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The Shaw Well Pad Incident: A Summary

Updated: Jul 23

By: Micayla Schambura and Moriah Seibel 7/18/2020



Original artwork by Waterways Illustrators, commissioned by Protect PT, depicting the Beaver Run Reservoir



WHAT HAPPENED?


The Shaw 1G is an unconventional gas well managed by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County (MAWC) and monitored by CNX Gas Company LLC (CNX). Unconventional gas sources are often difficult to extract from in contrast to a conventional well due to specialized techniques being required, such as hydraulic fracturing.



The Shaw Pad is housed near Beaver Run Reservoir located in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, which is the source of water for roughly 130,000 citizens between the Westmoreland, Armstrong, and Indiana counties [1]. On January 1, 2019, operations at this well began by drilling into the Utica Shale, which is below the typical fracking Marcellus Shale level. However, on January 26th, at 5,200 feet below the surface, the steel casing used in its operations failed due to a ‘pressure anomaly’, and flaring, or the combustion of gases, within the nine nearby wells was required to relieve the sudden pressure spikes until the situation was under control [2]. Air monitoring from January 30th ensued until March 1st where samples were analyzed by a PACE Analytical Services LLC in Minneapolis, Minnesota.



In March 2019, SLR International Corporation (SLR) prepared a report of the sampling data collected during this incident, and they concluded that “no elevated levels of pollutants were caused by the Shaw Pad Event and the ambient air around the area of concern never exceeded any of the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits or would have adversely affected the surrounding community” thus “no ambient concentrations would be of concern with respect to the public’s welfare” [3]. However, what was found was that two carcinogens, benzene and methylene chloride, were detected at every monitoring site. CNX has made no comment regarding benzene but concluded in the report that methylene chloride’s presence was not from oil and gas operations but rather ‘consumer use propellants and/or paint stripping operations’ [3] despite not providing the chemical composition of the fracking material used.



WHAT IS BENZENE?


Benzene is a colorless and highly volatile organic compound that degrades in the atmosphere often found within synthetic material production, industrial solvents, and gasoline. Benzene is typically one of the first pollutants reported near shale gas operations due to the fact that it can remain for several days and is present in numerous points of production from the well sites to the pipelines [4]. Exposure can lead to many short and long term detrimental health effects, such as cancer (leukemia), tumors (ovarian and lung), reduced counts of both red and white blood cells, a suppressed immune system, DNA and chromosomal damage, and acute neurological effects (drowsiness, dizziness, headache, nausea, vertigo, etc.) [4], [5].


The Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) has set an eight hour standard time-weighted average of 1 ppm and short-term exposure limit of 5 ppm [6]. Humans who are in contact with benzene even for short durations of time are at risk for experiencing these neurological effects, and renowned organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) argue that there is no safe level or threshold associated with benzene [4], [7]. Because it is argued that there is no safe level of benzene, what was found in CNX’s report by SLR is very concerning, since Beaver Run Reservoir functions as the main source of water for over 100,000 people in the community, and there were benzene levels above detection in all sites.



WHAT IS METHYLENE CHLORIDE?


Methylene chloride is also a colorless, volatile organic compound like benzene that is primarily utilized in industrial environments, paint products, pharmaceuticals, and general manufacturing [8]. Methylene chloride is one of the main chemicals that is emitted into the air during hydraulic fracturing and shale gas operations and has been identified as a carcinogen by the EPA and OSHA, as well as several other government agencies. According to the OSHA standards, methylene chloride has an exposure limit of 25 ppm during an eight-hour average period of time [8]. In addition, if workers are heavily exposed to methylene chloride in a certain environment, they must also wear protective respiratory equipment in order to prevent long term health issues.


