Mark Pynes / PennLive.com / AP

Pipeline poses hidden threat to trout in Pennsylvania

Activists fear the proposed PennEast pipeline will create sedimentation in rivers, which can be deadly for fish

PARRYVILLE, Pennsylvania — On the last weekend in April, Tyler A. Frantz, an elementary school teacher from Annville, Pennsylvania, drove about an hour into the Pocono Mountains to learn more about trout, an animal that tells the story of two energy booms in his state’s history.

The colorful fish, which need cold, clean, water to survive, were devastated in Pennsylvania during the coal boom of the early 20th century. For decades, old mines leached acidic poisons into thousands of streams. After many years of work and millions of dollars spent on stream rehabilitation, trout have returned to some of these waters, including Swatara Creek in Frantz’s eastern Pennsylvania hometown of Pine Grove, which when he was a boy ran barren and the color of rust.

“It makes you realize what can happen if people aren’t careful,” he said while taking a break from fly fishing for rainbow trout on Pohopoco Creek. The creek sits just downstream from a proposed crossing by the 36-inch-diameter PennEast pipeline, which activists say could cause sedimentation — sloughing of dirt, silt and grit into streams that can kill trout just as as mine acid can.

The pipeline is poised to tap Pennsylvania’s new energy boom: natural gas collected via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Company officials expect the pipeline to be built and opened in 2017. When it is finished, a billion cubic feet of natural gas will flow through it per day from the Marcellus Shale region in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, to just outside Trenton, New Jersey. The pipeline will bolster the surge of domestic oil production that has allowed the United States to account for more than half of new worldwide oil production since 2008. Some economists estimate it will pump about a billion dollars annually into local economies

But PennEast is drawing intense scrutiny from tens of thousands of residents along its anticipated 110-mile route. While some protesters have opposed the pipeline because of the risk of explosions, trout advocates and other environmentalists are sounding an alarm about sedimentation, a subtle and gradual yet environmentally devastating threat.

‘The more you disturb the land, you’re pushing water through the system much faster, so it can’t be stored in woodlands and reservoirs, and it makes droughts worse and floods worse.’

David Pringle

campaign director for Clean Water Action

“It’s not sexy,” said Faith Zerbe, the director of monitoring for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “It’s hard to sometimes portray these things. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

Like erosion, sedimentation is as old as rock and rain, as serious as a flash flood, and it can get far worse after workers dig holes, scrape roads, topple forests and change natural waterways to make way for pipelines. Sedimentation can kill a trout stream by making the water dirty, shallow and warm, biologists say. And the effects can trickle down to people’s taps. The PennEast pipeline will cut across steep mountains veined with brooks and creeks, the likes of which feed municipal water supplies used by 8 million Pennsylvanians — almost 60 percent of the state.

“The more you disturb the land,” said David Pringle, the campaign director for Clean Water Action, “you’re pushing water through the system much faster, so it can’t be stored in woodlands and reservoirs, and it makes droughts worse and floods worse.”

Roughly one-sixth of more than 6,000 violations issued to oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania from January 2007 to April 2015 were for issues related to sedimentation and erosion, according to data from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Environmentalists say this shows the ubiquity of the problem. Proponents of the pipeline argue it shows vigilant regulation.

“When someone talks of sedimentation to area rivers, no industry is under the level of scrutiny more so than Pennsylvania’s oil and gas pipeline developers,” said David J. Spigelmyer, the president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a pro-development trade association.

Tyler A. Frantz of Annville, Pennsylvania, fishes in Pohopoco Creek, one of the areas that could be affected by the pipeline.
Nate Schweber

The PennEast pipeline will cross more than 150 major, moderate, minor and seasonal streams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They include the imperiled Susquehanna River, the Lehigh River and the Delaware River, which is the main artery of a watershed that provides drinking water to 17 million people, including residents of Philadelphia and New York City.

In a March letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that addressed concerns raised by municipal leaders and residents along the proposed pipeline route, PennEast expressed confidence in its ability to control sedimentation. “There should be no long-term impact to water quality downstream,” the letter reads, and “there should be no impact to downstream fisheries.” Before construction, it adds, PennEast will submit “detailed erosion and sediment control plans” to Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s Environmental Protection departments.

