Hundreds of Small Oil Spills Seeping Into Pennsylvania’s Land, Water : ‘It’s like taking a little bit of poison. These streams are being killed a little bit every day.’
Two years ago Roger Meyer was asked to fix an abandoned oil well leaking in the Allegheny National Forest, a haven for wildlife and recreation that is also part of the world’s oldest commercial oil field.
“We started on one spill and found another and another and another,” said Meyer, a coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We found nine spills in a half-mile radius, including one pit filled with 90,000 gallons that was discharging continuously into a stream.
“Chronic, low-level releases get into the sediment and kill the bottom life, which is the food chain. It has a long-term environmental impact on streams. How long do you let it go before it does irreversible damage?”
Meyer set out to find out just how bad the problem was but not without some opposition in the sparsely populated area of northwestern Pennsylvania where the economy is greased by the oil industry. He said he was even shot at once.
Crews found oil and brine bubbling from rusted, jagged pipes. Crude oozed from sludge pits or puddled on the forest floor from abandoned wells where the casings had been pulled.
Rather than take a piecemeal approach, Meyer declared a four-county area of Pennsylvania’s northern tier “a major oil spill” so it could be cleaned as a single entity. A survey was begun last July to find out how many spills there are.
By this spring, $2.7 million had been spent on the survey and cleanup. The money was provided under the Clean Water Act administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, which allocated another $3 million this year.
With 60% of its survey completed, the EPA identified 527 sites where oil is leaking from wells, pits, pipelines or storage tanks. In 59 cases, oil was discharging directly into streams and 217 sites showed evidence of past discharges and were on the verge of leaking again.
In the Allegheny Reservoir, a prime fishing spot, divers pinpointed 20 of 81 known abandoned wells. Seven leaking wells in the reservoir were plugged or contained over the winter.
No one knows exactly how much oil is leaking, but officials say it has a lethal effect on trout streams and has damaged timber and habitats for deer, bear and grouse. On Lewis Run, south of Bradford in McKean County, 52 sites have been identified and the stream supports little aquatic life.
“It’s more of a chronic problem where you have a small spill over a long period of time,” said Vincent Zenone, an EPA official.
“It’s like taking a little bit of poison. These streams are being killed a little bit every day.”
But oil workers who have plied these desolate woodlands since Edwin Drake drilled the world’s first commercial oil well in nearby Titusville 127 years ago say the EPA is overreacting.
They point out that the EPA’s definition of a spill is anything that leaves a sheen on the water.
“I’m not going to deny there are some problems,” said Stephen Rhoads of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Assn., a 600-member trade group. “We’re not baking cookies out there. When you’re in the process of extracting a raw material from the earth, you’re going to drop a little bit of it here and there.
“Most of them are minor housekeeping things. They talk about spills. In most cases, it’s a drip, drip, drip. We’re talking cupfuls, not barrels. This problem is so overblown.”
Cleanup costs couldn’t come at a worse time for the oil industry.
“We’ve got a three-barreled shotgun pointed at us--the state government, EPA and declining oil prices. What we need is relief from government interference,” said operator James Preston, 65, of Franklin.
“The more you meddle, the more people you’re going to put out of business. I think you’ve wasted a lot of money,” Preston told the EPA at a recent public meeting.
The 500,000-acre Allegheny National Forest, established by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923 to secure water and timber supplies in McKean, Warren, Forest and Elk counties, is a testament to nature’s resiliency. The virgin timber was mostly cut in the 19th Century, but the forest rebounded to become a camping and fishing paradise. It has 406 streams.
But 96% of the forest’s mineral rights are privately owned. Thousands of pumps coax green Pennsylvania crude to the surface at an average rate of one-third of a barrel per well per day.
Oil is so plentiful it once seeped naturally into streams. Indians and settlers swallowed crude as a potent laxative.
In the early days of the oil rush, crude was dumped into the water and collected by log booms downstream. From the beginning, drillers worked unchecked.
Pennsylvania’s first comprehensive drilling law went into effect in April, 1985. The law requires $100 for a drilling permit and a $2,500 bond to cap dry wells.
Before that, it was easier to get a drilling permit than a driver’s license. All drillers needed was an application. No registration of wells was required until 1956. That is one reason why the owners of abandoned wells are so hard to trace.
The EPA first came into the area in the 1970s at the request of forest officials. The agency handled spills case by case.
Work on the coordinated survey resumed in May after a winter break that began in November.
“It’s the first time the inland oil fields have been addressed with an organized approach,” Meyer said. “The ultimate goal of the project is to get the industry to police itself.”
Two-man teams, wearing blue Coast Guard coveralls that look out of place in a landlocked area, slog along creeks and trace oil spills back to their source.
Reports on each site are sent to Edison, N.J., where an emergency response team and staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assess damage and give a priority for cleanup.
The EPA can order spot work to remedy a spill into a stream. If the responsible party can’t be found right away, the government pays for the work and then bills the owner when he is located. Seventy percent of the work on the worst spills has been taken over by private operators, the EPA said.
Work can cost between $10,000 to $100,000 per well, and the government will sue if the owner refuses to pay. Remedies may involve plugging an old well, trucking away oil-soaked sludge or sopping up pools. So far, none of the costs have been recovered, but the government said it is ready to go to court.
“Traditionally, you think of an oil spill as a ship breaking in half and a sudden gush of oil,” said Lt. Commander Theron Patrick, who controls the Coast Guard fund.
“Up here, you have lots of different places discharging oil. It’s not as visible as the Delaware River turning black, but the net effect is the same.”
Officials emphasize that most operators run a clean business.
“We have never said the oil industry in general is at fault. It’s not everybody,” said Lorraine Urbiet, spokeswoman for the EPA.
“We don’t want that oil going into streams. We want it in our tanks so we can get paid for it,” said oilman Stanley Flynn.
‘Solution, Not Persecution’
“We need a solution, not persecution. We’re a vital part of the community. We’re not the bad people we’re made out to be,” said operator William Cline, 60, whose family has been in the oil business for four generations.
Patrick Costello, a McKean County commissioner, said the oil industry accounts for about one of every five of the 21,000 jobs in his rural county of 50,635 residents. He suggested that the EPA slow down its enforcement until it proves its spending is justified.
Others applaud the work.
“The oil industry started here. They have been doing things their way for 100 years. It’s hard to accept a new way,” said John Anderson, a federal fish and wildlife biologist.
“Everybody and their brother punched holes in the ground--beside streams, in streams, everywhere. It was like a mad rush,” said J. Lynne Myers, an environmental consultant to Warren County. “We’re saying enough is enough. We’ve had it.”