For some reason MDN just loves a railroad-related story. The shale drilling industry has single-handedly resurrected short line railroads in this country. This is a story about a new railroad terminal opening today—in Chemung County, NY.
A former oil trader who became a private equity investor, Ray Bartoszek, along with private-equity firm Carriage House Partners, invested $20 million in buying and building the Horseheads (NY) Sand and Transloading Terminal (HOST), a 200-acre site in New York’s Southern Tier area that will handle fracking sand for area drillers. Bartoszek’s plan is to ship in Montana fracking sand for drillers in Pennsylvania and (he had hoped) New York. The New York part isn’t working out so well, but Bartoszek says with the grand opening of HOST, he’ll still turn a profit by shipping sand to PA—just a smaller profit.
An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal focuses on an issue MDN has covered for some time: how the fight over hydraulic fracturing in New York State has “gone local,” meaning it’s largely going to be decided town by town throughout the state.
The article notes a few statistics—about 100 or so towns have voted for either a short-term moratorium on fracking, or an outright ban. And about 60 or so towns have voted to “support” drilling. (Shameless self-promotion: MDN’s Marcellus and Utica Shale Databook Vol. 2 has the complete list of which towns have voted which way on the issue.)
But the pure numbers of “100 against, 60 for” does not come anywhere close to telling the whole story…
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), charged with overseeing the rivers and streams that flow into the Susquehanna River, which in turn runs all the way to the Chesapeake Bay, is responsible for issuing permits in their jurisdiction that allow Marcellus Shale drillers to withdraw water for use in hydraulic fracturing. The SRBC takes its job seriously and closely monitors streamflow levels. When the levels get too low due to drought conditions, the water withdrawals stop.
Such was the case yesterday when the SRBC suspended water withdrawals for 64 companies—the vast majority related the shale industry. That’s the most withdrawal restrictions issued by the SRBC since they started permitting for shale water withdrawals in 2008. (The full list, detailed by driller and county, is embedded below).
Here’s the non-news news: About 100 protesters from Ithaca and New York City showed up for a 30-minute “hit and run” protest in front of Talisman Energy’s offices in Big Flats, NY (near Corning, in Chemung County). The rabble rousers, led by Shaleshock, made wild claims about Talisman polluting the environment and read a statement claiming they’ll lay down in front of trucks if drilling begins in New York. In less than a half hour from the time they arrived, they were “escorted” from the premises, where they were illegally protesting (it’s private property).
Some of what comes out of the holes drilled for natural gas wells is rock and dirt. More precisely, a substance called “shale cuttings.” According to the MDN glossary, shale cuttings are: “Small pieces of rock that break away during the drilling process. Cuttings are screened out of the liquid mud by using shale shakers, or screens that allow the liquid to pass through but filter out the bits of rock.”
Since 2010 the municipal landfill in Bradford County, PA has accepted shale cuttings, making a tidy sum from it ($130,000). But the cuttings, and the revenue, stopped at the end of 2011. Why? Bradford County charges more than other landfills, like the municipal landfill across the border in Chemung County, NY. Not surprisingly, drillers haul their cuttings to cheaper landfills instead.
The anti-drillers are hot and bothered. A fringe anti-drilling group called Toxics Targeting (from where else, Ithaca, NY) held a small rally in Binghamton yesterday. They enlisted the support of the Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan to their cause. And this week’s cause? Send a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking him to ban fracking, but especially to drop any plans to allow the drilling of “demonstration wells” in Broome, Tioga and Chemung counties.
As MDN previously reported, the Town of Horseheads (NY) continues to flirt with the idea of enacting a fracking ban (see this MDN story). What makes Horseheads different from the other 90 or so towns that have enacted bans in New York different is that it’s located in prime Marcellus and Utica Shale development territory—in Chemung County, just across the border from the super-hot drilling area of Bradford County, PA. If Horseheads does ban fracking, it would be the second such municipality in the Marcellus “zone” to do so, after the City of Binghamton in nearby Broome County.
Town Supervisor Michael Edwards floated the idea of a fracking ban at a recent Town Board meeting—and he’s still pursuing it:
Three New York State counties that sit on the border with Pennsylvania will likely be the first, and biggest beneficiaries of Marcellus Shale drilling when it finally begins in New York. Those counties are Broome, Tioga and Chemung. That prediction comes from two of the most prominent geologists in the Marcellus Shale:
Professor Terry Engelder, a Ph.D. geologist and professor of geosciences at Penn State University, was an early and strong proponent for shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. He is without a doubt PA’s leading expert on the subject. So when Dr. Engelder makes predictions, people listen, because he’s usually right. He recently made a prediction about where drilling in New York State will likely occur once New York finally begins to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.
