Editor’s note: As Ashtabula County works to begin fracking in the county, the following part of a series about fracking in neighbor Pennsylvania.
HARRISBURG, Pa. — One of the first things a firefighter or police officer must know when rushing to a heavy truck crash in the heart of Marcellus Shale country: Don’t believe what it says on side of the truck.
“We’ve had accidents where it said ‘fresh water’ on the side of the truck,” said Craig Konkle, energy development emergency services coordinator for Lycoming County. “But when it started leaking black liquid, we knew we weren’t dealing with fresh water.”
While environmental concerns dominate much of the debate about the effect of gas drilling in rural Pennsylvania, Konkle said the single greatest threat to public safety is on the roads.
The fast expansion of drilling activity has created a surge in traffic. Trucks carry water – often polluted from the drilling process – to and from wells. They also haul sand, as well as solids extracted during drilling and chemicals used to force open gas reservoirs beneath the surface.
Often truck cargo isn’t labeled. Much of the byproduct from drillers’ fracking process — including the briny, chemically laced water — is classified as “residual waste.” Drilling waste has been exempt from federal hazardous waste rules since the 1980s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So there are rarely placards on the trucks.
While trucks pass without markings, there is little doubt about the volume of material that’s being shipped over the state’s roads. Drillers generated 32 million barrels of liquid waste and another 1.3 million tons of solid waste last year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Some of that went over the border into Ohio, where drillers shipped 3 million barrels of liquid waste, according to state records. They were on pace to export a similar amount this year.
The passage of those trucks is often fraught. Many drivers hail from Texas or Oklahoma – places without the snow-slicked mountains typical of Northern Tier winters, said Chris Smith, with Lycoming County’s Community Traffic Safety Project. And accidents are more and more common.
Collectively, the state’s five-busiest drilling counties recorded 123 more heavy truck crashes in 2011 than they did just two years earlier, when the gas boom started, Department of Transportation data shows. That’s a 107 percent jump. (The number of deaths in those crashes grew modestly, from 75 to 79 during the same period)
One fatal crash in 2011 took the life of John T. Jones III. He was driving a Subaru Legacy in Susquehanna County when a Mack truck came barreling down a hill, went through a stop sign and rolled over on top of his car.
Documents from a lawsuit filed by Jones’ widow show that the truck driver, who came to the Marcellus region from Texas, had expressed misgivings about the safety of his truck but was ordered to take it because it was the only one available that day.
Jones’ daughter, Allison Jones, was in the car but survived the crash. She said she doesn’t blame the driver.
“It’s not like he made the decision to drive the truck, even though it was a bad truck,” she said in a deposition.
Jones’ family settled with Southeast Directional Drilling in 2012. Terms were not disclosed.
The number of heavy truck crashes has since fallen from its 2011 high, but it’s still 58 percent higher than in 2009.
Smith said safety practices vary by company. Most are responsible, but not all.
“There are some contractors who feel that it’s more important to get to the site” than take precautions in bad weather, she said.
Smith said she spoke to one driver who told her: “I was hoping that the State Police would pull me over to get the truck I was driving off the road.”
Truck crashes pose other dangers — to areas where cargos are spilled and to emergency workers who often can’t be sure what’s inside.
Truckers are supposed to carry manifests of their loads, Konkle said. But during an emergency, accessing the paperwork in the cab might be difficult, or the driver may be too injured to talk.
Rescue workers are trained to focus first on protecting nearby streams or waterways, he said. Generally, the immediate threat from gas wastewater is extremely high levels of saline, he said.
But local fire companies may be at a loss for someone on duty who’s up-to-speed on handling a complicated spill, especially in the rural areas where these crashes often happen.
“For your local guys, it’s tough to be trained up on everything,” he said.
Or, if an expert is available, sometimes they cannot get there in time.
Last April, a tanker carrying diesel fuel failed to stop at a red light and slammed into two trucks hauling fracking water. The Washington County episode sent 400 gallons of fracking water and 1,300 gallons of diesel into a nearby stream.
Smith said local officials have tried to respond to the dangers posed by fracking truck traffic. Her safety project gets a $94,000 grant, about half of which is used to forge connections between public safety officials and local gas industry companies that encourage safer driving.
In addition, Lycoming County uses a portion of its $5 million in well impact fees to prepare firefighters for emergencies involving trucks that haul chemicals for fracking or waste from drilling sites. While Pennsylvania doesn’t tax drillers for the gas they extract, companies must pay a $50,000 fee per well. Much of that money goes to local governments where drilling takes place.
So far, Lycoming County’s classes, run through Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, have trained 148 firefighters, said David Pistner, director of energy initiatives for the college.