The 1959 Knox Mine Disaster in Luzerne County, PA brought King Coal to its knees and ushered it out of Pennsylvania.
The River Slope Mine, an anthracite coal mine owned by the Knox Coal Company, was tunneled under the Susquehanna River. On the morning of January 22, 1959, the mine “roof” collapsed and the waters of the Susquehanna River came flowing.
Twelve mineworkers died; 69 others escaped. It took three days to plug the hole in the riverbed, which was done by dumping large railroad cars, smaller mine cars, culm, and other debris into the whirlpool formed by the water draining into the mine.
When King Coal left Pennsylvania, it also left behind hundreds of abandoned mines, many of which were never mapped or recorded. Mine subsidence, also known as sink holes are common to the point where additional insurance is needed for properties in these areas.
Poor to no oversight and regulation enforcement of the coal mines left the problem of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) for Pennsylvanians to pay for and solve.
AMD is the overflow of acidic water from abandoned mines. The main products formed in acid mine drainage reactions are: ferrous iron and sulfuric acid, and ferric iron, which eventually turns into iron hydroxide. Sulfuric acid is the cause of the distinct smell that acid mine drainage produces. Ferric iron is mainly responsible for loss of habitat for aquatic species, while iron hydroxide is what makes the water source turn the red-orange color that is shown in the picture of Shamokin Creek, Northumberland County, PA.
AMD is one of the most widespread and expensive water pollution problems in Pennsylvania and impairs 4,600 miles of rivers and streams. Annually, Pennsylvania loses approximately $67 million in tourism revenues due to the AMD. The estimated cost for restoring the damaged watersheds is $5 billion to $15 billion.
Not learning from the coal mining era, Pennsylvania welcomed the natural gas drilling industry into its communities amid proclamations of Pennsylvania would be the “New Texas”, the “Saudi Arabia of North America”, and the promise of billions of dollars and jobs.
Hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, is one part of the natural gas extraction process. To frack one well requires an average of 4-million gallons of water. Pennsylvania currently has over 9,000 such wells, with 100,000 projected for the full build out. Do the math; it’s a lot of water.
In 2012, water withdrawal permits for drillers were temporarily suspended in many areas of Pennsylvania due to drought conditions. This occurred again in the spring of 2015.
Responding to the suspended water withdrawal permits in 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) came up with a solution – allow drillers to use Acid Mine Drainage water for “fracking”.
DEP says more than 300 million gallons of polluted water from decades of coal mining operations, flows into the state’s rivers and streams every day and using the state’s polluted coal mine drainage waste to frack would help clean up a continuous environmental cost of coal.
NOTE: “…continuous environmental cost of coal”. AMD is a continuous problem. There is no technology to “clean it up”. Mines produce AMD continuously. AMD continuously costs taxpayers millions.
Withdrawal of AMD from mines may create more problems than it solves with mine collapse and more “sinkholes”.
The Pennsylvania Legislature introduced Senate Bill 411 (SB411) in 2013. SB411 the brain storm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for the benefit of the mining industry and that includes the Natural Gas Corporations.
The bill releases mines from legal liability for harm they might do to people or the environment, and dictates that a mining corporation cannot be the subject of a citizen suit. It acknowledges that mining and oil and gas extraction have caused serious pollution that threatens environmental and human health, safety, and welfare, but then asks every legislature to find that their “state does not possess sufficient resources to reclaim all the abandoned lands and to abate the water pollution.” ALEC seems to believe that industrial pollution should be remediated not by the state or the company that produced it, but rather by the victims. A “good Samaritan” helps others, but this bill is written for mining companies to help themselves.
Related: PA SB411 – Acid Mine ALEC Cut/Paste.
SB411 died in committee. It was resurrected in 2015 and signed into law by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf in October 2015 as Act 47. Under the bill, a drilling company is immune from any contamination or damages resulting from use of AMD, property owners who have leased for drilling are not immune and may find themselves facing lawsuits.
Pennsylvania – The Best Worst Example
Many states and other countries look to Pennsylvania as the Best Worst example of how NOT to extract natural gas. It is said the letters for Pennsylvania’s DEP really stands for “Don’t Expect Protection” or the “Department of Energy Production”.
Pennsylvania officials have long maintained natural gas drilling is not related to water contamination, and usually parrot the industry’s talking point of “there never has been a case of fracking causing water contamination”.
Technically true, if the industry definition of fracking is used as the moment where the shale is shattered and disregard everything that comes before and after the “frack”. Water well contamination most often happens from migration through natural fractures, leaks from faulty well casings, spills or illegal dumping of “frack water”.
In 2014, the DEP released 243 records showing water well contamination from drilling operations. In September 2015.The Public Herald published the results of their 30-month investigation of DEP records and found many complaints were shredded or “cooked”.
Similar to patterns discovered by Public Herald, the Harvard Law School’s May 2014 report concluded that the most common errors in DEP’s water contamination investigations were:
- PADEP does not explain the water sample analysis;
- PADEP does not explain how it reached its conclusion;
- PADEP indicates that it does not have adequate information to make a determination;
- PADEP letters are confusing and/or inconsistent with others in the same geographic area.
One of the impediments to determining if drilling operations contaminated private water wells lies in the testing. The 2005 exemption in the Safe Drinking Water Act allows drilling companies to claim the contents of their frack fluid as “trade secrets” and are therefore exempt from disclosure. This exemption is now well-known as the Halliburton Loophole. Because of these trade secret protections, it is difficult to know what pollutants to test for, making it harder to identify air and water contamination near fracking operations and identify its specific source.
Approximately 40,000-50,000 gallons (or more) of chemicals are used to “frack”. The industry claims “most” of it stays in the ground. Technically true, however the frack chemicals mix with “produced water”
Produced water is a term used in the fossil fuel industry to describe water that is produced as a byproduct along with the oil and gas and is a combination of “fracking” chemicals and “formation water”.
Formation water is naturally occurring and may contain arsenic, barium, radon by-products, strontium among other. Formation water is 5x-7x saltier than sea water. To dispel public concerns, the industry claims the produced water is just “salt water” or “brine”.
There is no one test or series of tests which would identify all the chemicals. Specific tests must be done to detect the presence of a suspected chemical. This is not CSI, where one sample run through one test will reveal all. Water testing for “fracking chemicals” requires knowing what chemical may be in the water; non-disclosure of chemicals deemed “trade secrets” make through and complete testing impossible.
Pennnsylvania’s New Brew is Not Beer
Blinded by the shiney (i.e. money), Pennsylvania is trying to solve 2 problems with one solution of how to ‘fix” the AMD problem left by King Coal, and the driller’s water supply problem by using AMD for fracking.
AMD water cannot be used “straight”, it needs to be somewhat cleaned and fracking chemicals added. The end result is a combination of AMD, chemicals and fracking chemicals making for one toxic brew.
With the passage of ACT 47, Pennsylvania has raised the bar on what it means to be the Best Worst Example for fossil fuel extraction.
Questions not answered in ACT 47 is will AMD be considered a “naturally occurring” contaminant or a trade secret?
©2015 by Dory Hippauf