Yesterday MDN ran an article about a lawsuit filed in Chemung County, NY against Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corporation (see here). The New York City personal injury law firm Napoli Bern Ripka & Associates recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine families in the Big Flats, NY area who are experiencing problems with their water wells.
A New York City personal injury law firm has filed a claim on behalf of nine families located in the Elmira, NY area against Anschutz Exploration Corporation, alleging that Anschutz contaminated their drinking water from natural gas drilling activities. The Anschutz drilling is in the Trenton Black River shale formation, not the Marcellus. So why is this news item included in MDN? Because it involves hydraulic fracturing of horizontally drilled natural gas wells, the same method used for drilling in the Marcellus. The Trenton Black River formation is about 10,000 feet down, the Marcellus “only” 5,000 feet down. So opponents of drilling will try to use this to paint all hydraulic fracturing, for any drilling (natural gas or oil, Marcellus or otherwise) as unsafe. Their aim is to ban the practice. The aim of the law firm is to shake down a drilling company and get as much cash as they can. The aim of the families affected is to get safe drinking water. Everyone has an agenda.
Like neighboring Chemung County, NY, officials in Steuben County, NY are actively considering accepting Marcellus drill cuttings (leftover dirt and rock from drilling gas wells) in the county landfill. Drillers over the border in Pennsylvania are looking for a location to dump the cuttings. The debate over whether to accept drill cuttings always centers on whether there is radioactivity in the cuttings and if it will become a problem down the road when liquids leach from the landfill into groundwater supplies. Chemung County has done extensive research and finds the radioactivity levels to be very low—and safe. Chemung County currently accepts drill cuttings, and now Steuben County is considering it too.
“Right now, we’re just talking about relatively small amounts we would bring in, if we brought it in. We want to be sure of ourselves though,” said Steuben County public works commissioner Vince Spagnoletti.*
As with Chemung County, economics is driving the decision for Steuben County as well:
Spagnoletti says bringing in around 10,000 tons per year of the drill cuttings could raise around $300,000 to the operational budget of the landfill.*
That’s a potential $300,000 that taxpayers would not have to pony up.
Chemung County, NY officials have released a report they commissioned from an independent certified health physicist that show levels of radiation in the Marcellus Shale drill cuttings coming from Pennsylvania Marcellus drilling operations to the Chemung County landfill are “well below” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for radiation.
The gist of the report is that the soil that the county landfill would accept from Marcellus Shale drilling poses no health threat from radiation, said County Executive Tom Santulli.
“These people are experts. They made it very clear that this material is less radioactive than the countertops in our houses and soil in our gardens,” Santulli said. “My message is simple—this stuff is not toxic. It’s no more radioactive than the soil in your garden and bricks on your house. All this testing verifies that. This is way below any EPA levels.
“This would be equivalent to taking dirt from your backyard and using it in landfill,” he said. “It can be used for cover. It’s that safe.”*
However, the debate still rages. Those opposed to drilling claim there is a significant threat to human health from the drill cuttings. County Executive Santulli says those opposed “have zero credibility” on the matter with no facts to back up their claims.
For more information on both positions, see the full article in the Star-Gazette.
Part of the process of drilling a well includes disposing of the material that comes out of the well, including “cuttings” and mud—i.e., leftover dirt and rock. A “controversy” is brewing in Chemung County, NY where the county landfill is accepting cuttings from drillers over the border in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale. The problem? Sometimes shale cuttings have elevated levels of radioactivity. Those opposed to drilling are playing on people’s fear of the word “radioactive” hoping it will shut down the shipments of shale cuttings to the landfill. (Those shipments, by the way, are generating a nice revenue stream for Chemung County.)
Anyone living in New York’s Southern Tier or Northeast Pennsylvania knows when buying a house you have the basement tested for radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that exists in high concentrations in some (not all) locations. Radon comes from the ground. Far below the ground radon gas exists, but also radium and even uranium. Radon and radium are both isotopes of decaying uranium. When you drill one to two miles under the earth, the cuttings that come out may have high concentrations of radioactivity (mostly radium). It’s not a good idea to dump highly radioactive material, naturally occurring or not, in a landfill. No argument on that count. But! What is a “high concentration?” Can it be treated if it is high? And, do cuttings usually have high radioactivity as a general rule?
There is an easy answer here. Determine what levels are safe, and then test incoming loads of cuttings to be sure they don’t violate that standard. That’s just what Chemung County is in the process of doing. The system works—no one wants a health hazard for current and future generations.