Seismic Thumpers : Damascus, PA


Seismic thumper trucks” are headed for a  Town of  Damascus roadway near you. The trucks will pound the ground with immense weights and then “listen” for feedback which helps them read the structure of the Marcellus Shale and presumably, predict the availability and accessibility of natural gas in the underground formations.   Seismic thumpers have  already toured  other US States including  Utah,  New Mexico, Texas  and Wyoming.  (For an explanation of various kinds of seismic thumping techniques, please read here and for a picture of a “thumper” truck,  click here.)

In Wyoming in 2006,  an “administrative law court within the U.S. Department of the Interior”  issued a temporary stay which halted the passage of seismic thumper trucks through an environmentally-sensitive and federally-protected region.  According to the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance,  “The [environmental] groups had challenged violations of  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) [because The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had failed] to take a hard look at impacts to fossil resources and sensitive wildlife, that the agency did not conduct the required study of cumulative impacts to wildlife that use lands impacted by the project, and ignored their responsibility to consider lower-impact alternatives to thumper trucks that would use smaller equipment and keep off-road vehicle traffic out of proposed wilderness areas.”  Breathing has learned that the parties involved in the case reached a settlement which, in part, protected fossil formations by having experts located on site during “thumping” explorations and by ensuring operators avoided and/or preserved sensitive fossil resources.

Along highways, NEPA allows for certain “categorical exclusions” which do not trigger an automatic review of their activities because, based on experience,  they “do not involve significant environmental impacts.”  The list  of excluded activities does not include  seismic thumping.

In a phone conversation,  Erik Molvar, Executive Director and Wildlife Biologist with  the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Wyoming told Breathing that the National Environmental Policy Act’s  statutory jurisdiction is often triggered when potentially harmful activities are planned for a federally-protected area.  (The Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River is such an area.  Its watershed, according to the National Park Service, “provides water to over 17 million people and supports a world-class trout fishery and bald eagles.”)   Mr. Molvar went on to say that in the case of seismic thumping, if  NEPA’s legislative jurisdiction is  established,  a lengthy process involving  investigations of  seismic thumping’s  direct, indirect and cumulative impacts,  a public comment period and a possible environmental impact statement might be required before it could be permitted.”

At the moment,  orange markers  have cropped up on The River Road in Pennsylvania’s Damascus Township which signal the imminence of  seismic thumping within a few hundred feet of  The Delaware River and in close proximity to residential structures.

Related questions  have been raised in Pennsylvania as to whether or not the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT)  has the legal jurisdiction to issue permits for seismic thumping in rights-of-way  it has obtained from private landholders.  (Although the United States Constitution grants States the right to acquire private lands for public use through Eminent Domain, the extended grant to State transportation departments is generally restricted, as in Pennsylvania, to a  “…’right of passage’ over land on which a public road ultimately will be built or expanded.  PennDOT will execute this right only when it will benefit the public,”  says PennDOT’s website.

PennDOT’s  district engineer

(a) … shall be authorized to permit temporary use by public agencies and charitable organizations of right-of-way not required for free movement of traffic. (Italics added.)

(b) Duration. A permit for temporary use of right-of-way may not exceed 90 days’ duration.

PennDOT has  leeway in managing  its rights of way and can, for instance, permit “encroachments” in areas not used by traffic for items such as  mailboxes.  The Department may also  allow  “occupations”  by  driveways which permit ease of access for residents but even those allowances can be subject to Township review.

And PennDOT may:

…effect the fair and uniform administration of the provisions of section 2002(c) of The Administrative Code of 1929 (71 P. S. § 512(c)), which authorizes the Secretary to lease real property acquired for any State-designated highway or other transportation facility as is not required for the free movement of traffic, including area above, beneath, and outside the traveled way, as well as area required but not yet utilized for construction or reconstruction of a transportation facility.