Acute and repeated exposure to methylene chloride can cause many different health issues that can lead to severe illness and oftentimes death, most of which are caused from skin exposure or inhalation [8]. Short term exposure to methylene chloride can still lead to several health issues. These issues are usually prevalent in the general public who are exposed to the chemical when it is released into the air during shale gas operations. These health conditions include (but are not limited to) central nervous system failure, blood oxidation reduction, cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal issues, and brain and heart damage [9]. Most of these health issues are irreversible, and for industrial workers or residents who are consistently being exposed to the chemical, these issues can be much more severe, and often fatal.


In the CNX report, methylene chloride was detected in all locations sampled, but because this chemical isn’t listed in the EPA’s hydraulic fracturing fluids list or thought of as a byproduct of the operations at the event, its threat was dismissed as being due to consumer use [3].


HOW DOES THIS AFFECT ME?


Residents who may be exposed to these chemicals directly could experience illness immediately. Additionally, the lasting effects of carcinogenic chemicals present in your water source and air could affect you for your entire lifetime. Exposure can happen in many forms from drinking the water directly to showering and preparing your food. The closer that you live to the site, the greater likelihood that you are being exposed to benzene and methylene chloride levels that may be higher than in typical ambient air.


Under Article I § 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, “[you] have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come …” [10]. Thus, it is our responsibility to report wrongdoings and to advocate for clean air, clean water, and stronger regulations for unregulated natural gas developments in our communities to protect the health and safety of ourselves, our children, and our environment for years to come.


WHAT HAPPENS NOW?


We aren’t sure if the Shaw 1G pad will be plugged (no longer resume operations). CNX filed a notice of intent (NOI) to permanently plug the Shaw 1G well on February 20, 2019, however, by August 2019, operations had not yet ceased, and we have yet to be informed of their recent actions. You can request the PA DEP to suspend permits for CNX at www.bit.ly/StopCNX.


In other cases of fracking such as this, it is our duty to report violations that we see in our communities to the PA Attorney General’s fracking hotline at 570-904-2643 or fracking@attorneygeneral.gov. For further information on this specific incident, you may seek out the collaborative Analysis of Air Monitoring at the Shaw Well Incident report written by Westmoreland Marcellus Citizen’s Group and Protect PT that discusses it further in depth.



References


[1] “Beaver Run Reservoir.” Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County (MAWC), 2020, [Online]. Available:https://www.mawc.org/beaver-run-reservoir.

[2] “Drilling Activity and Shaw Pad Incident Response at the Beaver Run Reservoir.” Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County (MAWC), Mar. 01, 2019, [Online]. Available: https://www.mawc.org/sites/default/files/marcellus_drilling_panel_3-1-19_1.pdf

[3] CNX Gas Company LLC, “Shaw Pad/Ambient Monitoring Report,” 116.00894.00140, Mar. 2019.

[4] “Exposure to Benzene: A Major Public Health Concern.” World Health Organization, 2019, [Online]. Available: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/329481/WHO-CED-PHE-EPE-19.4.2-eng.pdf?ua=1.

[5] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Toxological Profile for Benzene.” U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Aug. 2007. https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp3.pdf

[6] Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), “Benzene.” U.S Department of Labor, Sep. 11, 1987, [Online]. Available: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/federalregister/1987-09-11#:~:text=Exposure%20to%20Benzene.-,The%20revised%20standard%20reduces%20the%20permissible%20exposure%20limit%20(PEL)%20from,(STEL)%20of%205%20ppm.

[7] M. T. Smith, “Advances in Understanding Benzene Health Effects and Susceptibility,” Annu. Rev. Public Health, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 133–148, Mar. 2010, doi: 10.1146/annurev.publhealth.012809.103646.

[8] Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), “Methylene Chloride.” U.S Department of Labor, 2003, [Online]. Available: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3144.html

[9] “Toxic Substances Portal - Methylene Chloride.” Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), Oct. 21, 2014, [Online]. Available: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/MMG/MMG.asp?id=230&tid=42.

[10] The Constitution of Pennsylvania, Article I. Declaration of Rights § 27.Natural resources and the public estate. 1971. https://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/CT/HTM/00/00.001.027.000..HTM


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