Thursday, February 11, 2010

Natural Gas Compressor Station Coats Farmland in Used Gear Oil

by Spectra Energy's Steckman Ridge Natural Gas Compressor Station sprayed up to 1,629 pounds of used lubricating oil onto fertile farmland and residential property in rural Pennsylvania; crops had to be burned to prevent toxic contamination of consumers. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been misinformed residents for the past six months that the oil residents found coating their blueberries, tomatoes, hay fields. is non-toxic Omala Oil RL 320, but laboratory tests indicate the oil is definitively *not* Omala Oil RL 320.

Spring water from Clearville in December, residents report it smells like motor oil (photo by Angel Smith)

A contamination report recently obtained by Philadelphia Indymedia states that up to 1,629 pounds of used gear-lubricating oil were spilled onto residences and farm fields in Bedford County, Pennsylvania this past August. Despite the presence of this report in Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) files, officials are maintaining to residents and the press that only 20 gallons of gear oil was released, additionally misleading the public to believe that the oil is non-toxic Omala Oil RL 320.


The Steckman Ridge Natural Gas Compressor Plant, "a small city" (photo courtesy of SpectraEnergy Watch Photo © 2009 by M. P. Benard)

On August 23, Spectra Energy's Steckman Ridge natural gas compressor station on Rock Hill Church road experienced an "emergency shutdown," 1,629 pounds of lubricating oil and 6,460 pounds of methane (including 1,151 pounds of volatile organic compounds) were sprayed into the air and estimated to have landed up to one and a half miles from the plant, coating a very fertile agricultural, fishing and hunting region of Pennsylvania with potentially toxic industrial gear oil.

"Wayne and I were sitting out on the back porch that Sunday and then we heard a big bang but didn't see anything flying out of the sky," said Angel Smith who lives half a mile from Spectra's compressor station. "The next day, a neighbour called saying that his fields were covered with oil so I went down and videotaped that. I also found that my fields were covered with oil too."

Within a week after the equipment failure, Spectra Energy issued reports stating that residents of Monroe and Clearville Townships in Pennsylvania should wash the oil off of their crops before consumption. Local Web sites such as Spectra Energy Watch and Clearville Times expressed outrage that their crops were destroyed, water contaminated and livestock affected, with little concern from agents at the DEP. Birth defects have been noted in livestock such as domesticated geese. Currently unknown are the future diseases or cancers which may afflict residents as the chemicals' mutations of the human cells eventually show their harmful results many years after exposure.

DEP Agents Misinform Residents

Officials from the DEP have stated repeatedly to residents and to Indymedia that the lubricating oil dumped over the Clearville valley by Spectra Enery Steckman Ridge Compressor Station is not a concern to human health, falsely claiming that the oil is a non-toxic substance called Omala Oil RL 320.

Laboratory reports obtained from the DEP show that tests of the spilled lubricating oil indicate the oil is not Omala Oil RL 320. Although Omala Oil RL 320 was shown to be similar to the spilled oil, the report noted significant differences between the Omala Oil RL 320 and the spilled oil.

Wilma Subra, a chemist who has worked with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on several hazardous waste projects, looked over the oil analysis lab report and confirmed that the report shows that the used oil contaminating nearby farm fields is not Omala Oil RL 320.

"The oil in the used material was not the same as the reference sample. The used material had one chromatographic pattern while the reference oil had two chromatographic patterns," said Dr. Subra in an email to me. Dr. Subra also stated that if the used oil tested is indeed a used form of Omala Oil RL 320, the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) indicate that such used oil may contain harmful impurities like toxic heavy metals, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds. The MSDS sheet also stresses that "ALL used oil be handled with caution and skin contact avoided as far as possible" (capitalization retained from the original MSDS).

"According to the MSDS -- inhalation is not expected to be a primary route of exposure -- under normal conditions of use," explained Dr. Subra. "However, the material was released from the compressor station as a mist. The oil was airborne for thousands of feet from the facility and thus could have been inhaled by individuals and animals in the area of impact. Skin and eye contact was also possible due to the airborne oil."

Despite laboratory test reports which clearly demonstrate that spilled used oil was not the non-toxic Omala Oil RL 320, Pennsylvania officials (such as Lynn Langer, Assistant Regional Director for the DEP's Southcentral Regional Office) have consistently implied to residents that the spilled oil was non-toxic Omala Oil RL 320. These assertions are unfounded and dangerous for nearby residents who have no means to determine what precautionary measures they must take to protect their health and their farms. Although more extensive tests were later performed showing the used oil sample tested negative for volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, documents obtained from the DEP show that Spectra Energy failed to request the lab test for toxic heavy metals. The report also indicates the sample of spilled oil was taken by a Spectra employee, not a qualified independent sample collector, putting the validity of the sample and applicability of test results into question.

Any well-trained environmental scientist with a few spare minutes to read through the reports would notice quickly that the used industrial oil needed to be tested for heavy metals in order to safeguard the public health, and that the public needs to be informed of all test results promptly.

Citizens Pick Up the Pieces

The emergency shut-down in August was one of four equipment malfunctions that have occurred since the natural gas compressor station became operational last summer. Residents near other compressor stations which process raw gas frequently complain about the chronic and extremely loud "jet like noises" which industry officials admit are a normal part of plant operations. Chronic loud noise can cause birth defects, psychological problems and marked behavioral changes in young children as well as cardiovascular disease and vertigo in adults.

The DEP cited Spectra Energy as violating the federal Air Pollution Control Act and the Clean Streams Law, yet according to facility information provided by the DEP's e-facts website the agency still has not taken enforcement action or given penalties for these violations. Spectra Energy also received a Notice of Violation for not reporting the incident by telephone to the DEP within two hours and not submitting a written report within three days, as required by law. The equipment malfunction was reported to the DEP by terrified residents.

At a MarkWest compressor station in nearby Washington County, company officials also failed to notify the DEP of equipment problems until residents were already complaining to the DEP. Such situations make one wonder what happens when residents aren't watching and listening?

Craig Lambeth, a DEP oil and gas official, supports citizens doing the monitoring work for the DEP. Last fall at a public meeting hosted by the grassroots environmental protection group R.E.S.C.U.E. Northeast Pennsylvania, Mr. Lambeth told the 128 attendents that residents "should be the eyes and ears of the DEP." He stated that there is no possibility for the DEP to monitor every active gas site every day, as such monitoring would be prohibitively expensive to the gas industry and taxpayers.

Although the DEP recently announced they will be hiring an additional 68 gas well inspectors, the current oil and gas regulations promulgated by the DEP are weak. The rate of gas wells being drilled and fracked is rapidly accelerating; the new addition of employees will merely allow the DEP to monitor more wells, not improve the quality of regulation or increase the frequency of monitoring visits. Existing regulations and agency procedures must be changed in order to better protect the environment, until then, the daily responsibility of monitoring gas well activities, toxic waste water trucks and hazardous waste pits will continue to fall into the hands of residents who are not trained or equipped in a way that enables them to prevent catastrophes.

At the meeting in Forest City, when a resident asked Lambeth, "How do we protect ourselves from the drillers? Why isn't it the other way around? The drillers are not proving that its safe and we're depending on you [the DEP] [to protect us]." Mr. Lambeth replied, "You need to be the eyes in the woods watching." To which the resident responded with frustration, "I'd like a little more control than that."

An interview with chemist Dr. Wilma Subra about natural gas compressor stations and gas production can be heard at

Documents referred to in this article can be accessed from


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