Obviously,  PennDOT, like other State highway departments, permits  utilities to situate  their poles and other necessary accoutrements in its obtained rights of way for the public good. This use of  highway rights of way by non-transportation utilities is explained  IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA:  “…the basis for the common law rule was that, although the utility was permitted to use the right-of-way because it served a public interest, the primary purpose of the public easement was the public’s own use; any use by a public utility was subordinate to the interest of the public.”  (Italics added.)

What is unclear is whether or not PennDOT has the  legal authority to grant temporary use of privately-owned rights of way to private for-profit-corporations (like seismic thumping companies)  in furtherance of activities such as hydraulic fracturing (whether or not such activities are   under investigation by the United States Congress) when it is debatable such activities serve the public good.

In Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation v Municipal Authority of the Borough of West View (argued in The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, 2-5-07)  Judge Pellegrini stated,

“When a governmental entity acquires a right-of-way for use as a street
or highway, that governmental entity acquires ownership of that right-of-way in trust
and can allow others to occupy the street or highway only for “public purposes.” (M999DOT) (Italics added.)

In  Shelbourne Square Associates v Board of Supervisors of Township of Exeter, Berks County, PA, (Submitted 3-2-01), The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found, “Thus, the Department’s own regulations recognize that its highway access permits are subject to ordinances enacted by local municipalities which contain more stringent minimum safety requirements.”  (Microsoft Word – 1147CD08.doc)

One local Pennsylvania resident says she was told by a representative of  Houston, Texas’ Newfield Gas Exploration that the company is using  seismic thumping technology similar to sonograms used on unborn babies.  According to the resident,  the representative stated further that the technology is, “Perfectly safe and that there’s been no report of damage.”

However, one suggestion made by an interested home owner is that prior to the advent of seismic thumping,  homeowners near the activity might consider:

“…whether home inspections may be necessary to establish a baseline for future claims of structural damage to your house and any other structures on your land (from barns to walls in the landscape.)  Short of that, photos of any existing cracks (or absence thereof) should be made with related documentation establishing these as  ‘before’ conditions.”

For additional information concerning the recommendation, please see this link to a suit brought by several people in Texas who alleged structural damage was caused to their property by seismic thumping.

Besides  damage to roads and delicate ecosystems and  questions about  PennDOT’s legal jurisdiction to permit seismic thumping in rights of way,  some people have raised the issue of  trespass. They assert that  essentially, thumping companies are  “trespassing” into   private landowners’ substrata and  in the process,  “stealing” compositional  information from those substrata and  providing the resultant data  to extraction companies without compensating landholders from whose property its gathered.   In New York State  which has  “compulsory integration”  or “forced pooling,” such data accumulation would be of particular interest to gas extraction companies  in cases where landholders have refused to sign mineral leases.

Breathing has contacted a Pennsylvania official and experts on Delaware River management for clarification of  NEPA’s possible jurisdiction as discussed in this article.  Unfortunately, representatives of the National Park Service will be unavailable  until tomorrow and as soon as further information is available, it will be posted.

As with most things drilling,   divergent views of risks predominate the discussion while too many questions and too few definitive answers are available to increasingly worried residents.  As one Damascus Township property owner said,  “I just want my elected officials to provide  a  forum where I and other homeowners can get answers about what these trucks do,  how they might impact my  home, my water well —  my land that I love  and have nurtured.  The River is my backyard.  My house is right on the road.  I just don’t know what to think or do.”

11 thoughts on “Seismic Thumpers : Damascus, PA

  1. callicoonist

    Looking forward to more posts on this!
    Where on River Road in Damascus is this?
    Does this have anything to do with the miles of little red flags and markers I noticed the other day on Rt. 391 all the way to Honesdale?

  2. lizbucar Post author

    I haven’t been on 391 in a while so I can’t say definitely but my guess would be yes.

    After you cross Skinner’s Bridge in Milanville and bear right, take a left down the River Road. Or, continue past the River Road and take a right onto Calkin’s Road and then another right on High Bridge. You’ll definitely see what the markers look like. And while you’re taking the tour, bear in mind the size of the trucks and the steep descent to the creeks and river.

