PA DEP declines to police possible radioactive oil & gas spill during COVID outbreak

As DEP develops COVID policy, Pennsylvanians’ health at risk if oil & gas deemed essential but oversight not

April 1 — Citing the COVID crisis, PA DEP North-central office responded via email to a documented resident complaint about a potential spill of toxic, radioactive fracking waste near their home, stating that it would “look into the leak […] after the shutdown concludes.” Per Governor Wolf’s announcement this week, Pennsylvania’s shutdown of non-life sustaining businesses and schools is now “indefinite.”

“During the COVID crisis, the Wolf administration has deemed oil and gas operations, including construction of new polluting sites, as ‘essential’ but not made a simultaneous declaration about protecting Pennsylvanians from the toxics they are known to release,” said Melissa Troutman, Earthworks Policy Analyst. “The response of our government to one public health crisis must not risk another.”

A spokesman for DEP was quoted Tuesday saying that “inspections of critical infrastructure and inspections that are critical to public health and safety” are prioritized during the COVID outbreak. However, an on-call officer in the DEP Northcentral regional office explained to Troutman on Monday that it is up to each program manager whether inspectors will be sent out to investigate reports of environmental spills or other incidents. The DEP spokesman also revealed that the state is considering requests from industry to waive requirements–a request, that if granted, would further contradict the agency’s stated commitment to public health and safety during the shutdown.

“Dangerous and polluting industries should not be allowed to operate without proper oversight and enforcement to protect public health, especially during a public health emergency,” said Troutman. “If oil and gas operations are deemed essential operations right now in Pennsylvania, so too must Governor Wolf classify as essential the inspections that help to keep the public safe.”

Over 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within a half-mile of oil and gas activity and are now under orders to stay home due to a global pandemic with no end in sight. The question is what additional risks to their water, air, and health are these residents being asked to bear when nearly 108,000 wells, compressor stations and processors are allowed to operate — particularly if state regulators curtail or neglect their oversight mandate?

“Assuming COVID-19 follows patterns of similar viruses that cause pneumonia, people who are routinely exposed to air pollution are at higher risk of contracting it and also of developing more severe symptoms once they have the illness,” said Alison L. Steele, Executive Director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. “Now is not the time for the DEP to curtail its inspections of oil and gas facilities for non-compliant emissions, including leaks. Loosening regulatory enforcement today may jeopardize more lives tomorrow.”

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Background

Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Waste Report and interactive map

JKLM Energy’s fracking wastewater facility, the Sweden Valley Tank Farm on Billy Lewis Road in Potter County, PA, is permitted to hold over three million gallons of oil and gas liquid waste for use in drilling and fracking operations. JKLM created a Radiation Protection Plan for the facility that details how workers and the public may be protected from the radiological nature of oil and gas liquid waste.

The US EPA defines any waste with more than 60 pCi/L of radium as “radioactive.” A 2016 study by DEP found levels of radioactive materials in oil and gas liquid waste in Pennsylvania over 26,000 picocuries per liter (piC/L). The United States Geological Survey (USGS) published a study in 2011 that found levels of cancer-causing radium, a radioactive element, exceeding 2,000 piC/L in Marcellus shale oil and gas liquid waste. The drinking water limit for radium is 5 piC/L.

Drone footage of a potential leak at JKLM’s Sweden Valley Tank Farm was acquired by Public Herald, an investigative news nonprofit with whistleblower sources. The aerial footage shows reddish stains on the ground emanating from one of the wastewater containment corrals.

Caption: Aerial footage captured on March 24, 2020 at Sweden Valley Tank Farm operated by JKLM Energy in Potter County, PA. Screenshot courtesy Public Herald.

 

Aerial footage captured on March 24, 2020 at Sweden Valley Tank Farm operated by JKLM Energy in Potter County, PA. Screenshot courtesy Public Herald.

 

Aerial footage captured on March 29th, 2020 (five days later) at Sweden Valley Tank Farm operated by JKLM Energy in Potter County, PA that shows stains on ground remain and lower wastewater levels. Screenshot courtesy Public Herald.

 

JKLM Energy has been routinely spilling and polluting in Potter County, PA since 2015. PA DEP violation reports show 117 violations on 16 well pads, with only 22 enforcement actions. Violations issued by the DEP include failure to manage waste, fracking fluid spills, failure to report spills and incidents to the department, pollution of streams, and contamination of drinking water supplies.