feds, state cite restrictions at Fayette mine reclamation location

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By Don Hopey

A seismic blasting company gathering geological information for Marcellus Shale gas drilling has been ordered by federal and state agencies to remove 136 explosive charges from holes it drilled on an active mine reclamation site along the Monongahela River in Fayette County.

The state Department of Environmental Protection ordered CGGVeritas Land Inc., which holds a valid state blasting permit, to remove the explosives because such blasting activity is prohibited on mine reclamation sites.

The DEP order was issued after an inspection that was prompted by a tip from residents of LaBelle, a community adjacent to the 500-acre coal ash disposal site, which operates under a federal permit and is classified as an active mining site by the state. The tip was passed along to the DEP by the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental group that claims coal ash dumped on one of the state's largest coal waste piles has caused health problems for many LaBelle residents.

The DEP and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration have set a May 8 deadline for CGGVeritas, which is conducting seismic testing for Chevron, to complete the explosives removal work. MSHA also issued five citations to Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., the mine site operator, for failing to comply with the federal explosives regulations.

CGG, in a statement issued Wednesday, said it will remove the explosive charges and has submitted plans to do so.

"Blasting holes had been drilled and filled with explosives and left unattended," said Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokewoman. "We have jurisdiction over this site only because of an active high-hazard impoundment/refuse pile that the owner has chosen not to abandon."

The locations where the dynamite-based charges were set on March 15, 16 and 17, have been "locked down" by Canestrale Contracting, said John Poister, a DEP spokesman, and all work at the site suspended. Some of the explosives are in holes along the Monongahela River near a barge-unloading facility and others located near what DEP terms a "buttress" or dam impoundment containing coal ash. According to the MSHA citations, approximately 17 of the charged holes are on the embankment of a "high hazard impoundment." Dam impoundments are classified as high hazard if their failure would likely cause loss of life.

Mr. Poister said a worst-case scenario is that the blasting on the waste coal and coal ash site could have caused landslides.

Seismic testing is done by subcontractors for the drilling industry to determine the depth and thickness of the gas-bearing Marcellus Shale formation. Explosives are placed in a series of narrow, 20-to-30-foot-deep holes, and the holes are packed with rock to direct the force of the blast downward, then detonated. The shock waves from the blasts travel through the layers of rock and are measured by instruments that produce geological maps of the underground formations.

Mr. Poister said the Houston, Texas-based seismic testing company also was cited by the DEP for drilling and setting the explosive charges without a state-certified blasting supervisor on site. No penalties or fines have yet been assessed for any of the violations.

"It's early in the process. We'll sit down with them and talk about the potential civil penalties and their procedures," Mr. Poister said.

William Gorton, an attorney representing Matt Canestrale Contracting, said his client was unaware that CGGVeritias had drilled and set the seismic charges on the mine reclamation site and has no contract with the blasting company. Pre-approval by the DEP would be needed to allow blasting on the mine site.

"This sends up a red flag about the regulatory system," said Lisa Graves Marcucci, a community outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project, the group that has organized resident opposition to the coal ash site in LaBelle. "They were only caught because local residents notified the DEP. It seems the shale gas industry is running ahead of the regulatory checks, and the question is in how many other places is this happening?"

The DEP issued a "blasting activity permit" to CGG in December 2012, for what the company is calling the "Dog Bone 3D Seismic Project." Under the permit, CGGVeritas is allowed to load 20,000 holes with explosives, primarily in Fayette County, but also Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. But the permit does not identify specific locations where the seismic testing work will occur.

Mr. Poister said each hole is loaded with 3.3 pounds of "pentolite," an explosive mixture that is equal parts trinitrotoluene, known as TNT, and pentaerythritol tetranitrate.

The permit requires the company to notify those living within 200 feet of the blast area and provide them with general information about the blasting operation and its duration. Seismic blasting done too close to homes can crack foundations or damage water wells. A small percentage of the charges can also fail to detonate, and, if left in the ground can be a hazard to future excavation or drilling in the area.

Tim Brooks, a CGG senior vice president, said in a statement that the company had "acted on the information given to us, and ... complied with the rules as we knew them." CGG did not respond to follow-up phone calls and emails asking who provided the company with information indicating the charges could be placed in the mine site.

Joshua Landers, a state certified blaster with CGG, said in a phone interview Friday from his home in Houston, Texas, that he has been off work and was unaware of the DEP and MSHA orders. He said the company met with the DEP prior to doing drilling and went over the area where the charges were drilled and set.

But Mr. Poister said CGG reviewed clearly marked maps showing the Canestrale property was an active, federally permitted mine site and thus off-limits for seismic testing.

The DEP said it employs 11 blasting supervisors statewide and has issued eight permits for seismic testing related to Marcellus Shale gas development. Work on six of those permits is "active." The DEP has also issued about 1,200 limited blasting licenses to individuals, about two-thirds of those for seismic testing work and the rest for other industrial applications and police work.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

A Houston, Texas, seismic blasting company gathering geological information for Marcellus Shale gas drilling has been ordered by federal and state agencies to remove 136 explosive charges from holes it drilled on an active mine reclamation site along the Monongahela River in Fayette County.

