LISBON - Two spills involving drilling fluids occurred within a week of each other where a gas transportation pipeline is being laid under wetlands on the County Farm property in Center Township.
The spills totaled 25,000 gallons and occurred Oct. 24 and Oct. 31, according to Mike Settles of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, who said the OEPA was advised within hours of each spill by Oklahoma-based Access Midstream, the company installing the pipeline.
Settles said the contractor, DRS Drilling, was drilling more than 40 feet under the wetlands located off County Home Road across from the Columbiana County Jail complex when they penetrated an underground seam, which allowed the drilling material to migrate upwards into the wetlands.
The two spills eventually encompassed a 3,500-square-foot area of the wetlands and the company responded by installing plastic sheeting in the swampy area to prevent the drilling material from flowing into Cold Water Creek, a small stream that runs through the area.
Settles said those efforts appeared to have been successful. "They are working to clean up the wetland, and from talking with our guys I don't think they've seen any impact" on the environment or wildlife, he said.
The material that leached into the wetland is bentonite clay, which is mixed with water to create "a lubricant for directional drilling," Settles said. "It's basically clay water."
DRS told the OEPA the clay slurry contained no chemical additives, but Settles said they have taken their own samples.
In addition to preventive efforts to keep the spill from spreading, DRS also pumped out the clay slurry and reused it for drilling. Settles said the natural cleansing process of the wetlands will take care of whatever little slurry contamination remains.
"We don't expect any long-term environmental impact," he said.
The OEPA suspects that while drilling under the wetlands, DRS came into contact with an old strip mine seam or crack in the bedrock that allowed the clay slurry to seep into the wetlands. Settles said this is a fairly common problem in the areas where shale gas boom is underway.
"There's so many pipelines going in around the state and this has been happening periodically, and these companies are set up to respond," he said.
Access Midstream official Scott Hallam responded for this story in an email in which he said the company "completes extensive studies and profiles of work areas prior to commencing any bore. We also have contingency plans in place to ensure speedy resolution should any issue occur during this process."
Access Midstream will not be fined, but the Oct. 24 incident will result in a notice to document the incident. "If we were to see episode after episode and the company was not responsive, we would obviously have to take action," Settles said.
The pipeline is part of a series of gathering pipelines being installed throughout the county to transport gas from gas wells to nearby collection and processing plants, such as the one built near Kensington. This pipeline is going through property owned by county commissioners, just west of the Robert Bycroft School.
Local officials only learned of the spills this week when county Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Luke Newbold was contacted by Caitlyn Johnson from the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
"We checked into it to make sure the EPA was notified and they were," he said.
Affiliated with the EMA is the county Local Emergency Planning Committee that is charged by state law with responding to hazardous material incidents, but Newbold said bentonite clay is not classified as a hazardous material.
Newbold said he has since spoken with Access Midstream, "and as courtesy they will keep us in the loop in the future so our officials are notified and the public, if need be."
Commission Chairman Mike Halleck was unaware anything had occurred until contacted by the newspaper. "They should have given us the courtesy of telling our EMA and certainly someone in the commissioners' office. We'd like to know these things," he said.
Johnson said she was amazed something like this could occur and no local officials or agencies would be notified. She described the Ohio Organizing Collaborative as "a group focusing on economic and social justice," and one of its projects is keeping tabs on the growing oil and gas industry in the state and its impact. In that role, they have established local contacts to help them keep abreast of what is going on in the county.
Her group recently hosted in Salem the viewing of a documentary about the impact of the oil and gas boom in Pennsylvania.
"We're just trying to make sure people are protected," Johnson said.