    I’m hoping someone who reads the article can send us links to any studies that have been done on seismic thumping and its benign or other impacts on fish, eagles, sediment migration, residential structures… any kind of a study of any kind.

    I’ve received two emails in recent hours. One is from a very bright and concerned local woman who saw one of the trucks in action. She said the pounding impact was barely noticeable.

    I heard from another woman who spoke with a “specialist” (perhaps a geologist?) who said the soft soil in her area would probably lead to degradation of foundations and soil. Her town blocked all seismic testing on public roads and right-of-ways.

    Most people want desperately to do what is right but have too little information and are literally, becoming physically ill. And I think, the thumping issue is just one more piece of that.

  3. lizbucar Post author

    Postscript. I’m hoping to have a video that was shot locally within the next day or so. As soon as it’s available, I’ll try to get it posted.

  4. Pocono

    Just a quick question; if they are bringing thumpers to find the deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, why are they drilling “exploratory” wells in the Delaware River Basin. I thought they already knew how many trillions of cf of gas are available?? I believe that exploratory wells are a loop hole getting around the DRBC’s authority? They only need a PADEP permit and then they already have a well ready for production?

    Liz we discussed this a while back when the “thumpers” thumped their way up Rt. 6 from Milford to Lake Walenpaupack over New Years Weekend…here on Friday gone by Monday! They haphazardly tossed cords off of trucks for 25 miles right through town and across roads without any official traffic controls or oversight, this is a State Highway. This is how the industry does business. Yes, license plates from Texas…no local boys/girls on that job.

  5. lizbucar Post author

    I was thinking of that conversation as I wrote the article. Thank you for remembering to comment on the jobs issue. One of the women who emailed commented that she’d spoken with one of the men on the trucks who said, essentially, “We don’t really know what’s going on. We just go where the company sends us.” They’d been migrating around, state-to-state, from their home base in Texas.

  6. lizbucar Post author

    Most people I speak with who’ve been following the DRBC hearings and the “march of the wells,” agree with you that the test wells are a scam. In fact, as I recall, that point was addressed to the DRBC in Matamoras and I appreciate you remembering to point it out. Your logic seems unassailable to me. I wish Ms. Schweighofer, Mr. Jones or some other drilling proponent would address the point here in an open forum and perhaps explain how our thinking is faulty.

  7. Jim Barth

    The word from NWPOA headquarters is that the thumpers will be here in “a few days”, so figure sometime next week, 4/19-23. Oh, perhaps they will come on Earthday? How appropriate.

  8. callicoonist

    Is there anything we can do about the Thumpers?
    What is the town of Damascus (potentially) able to do? Maybe it is time to group together to try to influence the town government?

    Also, to anyone out there, I would like to put together a One Page Fact Sheet about drilling (listing “pros” and cons.) I think this would be a very useful thing to be able to hand out, post, distribute. Something to cut through the clutter that can be quickly read and understood. I am not as up on things as many others however…

  9. Victoria Lesser

    After reading this as well as the last alert from Catskillmountainkeepers.org, that states that a spokesman from the DEC says permits to drill in NY could come by this years end, I just might need one of these “Thumpers” to drive past the Old North Branch Inn, I’ll need it to “restart my heart” since it is breaking. The Gas companies and the people signing these leases are refusing to tell or know the proven truth and that is that Hydro fracking is not a good thing for our health, our water and our environment. Just take a trip to Dimock Pa. Just watch the trailer from gaslandthemovie.com. Just agree to wake up and smell the bad air that the gas companies leave behind…

  10. Don

    All the data is clear and available. Damascus Citizens.org has been trying to halt this. As someone who has been part of the Damascus area his whole life, I see some very greedy people using all kinds of excuses to sell out to the gas companies. Sure its a hard life farming on this land……..but prostituting yourself and destroying this beautiful area, water, and forest is detestable. The gas companies just want to give you a fraction of what they will make, and abuse the area for 30 years. How could you do that? When your kids start getting sick, the diesel fumes are what you smell in the morning, and you have a fat bank account, think about what you did.

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