The state Department of Environmental Protection ordered CGGVeritas Land Inc., which holds a valid state blasting permit, to remove the explosives because such blasting activity is prohibited on mine reclamation sites.

The DEP order was issued after an inspection that was prompted by a tip from residents of LaBelle, a community adjacent to the 500-acre coal ash disposal site, which operates under a federal permit and is classified as an active mining site by the state. The tip was passed along to the DEP by the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental group that claims that coal ash dumped on one of the state's largest coal waste piles has caused health problems for many LaBelle residents.

The DEP and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration have set a May 8 deadline for CGGVeritas, which is conducting seismic testing for Chevron, to complete the explosives removal work. MSHA also issued five citations to Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., the mine site operator, for failing to comply with the federal explosives regulations.

CGG, in a statement issued Wednesday, said it will remove the explosive charges and has submitted plans to do so.

"Blasting holes had been drilled and filled with explosives and left unattended," said Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokewoman. "We have jurisdiction over this site only because of an active high-hazard impoundment refuse pile that the owner has chosen not to abandon."

The locations where the dynamite-based charges were set on March 15, 16 and 17 have been "locked down" by Canestrale Contracting, said John Poister, a DEP spokesman, and all work at the site suspended. Some of the explosives are in holes along the Monongahela River near a barge-unloading facility and others located near what DEP terms a "buttress" or dam impoundment containing coal ash. According to the MSHA citations, approximately 17 of the charged holes are on the embankment of a "high hazard impoundment." Dam impoundments are classified as high hazard if their failure would likely cause loss of life.

Mr. Poister said a worst-case scenario is that the blasting on the waste coal and coal ash site could have caused landslides.

Seismic testing is done by subcontractors for the drilling industry to determine the depth and thickness of the gas-bearing Marcellus Shale formation. Explosives are placed in a series of narrow, 20-to-30-foot-deep holes, and the holes are packed with rock to direct the force of the blast downward, then detonated. The shock waves from the blasts travel through the layers of rock and are measured by instruments that produce geological maps of the underground formations.

Mr. Poister said the Houston, Texas-based seismic testing company also was cited by the DEP for drilling and setting the explosive charges without a state-certified blasting supervisor on site. No penalties or fines have yet been assessed for any of the violations.

"It's early in the process. We'll sit down with them and talk about the potential civil penalties and their procedures," Mr. Poister said.

William Gorton, an attorney representing Matt Canestrale Contracting, said his client was unaware that CGGVeritias had drilled and set the seismic charges on the mine reclamation site and that the contracting firm has no contract with the blasting company. Pre-approval by the DEP would be needed to allow blasting on the mine site.

"This sends up a red flag about the regulatory system," said Lisa Graves Marcucci, a community outreach coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project, the group that has organized resident opposition to the coal ash site in LaBelle. "They were only caught because local residents notified the DEP. It seems the shale gas industry is running ahead of the regulatory checks, and the question is in how many other places is this happening?"

The DEP issued a "blasting activity permit" to CGG in December 2012 for what the company is calling the "Dog Bone 3D Seismic Project." Under the permit, CGGVeritas is allowed to load 20,000 holes with explosives, primarily in Fayette County, but also Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. But the permit does not identify specific locations where the seismic testing work will occur.

Mr. Poister said each hole is loaded with 3.3 pounds of "pentolite," an explosive mixture that is equal parts trinitrotoluene, known as TNT, and pentaerythritol tetranitrate.

The permit requires the company to notify those living within 200 feet of the blast area and provide them with general information about the blasting operation and its duration. Seismic blasting done too close to homes can crack foundations or damage water wells. A small percentage of the charges can also fail to detonate, and, if left in the ground can be a hazard to future excavation or drilling in the area.

Tim Brooks, a CGG senior vice president, said in a statement that the company had "acted on the information given to us, and ... complied with the rules as we knew them." CGG did not respond to follow-up phone calls and emails asking who provided the company with information indicating the charges could be placed in the mine site.

Joshua Landers, a state certified blaster with CGG, said in a phone interview Friday from his home in Houston, Texas, that he has been off work and was unaware of the DEP and MSHA orders. He said the company met with the DEP prior to doing drilling and went over the area where the charges were drilled and set.

But Mr. Poister said CGG reviewed clearly marked maps showing the Canestrale property was an active, federally permitted mine site and thus off-limits for seismic testing.

The DEP said it employs 11 blasting supervisors statewide and has issued eight permits for seismic testing related to Marcellus Shale gas development. Work on six of those permits is "active." The DEP has also issued about 1,200 limited blasting licenses to individuals, about two-thirds of those for seismic testing work and the rest for other industrial applications and police work.

marcellusshale - neigh_washington

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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