Hunting club contends with spring water contaminations from gas drilling
Members of the Sykesville Hunting Club in Clearfield County posted this sign near the natural spring on their hunting camp property in Moshannon State Forest. The spring was contaminated by leaks from Marcellus Shale drilling operations.
Fred Fletcher, second from right, talks with members of the Sykesville Hunting Club, from left, Larry Righi, Douglas Righi, Tony Zaffuto, and Tom Elkin, about the contamination of the natural spring at the club in Clearfield County. The spring at the hunting lodge in Moshannon State Forest was contaminated by a frac water spill in the summer of 2009.
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Spring water, cold as winter and clear as a windowpane, gushes out of mossy ground in a clearing sprinkled with blooms of forget-me-not next to Stone Camp, the home of the Sykesville Hunting Club in the Moshannon State Forest.
The bubbling flow has attracted generations of folks from Clearfield County and beyond, but staked into the ground now is a homemade sign bearing the warning: "Contaminated Water."
The sign seems out of place. Larry Righi certainly thinks so, even though he had a hand in putting it up months after a torn liner under one or more EOG Resources Marcellus Shale drill cuttings pits allowed leakage that contaminated groundwater feeding the spring almost two years ago.
Mr. Righi, a longtime member of the local landmark Sykesville Hunting Club like his father before him, hopes new water test results will soon give a clean bill of health to the spring, which is the club's only water source.
"We just want to be made whole, to get assurances that the contamination is gone and won't be back and the water is good to drink again," said Mr. Righi, whose hunting club has held a "permanent camp" lease since 1920 on a fraction of an acre in the 300-square-mile state forest.
"And we want to get the word out because there's lots of camps up here in the woods. ... because these drilling rigs are going to be in your backyard sooner or later."
Local watering hole
It's known as Reeds Spring on maps detailing the green expanses of the Moshannon State Forest, and it boils out of the ground into a large pothole of a pool before sloshing down a 1-foot-wide, 50-yard-long channel to a small creek, Alex Branch. The Alex Branch is a tributary of Trout Run, one of the area's better fishing creeks, which flows into the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
"The spring was a major stopping point. Surrounding hunting camps came here to fill their water jugs, and it was a way to meet guys from other camps," said Tony Zaffuto, a Sykesville Hunting Club member who is originally from that Jefferson County town and now lives in DuBois, Clearfield County. "It was not unusual for people to be lined up for the water with their plastic jugs."
The spring's contamination brings into focus the concerns of many hunting camp owners, rural residents and environmentalists about the potential for groundwater contamination from development of the gassy Marcellus Shale.
That thick layer of black, 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock underlies about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and holds the potential to provide heretofore untapped energy, job growth and economic benefits. But its development also comes with significant risks to the state's water resources. Hundreds of spills, leaks, seeps, overflows and blowouts at Marcellus Shale well drilling sites and wastewater reservoirs over the last five years have contaminated groundwater and streams with chemicals and gases.
Sometimes those risks are hard to ignore. In June 2010, a "blowout" at a Marcellus gas well operated by EOG Resources (formerly Enron Oil and Gas), less than a mile from Stone Camp on forested land owned by the Punxsutawney Hunting Camp and in the same well field where the drill cutting pit leaked, spewed at least 35,000 gallons of brine and toxic fluids from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, into the air for 16 hours. The DEP shut down the company's drilling operations for 40 days statewide, and six weeks later, fined EOG and a drilling contractor a total of $400,000.
But often the leaks, overflows and spills are much less obvious, though still locally devastating.
In August 2009, Nancy Potts' brother, Sam, a stonemason, was hired by the Sykesville Hunting Club to re-point the 90-year-old, two-story flagstone cabin built by the grandfathers and fathers of many of the current club members on the permanent camp lease in the state forest.
"After working at the camp, Sam called me up and said the water tasted funny," said Ms. Potts, who has tested water affected by acid mine drainage in Clearfield County for 10 years as part of the Senior Environmental Corps and now is on the lookout for new threats to the water in the woodlands she calls the "Marcellus State Forest," in reference to Moshannon.
"They found out about the spring's contamination by accident," she said, "No one -- from the driller or the state Department of Environmental Protection -- came to tell them."
Shortly after the stonemason's alert, Mr. Righi also noticed something different in the water at Stone Camp. "I was washing dishes and discovered an oily substance," he said. "I couldn't get them clean."