But exactly how detailed those plans will be is a source of concern to environmental watchdogs. PennEast has said that it plans to have the pipeline cross most streams under streambeds by using horizontal directional drilling, by building temporary dams to reroute streams in order to lay pipe across the bottoms or by temporarily channeling the streams through flume pipes in order to dig pipe channels through the streambeds. Each technique carries sedimentation risks, environmental advocates say, but the specific technique used at any given stream is usually left up to the company. PennEast has said that it will use the method it deems safest for each crossing.

Katy Dunlap, an attorney and water policy advocate for the conservation group Trout Unlimited, said regarding details about how specific streams will be crossed, particularly small ones, “We haven’t seen FERC require that type of information, and we haven’t seen companies volunteer it.”

Her concern stems from the fact that in 2005 oil and gas companies were exempted from federal government permit requirements to control erosion and prevent sediment from entering streams and rivers. Also, small headwater streams that had been protected by the 1972 Clean Water Act were made more vulnerable to sedimentation by a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early 2000s, she said. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to restore federal oversight to these streams but has faced stiff opposition from Congress.  

‘Let's not make the same mistakes again. ... I want cheap energy, but you’ve got to hold these energy companies accountable.’

Mike Gondell

trout conservationist and ex-probation officer

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are considering bills and a rider that could check the EPA’s power and leave more industry regulation to states, which often take starkly different approaches. For example, since 2008, Pennsylvania has issued about 19,000 permits to frack for natural gas, and so far about 9,000 wells have been drilled. In neighboring New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in 2014, citing “significant public health risks.” 

Patricia Kornick, a spokeswoman for PennEast, said that specifics about stream crossings would not be known until the company releases the final draft of its preferred route this summer. She added that plans to keep sedimentation to a minimum include using the most up-to-date technologies and safety standards.

“PennEast has teams of safety, engineering, environmental and geological specialists working to develop the best route,” she said. “In determining the final route, PennEast analyzes numerous factors, including those pertaining to sedimentation.”

The company has said it expects to get federal approval next year.

Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in Pennsylvania over several decades to clean waterways that were polluted by coal mining in the 19th and 20th centuries. Success stories include Kettle Creek, which pours into the Susquehanna River in the north-central part of the state; the Lackawanna River in the northeast; and dozens of other streams that again support healthy populations of rainbow, brown and native brook trout. The benefits have rippled up through the ecosystem in the form of income for the state from hunting and fishing licenses and cleaner water for farms and homes.

“Let’s not make the same mistakes again,” said Mike Gondell, a retired juvenile probation officer and trout conservationist. “A hundred years ago, my grandpa came here, and they worked the mines. I use natural gas in my house. I want cheap energy, but you’ve got to hold these energy companies accountable.”

Katy Dunlap is the Eastern Water Project Director for the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
Nate Schweber

Already, more than 30 towns and counties along the proposed PennEast pipeline route have introduced ordinances to oppose it, and 68 percent of landowners whose property it will cross have denied survey permission. In response to public feedback, PennEast agreed to move the pipeline farther from an elementary school in Bath, Pennsylvania, and closer to power lines in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Some environmentalists applauded the decision to move it closer to the power lines, because PennEast had asked to clear 100-foot-wide swaths of forest in some places to lay the pipeline and by using land already cleared for power lines, the company could leave more trees standing.

Thousands of oil and gas pipelines already worm under much of the United States, and many have caused sedimentation, environmental groups say. For decades pipeline construction stirred only local controversies, but that began to change in 2011 when environmentalists around the world, citing the risk of climate change, opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would allow crude oil from the tar sands of Canada to flow through three states on the Great Plains to an existing pipeline that courses to the Gulf of Mexico. Then came a series of devastating pipeline spills in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River and two in Montana’s Yellowstone River.

“Keystone brought pipelines into the national consciousness,” said Lynda Farrell, who founded the Pipeline Safety Coalition after three natural gas pipelines were built through her farm in East Caln Township, Pennsylvania. “PennEast is there, I think, because of the number of stream crossings in the Delaware River Basin and its significance as one of the largest suppliers of drinking water in the country.”

For trout fishing guide Nick Raftas — who watched Brandywine Creek, one of his favorite trout streams in eastern Pennsylvania, turn cloudy with sediment after the recent installation of a natural gas pipeline — the issue is close to his heart.

“It hurts to see … It’s totally different than it was before. It’s pretty nasty all silted up,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”

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