A Rural Pennsylvania Community Goes to Commonwealth Court, Trying to Stop a New Disposal Well for Toxic Fracking Wastewater

Attorneys representing Plum Borough and an environmental group opposed to fracking said in arguments on Tuesday before Commonwealth Court in Pittsburgh that a proposed second “injection” well for disposing of toxic fracking wastewater would violate the borough’s zoning code.

Penneco Environmental Solutions, an oil and gas company, began operating its first disposal well in the rural community 19 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in 2021 and has since encountered stiff opposition from borough residents over both the current and proposed wells, called Sedat 3A and Sedat 4A, respectively.

The case in Commonwealth Court is being closely watched by the environmental community and the state’s gas industry at a time when Pennsylvania frackers produce billions of gallons of toxic “produced water” each year extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale but are running out of places to dispose of it.

Until recently, most of the state’s produced water had been trucked to Ohio’s 200-plus injection wells. But well operators in Ohio, under pressure from nearby residents and environmentalists, are starting to balk, and Pennsylvania itself has just 14 injection wells. Sedat 4A in Plum Borough would be the 15th.

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“My mental health and my physical health is impacted by this every day,” said Katie Sheehan, a Plum resident who lives near Penneco’s already-existing injection well. 

Sheehan appeared at a press conference, held after the oral arguments inside the City-County Building in Pittsburgh, alongside activists and fellow Plum residents opposing Penneco’s proposed well. They are concerned that another well in Plum would increase truck traffic and air pollution in the neighborhood.  

Gillian Graber, executive director and founder of Protect PT, the environmental organization that has been named as an intervenor in the case, said that the group is “standing with Plum Borough in opposing the well” because “this is going to have multiple impacts and this can be a real problem.”

Before the Commonwealth Court panel, attorneys for Plum Borough said that Plum’s own zoning board erred in approving a special exception application by Penneco for a second injection well. The Plum attorneys argued that the zoning board failed to ask Penneco to demonstrate the safety of its proposed project, and that the company does not have a constitutional right to expand the number of injection wells at the site.

An attorney representing Penneco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Penneco has proposed converting Sedat 4A from a conventional gas well into an “injection well,” which would enable the company to pump millions of gallons of produced water at high pressure down the well’s existing metal tubes that are encased in layers of cement and bore thousands of feet deep into the ground. Produced water is highly toxic and can contain benzene, arsenic and radium 226 and 228, both radioactive isotopes, as well as other toxic chemicals from its time underground. 

While the gas industry argues that fracking and wastewater disposal are environmentally safe and highly regulated, residents in Pennsylvania and other fracking states across the country have long argued that wastewater from fracking has polluted their aquifers and wells and caused significant health problems. 

Tim Fitchett, an attorney at Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, which is representing Protect PT in the zoning case, said that when Penneco first proposed the Sedat 4A well in Plum, the company was attempting to use a legal doctrine that would allow it to avoid recent changes in zoning maps. As part of their proposal process, Penneco “didn’t put forth any evidence or reports or witnesses to show that this was safe,” said Fitchett. 

Part of Protect PT’s argument, said Fitchett, is that when Penneco originally applied to increase the number of wells on its property, despite a change in zoning classification for the site, the company should have been put through a more rigorous “conditional use process,” not a “special exemption” procedure. 

Sheehan, whose property line runs 500 feet from Penneco’s injection site, said she has noticed a decrease in the air quality near her home since Penneco began operating Sedat 3A in 2021.  “I have an air quality monitor on my property that shows spikes in volatile organic compounds,” she said. 

And, shortly after Penneco began operating Sedat 3A, Sheehan said the water in her house, which comes from a private water well, turned orange, something that’s “never happened before.” 

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Ever since, Sheehan said that she and her husband have paid to have water trucked into her property roughly three times a year, “which cost anywhere from $350-$530,” per delivery. Even though the water has since returned to a normal color, Sheehan no longer feels comfortable drinking it.

DEP testing later concluded that Penneco’s injection well was not the source of Sheehan’s water contamination.

The case, Plum Borough v. Zoning Hearing Board of the Borough of Plum, et al., is unlikely to be decided for several months, said Fitchett. Penneco has already received approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to convert Sedat 4A from a gas well to an injection well.

In response to residents’ objection to Sedat 4A, the EPA said that the rock formation below the well was suitable for holding large quantities of the toxic wastewater essentially in perpetuity, without leaking. But the agency, in approving the permit, said that Penneco could not begin operations at the disposal well without performing a test showing that there were no leaks to the satisfaction of EPA’s Region 3 water division director. 

In addition to a resolution of the borough’s zoning appeal, the state Department of Environmental Protection still must grant a waste transfer permit and a well permit before Penneco’s second injection well in Plum could begin receiving shipments of the toxic wastewater.  

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