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Pennsylvania Schedules Public Hearings, Webinars for New Act 13 Rules

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) planned to open a 60-day public comment period Saturday (Dec. 14)  for proposed regulations regarding surface activities related to oil and gas well development. The regulations would be added to Act 13, the state's omnibus Marcellus Shale law.

The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) -- a 20-member panel chaired by the secretary of the DEP and responsible for implementing all of the department's regulations -- will host seven public hearings across the state. The first is scheduled for Jan. 7 at Tunkhannock High School in Wyoming County.

Meanwhile, the DEP will hold two webinars to discuss the proposed regulations, on Dec. 19 from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., and on Jan. 3 from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.

"Public participation is a key part to forging the best regulations possible," said Chris Abruzzo, who was recently confirmed as DEP secretary (see Shale Daily, Dec. 11). "An exceptional number of hearings are being offered by the EQB to gather information and to be sure that people's voices are heard."

The DEP's proposals include protecting public resources, identifying orphaned and abandoned wells, improving containment practices and protecting water resources.

Under the proposals for protecting public resources, an applicant for a well permit would be required to notify the appropriate public resource agency -- such as the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) or the state Game Commission -- if a well site is within 200 feet of a publicly owned park, forest, game land, wildlife area, national natural landmark, or a historical or archaeological site listed on the federal or state list of historic places.

Permit applicants would also be required to notify the appropriate agency if a well is in or within the corridor of a state or national scenic river, or in a location that will impact other critical communities. Additionally, unconventional well permit applicants must notify if a well site is within 1,000 feet of a water well, surface water intake, reservoir or other water supply extraction point used by a water purveyor.

The DEP estimates that there are more than 250,000 orphaned or abandoned wells in the state, meaning that they were not properly plugged. The agency has proposed that operators of gas or horizontal oil wells identify any orphaned or abandoned wells within 1,000 feet of the vertical and horizontal well bores, prior to hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Operators would also be required to visually monitor, during fracking operations, any orphaned or abandoned wells that are likely to have penetrated the formation targeted by the new well. They would also be required to plug any orphaned or abandoned wells that were altered by the fracking process.

Under the new containment proposals, open pits would only be allowed for temporary storage of materials, and production pits would be banned. Pits would also need to have a liner of minimum thickness, pit seams must be tested prior to use, and pits must be fenced-in completely to prevent vandalism and damage from wildlife, unless there is 24-hour security on site.

DEP approval would be required for modular storage, and locks would be required on tank valves and access lids to prevent unauthorized access.

For longer-term storage, the DEP is proposing a ban on open top structures for storing produced water. Agency approval would also be required for underground or partially buried storage tanks used to store brine. Freshwater impoundments would be have to be built with a synthetic impervious liner, and they would need to be registered with the DEP. Secondary containment structures would be required at unconventional well sites.

"This proposed regulation also outlines rules for operator response to spills and releases, and requires remediation to Act 2 standards," the DEP said. "It also will require pipeline construction companies to develop preparedness, prevention, and contingency [PPC] plans when performing horizontal directional drilling under a waterway to minimize impacts on waters in the event of an inadvertent return."

Under the proposal, operators would be required to restore a well site, including filling pits and removing drilling supplies and equipment, within nine months of the completion of drilling.

The EQB will accept comments through Feb. 12. The public has three options for submitting comments: using the EQB's online public comment system; emailing comments to mailto:RegComments@pa.gov; or mailing written comments to the EQB, using the address Environmental Quality Board, P.O. Box 8477, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8477.

Seven municipalities have initiated a legal challenge to the zoning restrictions enshrined in Act 13, claiming they violate the municipalities' right to substantive due process and are therefore unconstitutional. The case, Robinson Township et al v. Commonwealth et al (No. 63 MAP 2012), is currently before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (see Shale Daily, Aug. 9; July 27, 2012).

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