Major Sediment Runoff Affecting Chesapeake Bay – How Much From Drilling?

The one-two rainfall punch thrown by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee landed hard on the chin of the mid-Atlantic and New England, bringing record amounts of rainfall and causing epic flooding from Washington, DC to Vermont.  Now we’re seeing one of the results: a torrent of river water laden with runoff is pouring into bays and estuaries along the Atlantic coast.  Yesterday afternoon’s MODIS/Terra satellite image shows this impact on Delaware Bay and the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay:

MODIS/ Terra image taken September 12, 2011, showing sediment-laden runoff (pale brown) from the Susquehanna River filling the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.  

This runoff consists of sewage overflows and sediment and other contamination washing off farmer’s fields, construction sites, and impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and rooftops.  It’s a big shot of bad news for aquatic critters and the stuff we like to eat from the Bay – oysters, rockfish and crabs – and it’s not too great either for the communities along the way that get their drinking water from these rivers and streams.   
One of our concerns is that one-third of the Bay watershed lies on top of the Marcellus Shale drilling play, and we expect tens of thousands of new construction sites in the area over the next several years as companies clear land to drill wells, install pipelines, and build support facilities.  These sites represent potential new sources of runoff and surface water contamination, and given the precarious state of health of the Bay,we think this potential needs to be seriously evaluated and, if necessary, mitigated and better regulated to ensure the Bay doesn’t suffer as this gas resource is developed.  
This photo taken by our intern Ben Pelto this weekend illustrates the problem: severe erosion and obvious runoff from one of the many miles of new gas pipeline under construction in Pennsylvania to support the shale-drilling boom. Note the silt fences down at lower right (near the small green sign that says “Wetlands Boundary”!) and the lack of any runoff control structures perpendicular to the pipeline cut as it comes down this typically steep hillside – a recipe for disaster even with a common summer cloudburst, as any trail manager could attest:
 
Erosion along new gas pipeline right-of-way in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (Susquehanna River basin), north-central Pennsylvania.  Photo taken by SkyTruth intern Ben Pelto on September 10, 2011.

 We’re also starting to see disturbing but unsurprising pictures of flooded drilling sites and beat-up, pushed-around pieces of equipment like the tanks that hold drilling mud and fracking fluid.  That’s because, unbelievably, most states allow industry to drill in high-risk floodplains.   Our friends at LightHawk are flying over the areas affected by flooding, including the Wysox Creek watershed where we collected water quality measurements earlier this summer.  When their aerial pics become available we’ll share them here, along with more from Ben’s trip this weekend.

UPDATE  9/16: see aerial pics of flooding, Marcellus Shale drilling sites, and pipeline construction (and a few beauty shots!) in the upper Susquehanna basin taken by J Henry Fair during a LightHawk overflight on Monday, September 12.