Runoff During Construction of Gas Wells
Why erosion and stormwater runoff are important
The issues of stormwater runoff and erosion at shale gas well sites do not receive a great deal of attention from the popular media. However, erosion and release of contaminated or polluted stormwater represents a significant environmental impact associated with gas development activities. A WRI analysis of violation records kept by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) in 2009 and 2010 indicated that environmental risks resulting from erosion and improper stormwater management were relatively common. There results were echoed by other analyses by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, and also in a report by the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment of the Manhattan Institute. In addition, issues with stormwater runoff and erosion are a major reason for the proposed ban on shale gas development within the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, both of which are sensitive to increased sediment loading in their unfiltered water supplies. In general, the construction activity needed to develop shale gas sites is not compatible with the strict land management rules employed within those watersheds. See section 6.1.5 of the rdSGEIS for a more complete discussion of shale gas development and its relationship to sensitive aspects of unfiltered water supplies.
A bit of background – what is the issue?
Shale gas well site are a lot like other construction sites in many ways. As development proceeds, land is cleared and graded, access roads are likely built or widened, and materials are brought to the area for storage and use. Well pads are also like industrial sites in some ways. They act as storage and handling areas for equipment as well as chemical additives and fluids used during the hydraulic fracturing process. These activities take place outdoors, where they are exposed to precipitation and wind. During rain events, the exposed roads and well pads can be vulnerable to erosion as stormwater falls, collects, and moves away from the site toward surface waters, or seeps into the ground toward groundwater. This water, which falls on the site, but then moves away either toward surface or groundwater, is called runoff. If runoff contains contaminants such as sediment, nutrients (from fertilizer, for example), or other chemicals (from a chemical spill or leaking fuel tank, for example), it can negatively impact nearby surface and groundwater with these same contaminants. This problem is not new. Think of the land cleared during the construction of a building, during farming, or even on private lots where landowners keep old equipment or cars. Stormwater runoff and erosion can be an issue in all these cases. Shale gas development, however, presents some unique challenges.
First, shale gas development entails a mix of construction and industrial activities that are normally addressed and managed separately. Development occurs in phases, each different from the other in terms of activities involved and environmental risks presented. Second, shale gas development has the potential to occur across the regional landscape. Hundreds of well pads per year (or more) could be developed, as they have in PA, each involving the clearing and use of multiple acres of land. This creates a regulatory challenge as it takes a significant number of well-trained inspectors to cover such activity. It also has the potential to amplify environmental problems. A single gas well may not pose a significant risk, but the likelihood of impact increases as the number wells goes up, and as regional pipeline and service infrastructure grows.
Managing negative impacts - Regulation
In 2003, the United States Environmental Protection Agency required construction activities that disturb one or more acres of land to have a stormwater discharge (runoff) permit. In New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issues these discharge permits, known as State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System General Permits (SPDES) for Stormwater Discharges from Construction Activity. The state also issues SPDES permits for industrial discharges that might come from factories and businesses. Initially it was unclear whether the DEC would choose to issue SPDES permits to shale gas developers under the construction permit guidelines, or under the industrial activity guidelines, or whether they would establish a new permit altogether. While existing permits (for construction and industry) were appropriate for certain shale gas development activities, no single permit seemed ideal. In 2011, WRI assisted the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA) in evaluating NY’s existing SPDES permits with respect to shale gas, and suggested ways in which the DEC might move forward. This white paper, available here, suggested that new permit conditions be specific for the unique phases of shale gas development (construction, drilling, completion, production, reclamation), that containment of potential contaminants on-site should be emphasized, that effective environmental monitoring was essential, and that inspectors had to ensure compliance in a reliable manner. Since the release of the white paper, the DEC has developed and proposed a new SPDES permit that is specific to stormwater discharges associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) operations. This new HVHF SPDES permit, while only a draft, does address many of the concerns laid out by WRI and NYWEA, and its conditions are among the most progressive and protective in the nation (http://www.nywea.org/clearwaters/04-2-summer/spdes.cfm).
An important feature of the HVHF SPDES permit is the requirement of a SWPPP, a Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, which must be developed before construction is allowed to begin. The SWPPP must contain provisions for the secondary containment of chemical additives stored on-site, as well as plans for training personnel and properly responding to spills and leaks. Management of erosion entails various practices, and the SWPPP must include plans for periodic monitoring of discharged runoff to ensure that sediment and other contaminants do not impact nearby surface and ground waters. A factsheet associated with the HVHF SPDES permit can be found here.
As with the rdSGEIS itself, the HVHF SPDES permit is still just a draft. Although many of the proposed rules contained within these documents are protective, the final form of regulations is still unclear. More importantly, it remains to be seen how the DEC will enforce these new rules and regulations if/when shale gas develop in NY begins. Inspectors must play an important role in policing and compliance, and penalty and incentive structures must be adequate to affect responsible behavior on the part of industry. As always, continued monitoring of environmental water quality will be essential for determining whether or not development activities are impacting water resources, and whether policy and management choices are effective.
Updated 4/9/12 bgr
Runoff From Wellpads
Drilling Impacts on Groundwater
Spills and Leaks at the Surface
Wastewater management trends in PA (link)
Lessons for NY from EPA Pavilion Study (link)
Regional, collective impacts on water resources (link)
Testing Drinking Water (link)
On-going study of drinking water in New York by Cornell University Soil & Water Lab (link)
Understanding Isotopes (link)
Framework for Assessing Water Resource Impacts (link)
Marcellus thickness, depth (link)
Marcellus extent in NY (link)
Marcellus in Susquehanna Basin (link)
Marcellus in Delaware Basin (link)
NY and Chesapeake Bay (link)
References for understanding shale gas impacts (link)