Mr. Righi called the DEP and on Aug. 25, 2009, the agency performed the first of eight water quality tests it would do at the spring over the next 16 months. The tests found higher than healthy levels of manganese, aluminum, barium, sodium, strontium, chloride and total dissolved solids. The test results show those chemical pollutants spiked to as much as 200 times safe drinking water standards in the fall of 2009 before starting to gradually decline.
But the DEP still didn't know what caused the contamination.
In September, Mr. Zaffuto said he was talking to an EOG driller who told him the rocky ground on the Punxsutawney Hunting Camp property had caused pit liners to tear under three of five ponds that held drilling waste.
"They knew, but EOG didn't notify the camp members or the DEP," said Mr. Zaffuto, who notes that he continues to support Marcellus Shale development if it's done right.
Investigations by the DEP and the state Fish and Boat Commission subsequently determined that several accidental discharges of contaminated water and fluids at EOG's Marcellus operations -- including leakage from the pit over a two-month period from August through October 2009 -- had caused the contamination of Reeds Spring.
A small hole in a drilling wastewater hose that, according to the Fish and Boat Commission settlement report, allowed gas and flowback water to leak and percolate onto the ground and into Little Laurel Run from June 3 through Aug. 16 also may have contributed to the contamination at the spring and in the creek. EOG reported another accident on Oct. 12, 2009, when almost 8,000 gallons of water and fracking fluids leaked from a tank and into the Alex Branch and Trout Run.
In a DEP consent agreement of Aug. 31, 2010, settling the pollution charges from all three accidental discharges, EOG paid a penalty of $30,000. Just five weeks ago, EOG agreed to pay the Fish and Boat Commission a $208,625 settlement in lieu of civil damages for its pollution of Alex Run, Little Laurel Run, both designated "High Quality" trout waters, and Reeds Spring. EOG paid $99,125 of that for damaging the spring.
K Leonard, an EOG spokeswoman, declined to provide information on the company's Marcellus drilling operations in Clearfield county, but issued a statement that says the company is "committed to conducting its operations in a safe and environmental responsible manner," and "if issues arise, the company proactively works with the regulatory agencies to address the issue in ways that are appropriate and reasonable."
Since the problems in Clearfield County, EOG has changed the way it stores drilling cuttings and contaminated flowback water. EOG dug up the contaminated soil around the leaking waste pit and filled in others. It has stopped using in-ground pits to store drilling cuttings and employs a "closed loop" drilling process that stores cuttings in metal containers that are trucked to state-approved landfills, and collects drilling mud and fluids in above-ground metal containers then reuses it at other wells.
EOG operates approximately 265 active wells in Pennsylvania, 117 of which are in the Marcellus Shale formation.
Inside the Stone Camp, where mounted deer heads, grainy group portraits of club members and topographic maps are the preferred wall art, the framed, original lease for the camp is displayed in a place of honor on the mantle above the big stone fireplace. The lease bears the signature of Gifford Pinchot, then the state's forest commissioner, who had been the first supervisor of the U.S. Forest Service from 1905 through 1910 under President Theodore Roosevelt and later served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania.
But the report detailing the latest DEP water sampling results at Reeds Spring in February is at least as valuable. It found sodium, calcium, manganese and aluminum in much reduced concentrations, though still slightly above drinking water standards in the spring.
Outside, in the clearing rimmed by white pine and hemlock, the spring appears to be well on its way to washing through the contaminated slug of groundwater, but Mr. Zaffuto said other springs could be at risk.
"A $100,000 penalty is nothing to drilling firms," he said. "Drillers spill and it's ignored or goes undiscovered. What are the assurances this isn't happening elsewhere?"
Mr. Righi said he recommended at a recent meeting of the Four Mile Road Camp Owners Association that camp owners get their water tested before drilling begins.
"They should be testing for everything so they have a baseline in case something happens to their wells or springs," he said.
As he walked around the spring, a pickup truck stopped on the forest road nearby. Fred Fletcher, who belongs to three hunting camps in the forest nearby and closer to where new well drilling is about to start, ambled over to the spring, and noticed the sign.
"We're a little concerned, too," said Mr. Fletcher, 73, adding that an EOG well is planned for 250 yards from the camp that bears his family's name.
"The drilling is happening all over the place and people are concerned about the water."
First Published June 5, 2011 12:00 am