Boon or Bust: Part III - Fires, spills, traffic and noise

Emergency Management Services officials in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County have been busier over the last two years due to the sudden rise of natural gas development in and around Dimock and Montrose.

All of the officials interviewed during an newsgathering trip to the area agreed that no one anticipated the full effect of the natural gas boom that began sweeping the area since the first well was dug in 2006.

“I think everyone was surprised by the level and speed of development,” Susquehanna County 911 Coordinator Art Donato said.

“In the last two years, they’ve really started cranking up,” said Deputy Management Coordinator Scott Aylesworth.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reported a single well was drilled in the county in 2006, two more in 2007, 33 in 2008, 62 in 2009 and 89 in 2010. In total, 187 wells are currently being operated in Susquehanna County with an additional 48 permits issued for future sites.

Chenango County currently has 110 wells, though most are not operating at full capacity due a state memorandum on drilling.

“It’s important to remember we’re still in the build-up phase. Drilling is going to continue here for another 20 years and some of the wells will produce for a lifetime,” said Susquehanna County Coordinator Charlene G. Moser.

Energy companies operating in there have already informed management officials they intend to increase drilling operations and expand their crews in 2011. Officials said companies were estimating areas near established pipelines to see the most dramatic increase in development in 2011. Two gas lines run through Susquehanna County: the Tennessee and the Buckeye. The exact course of these pipelines through the county has not been disclosed to county management; nor has the location of their gathering lines.

Donato said it wasn’t uncommon for people to be wary when first hearing of the large scale natural gas development planned for the area. After attending a 2007 information seminar, he recalled an exchange with a woman from the area:

“Afterwards, I remember a lady coming up and asking, do you think it’s really going to change that much?”

He said his answer, in retrospect, should have been, “Yes.”

As development has progressed, so has the demand for emergency services. Susquehanna County has 27 townships and 13 boroughs; maintains 18 volunteer fire department and eight ambulance services. Dispatchers have dealt with an increased volume of calls, especially those involving traffic-related incidents and trespassing complaints.

“To give you an idea of the traffic, imagine it going 24 hours a day. Never before could you come to downtown Montrose at 11 p.m. and watch the trucks drive by all night, but now you can,” said Deputy 911 Coordinator Paul Johnson.

The officials said they were initially concerned to hear reports from neighboring counties, where natural gas development was in full swing, about traffic impacting business access and residents’ commutes. However, they said that was not yet the case in Susquehanna.

“We’re seeing more of the same thing we’ve always seen. It’s a lot of the small stuff, just more of it really,” added Donato.

Moser said the traffic inevitably caused increases in the number of accidents, but pointed out that statistics had not yet implied an increase of fatal collisions. Companies need thousands of trucks to service their wells in Susquehanna, constantly moving heavy equipment and waste materials from the drilling sites. The amount of water used for a typical hydraulic fracturing well is about 3 million gallons, which needs to be transported to a treatment facility outside of the area.

She said the major accidents that some opponents to gas drilling had envisioned have not occurred.

“The threat is always there, and it’s the first thing people seem to think about, but we just haven’t seen it happen,” she said.

Moser said also there was one death related to natural gas development in 2010, involving a gas employee being crushed by heavy equipment while at a work site.

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