DEP: Jon Day impoundment contaminated groundwater

The leaking impoundment in Amwell Township also contaminated more soil than previously thought

Photo of Mike Jones
By Mike Jones
Staff writer
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and Scott Beveridge
Staff Writer
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Photo courtesy of Pa. Department of Environmental Protection
This photo in Range Resources’ 2009 permit application for its Jon Day impoundment shows how the company repairs tears in the liner.
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Photo courtesy of the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection
The Jon Day impoundment under construction in Amwell Township in 2009

PITTSBURGH – State environmental regulators said a leak at the Jon Day impoundment contaminated groundwater with chloride as crews removed nearly 12,000 tons of soil from the Marcellus Shale drilling operation in Amwell Township.

A monitor at the site found the contamination in the groundwater supply Friday, nearly two months after a tear in the impoundment’s 30-millimeter thick liner was discovered, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister said.

“We really don’t know the extent of the groundwater contamination,” Poister said.

He said inspections revealed chloride in the soil and groundwater, which was a result of Southpointe-based Range Resources storing brine water in the impoundment, but no other materials or chemicals.

Poister said DEP is estimating up to 15,000 tons of contaminated soil must be trucked from the impoundment to area landfills as crews dig deeper into the ground. That amount of contaminated soil is significantly higher than original estimates when Range Resources workers found a tear in the liner April 16 while cleaning the impoundment.

“This is a very unusual case,” Poister said. “It’s atypical.”

A file review of Jon Day impoundment records Tuesday morning at DEP’s regional office in Pittsburgh found regulators had initial concerns about the leak monitoring system when the company applied for an impoundment permit at the site in December 2009. A more detailed description of the leak detection plans were submitted by Range Resources a month later and approved by the DEP, the files show.

The leak detection system beneath the impoundment consisted of a 4-inch wide perforated pipe filled with gravel that would allow workers to view at an outflow point if there was a problem. However, Poister said inspectors since discovered the system was “crushed” at some point and the leak went straight into the ground and never funneled through the drain pipe.

That made it impossible for workers to “visually inspect” any water leaking from the impoundment and out of the pipe. Poister said that system malfunction is also making it difficult to determine when the tear in the liner occurred.

“We don’t really know if the leak detection system ever functioned,” Poister said Tuesday. “That’s been our biggest quarrel.”

Inspection records also raise questions if any other contaminants were released into the ground since the impoundment was used to store flowback wastewater from fracking as recently as March 2012, when nearby residents complained of an odor emanating from the site. Poister said DEP found only chloride in the soil and groundwater at this time, which would indicate the leak occurred while the impoundment was holding salty brine water.

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella said the company is working closely with DEP to improve its leak monitoring systems at impoundments.

“We do not have concerns and will continue to safely manage this process,” Pitzarella said.

Poister said Range went “above and beyond” what state law required at the time of construction in 2009 because the company also included a groundwater monitoring system. However, the effectiveness of that system is also coming under scrutiny.

“We think there was also a problem with the groundwater monitoring system,” Poister said.

He said inspectors are “very concerned” about why both systems apparently malfunctioned. Poister could not estimate when the cleanup would be finished. He said Range likely faces a significant fine once the investigation into the leak is completed.

When asked if DEP needs to tighten impoundment regulations, Poister said it will be up to state lawmakers to make those decisions.

“It’s going to be a subject of conversation,” he said.

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