Appalachian Basin

Abandoned Mine Drainage Use in HF is a Win-Win

The natural gas industry is looking to use abandoned mine drainage during the hydraulic fracturing of gas wells.  This  innovation is currently being practiced by some operators and assists in mitigating environmental impacts.  Although it is a win-win situation some ‘environmental’ groups still oppose the practice, revealing much about who they really are. 

Next week we will recognize the birthday of Edwin Drake, the man who drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania.  It makes one wonder what could possibly come next when we reflect on the long history of resource extraction in Pennsylvania and the technological advances since the Drake Well.

Yet, even with how far we’ve come, there are still advancements being made. Everyday, new technology is created to mitigate risks during oil and natural gas development, as well as improvements to best management practices the industry works to follow. One such new innovation coming into play throughout Pennsylvania is the use of acid or abandoned mine drainage (AMD)  in the completion process of shale gas development.

Acid or Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD)

Pennsylvania has a long history of resource extraction, and some of those opposed to natural gas development are quick to remind us not all of it is positive.  One of the negatives prolific in some parts of the state is AMD.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

Acid mine drainage is the formation and movement of highly acidic water rich in heavy metals. This acidic water forms through the chemical reaction of surface water (rainwater, snowmelt, pond water) and shallow subsurface water with rocks that contain sulfur-bearing minerals, resulting in sulfuric acid. Heavy metals can be leached from rocks that come in contact with the acid, a process that may be substantially enhanced by bacterial action. The resulting fluids may be highly toxic and, when mixed with groundwater, surface water and soil, may have harmful effects on humans, animals and plants.

AMD continues to be an issue in Pennsylvania, especially in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River which sits atop the Marcellus Shale. Over 2000 miles of streams in the Susquehanna River Basin are still impaired with AMD today, according to a Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) report issued in February.

Acid Mine Drainage

What Does Acid Mine Drainage Look Like?

Since AMD can be found in streams, watersheds and river basins across the state, it has given birth to numerous organizations including the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (WPCAMR). The WPCAMR is a non-profit, non-partisan, local, state, federal, and industry partnership dedicated to improving water quality and endorsing the reclamation of abandoned mine lands in their region.  Here’s what they say:

 Why Clean up Abandoned Mine Drainage?

  • It enhances our quality of life.  Clean water is our most important resource.
  • Clean water resources encourages recreation, tourism, and economic development.
  • It restores community pride that positively affects peoples attitude and behavior, giving the local community a feeling of accomplishment.
  • It beautifies the area – orange streams are unattractive.

Recently, the WPCAMR has asked the natural gas industry to pair up with the environmental movement and help clean up this historic issue. How? By treating and using the AMD water in hydraulic fracturing operations.

“This is a good way of making lemonade out of lemons,” says Andy McAllister, organizer WPCAMR.

“This problem is so huge, even the state and feds can’t fix it,” says McAllister.

Acid mine drainage clean-up today lies primarily in the hands of volunteer watershed groups. McAllister thinks that in exchange for free water, gas companies could donate to these organizations.

“In order to continue using this resource, the gas company could assist the watershed groups to create a better treatment system,” says McAllister. “The watershed group gets funding from the gas company for maintenance in perpetuity.”

Some natural gas companies are seriously looking into taking on this issue and finding ways to use the water in their operations, although this alternative water source is still in its early phases of testing.

Senate Bill 411 Minewater Beneficial Use

The proposed Senate Bill 411 would allow shale gas development operators to use the AMD water during the completion process of a natural gas well, without rendering them liable for the continued clean-up should they no longer need the withdrawal source for future operations.

Attorney Peter Fontaine, who represents gas drillers, says the Clean Streams Law could put drillers at risk for cleaning up polluted mine drainage in perpetuity if they use it to frack wells. Fontaine says SB 411 is an improvement because it eases liability for any person using the drainage water for beneficial purposes.

And, that’s because there is a fear Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law is actually written in a way that it could also hold volunteer groups permanently responsible for any clean-up they begin.

Senate Bill 411 would amend the state’s Environmental Good Samaritan Act. That law, passed back in 1999, is meant to protect volunteer watershed groups working to clean up the more than 4,000 miles of lifeless streams resulting from the state’s legacy of mining. The fear is that another statute, Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law, could leave these volunteers open to third-party lawsuits should something go wrong during their clean-up efforts.

But, regardless of the outcome on the political and regulatory side, this is a solution that could not only lower the amount of fresh water consumed by the natural gas industry, but it could also allow them to help clean up one of Pennsylvania’s worst problems in our watersheds.  Organizations like WPCAMR lack the financial backing to do these cleanups on a large scale and, with natural gas companies, such as Seneca Resources, stepping up to try using it in their operations, it has become a win-win for the industry and the environment.

“There’s a lot of potential here,” said Doug Kepler, vice president of environmental engineering at Seneca Resources Corp. “People are looking for the right place to do it, the right commitment to do it, and it has to make sense for your operation.”

Seneca has been withdrawing polluted water from the Arnot No. 5 mine in Tioga County since late 2010 and piping it some 6 miles to the well pad. DEP considers the mine, which discharges water at an average rate of 2,000 gallons a minute, one of the top contributors of pollution to the upper Tioga River watershed. Seneca’s permit allows it to take up to 500,000 gallons per day from the Arnot discharge.

“We’re not doing this to save money, and it’s not really costing us any more money,” said Kepler, a former environmental consultant. “It’s just an alternative that we choose to do to try to minimize our impact.”

The Reporter

Further benefits of approving this bill and using AMD water for hydraulic fracturing include:

  • Cutting down on fresh water consumptive use.
  • Working to clean streams and rivers that were once affected from AMD.
  • Mitigating impact on the environment.
  • Giving support to non-profit organizations that have been working to clean streams affected by AMD.

And, yet some people are never satisfied…

The Delaware Riverkeeper has come out against the bill that would effectively clean up streams.  Why, you might ask?  The Delaware Riverkeeper believes the current bill grants immunity to shale gas developers all the way through the completion process of a well if they use AMD water. They say the bill is too broad in its current form.

But attorney Jordan Yeager, who has represented environmental groups opposed to the bill, says SB 411 goes way beyond removing liabilities to encourage the use of mine water to frack.

“This isn’t aimed at addressing that,” says Yeager. “This is identifying a whole new set of off-site uses and would provide immunity without any requirement that they treat the water to any standards prior to moving it off-site. So if I irrigate a field with [abandoned mine drainage] I’m immune from liability. It’s bizarre.”

So, an industry has volunteered to come into an area and essentially help with a cleanup created by previous activities from other industries and it’s being told “no” by the Riverkeeper?  I thought their mission was to protect and restore the Delaware River and watershed?  That’s what they say, but they’re funded, of course, by old money committed to stopping the natural gas industry in its tracks, regardless of the benefits.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network works from the “bottom up,” empowering communities and citizens to act and advocate for change. At the same time Delaware Riverkeeper Network must work from the top down, engaging regulatory and policy makers in order to secure decisions and programs that protect and restore our river and watershed. Delaware Riverkeeper

In this case, the Delaware Riverkeeper’s agenda to stop natural gas development seems to be getting in the way of its overall mission to protect and restore the river, rendering them unable to see past the company name to the potential outcome of working together to clean-up historic Pennsylvania water issues. We’ll have to wait to see if Senate Bill 411 will get passed, but in the meantime it’s clear Seneca Resources plans to continue its efforts to use AMD in its operations and that’s a win-win for everyone.

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