Following three spills of drilling fluids onto federally protected land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ordered the Genesee County Economic Development Center to halt construction of a wastewater pipeline that will service its Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park.
The shutdown, which the Fish and Wildlife Service notified the economic development agency of Friday, will continue until the spills are cleaned up and required reports and plans are completed and approved. The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued its own violation notice last week. Both agencies have said they could levy fines.
The shutdown is the latest blow to the development agency’s STAMP project, which officials say could draw up to 9,000 high-tech jobs to rural Genesee County. STAMP has been in the works for more than a decade and the Genesee County EDC is currently constructing the park’s infrastructure, including a 9.5-mile long wastewater pipeline. That pipeline would extend into Orleans County and discharge into the Oak Orchard Creek.
Orleans County has sued in an effort to halt the pipeline’s construction.
What’s more, a recent Investigative Post investigation found that, if completed as permitted, the wastewater from the pipeline could violate the federal Clean Water Act.
An Orleans County judge has issued a temporary restraining order against the pipeline, meaning it cannot cross the county line. Construction within Genesee County is still permitted. It’s construction of that portion of the pipeline that’s led to spills and the stop-order from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The drilling fluid spilled three times since the middle of August is a slurry made of water and Wyoming sodium bentonite. The mixture makes horizontal drilling for pipelines easier because it solidifies the walls of a drilling tunnel.
The drilling is taking place along the eastern edge of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, which contains more than 5,000 acres of freshwater wetlands that drain into Oak Orchard Creek and Lake Ontario. In wetlands, the slurry can “increase turbidity, change water chemistry, and expose plants and animals to potentially harmful chemicals,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The first spill occurred Aug. 15 and was minor. Contractor G. DeVincentis and Son Construction Co. reported to state and federal officials that about 15 gallons of slurry had spilled, which was contained to a roadside ditch.
A second spill occurred, according to the DEC and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, when contractors were attempting to vacuum up and remediate the first spill. A regional DEC official reported to the Nation on Friday that crews moved a pipe “to aid in the cleanup” and discovered that an additional “two to three” cubic yards of slurry had spilled and “entered the regulated freshwater wetland.” That equates to 400 to 600 additional gallons of slurry. DEC, in a statement Tuesday, confirmed this spill to Investigative Post and said the agency was investigating.
The third spill occurred Sept. 7 and saw 100 more gallons of slurry spill and enter the wetlands.
It was that spill that’s caused the DEC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act.
A week ago, the DEC informed the Genesee County EDC that it had violated its permits. EC said it was contemplating fines of up to $86,000 per day.
The notice last Friday from the Fish and Wildlife Service upped the ante by stopping all construction of the pipeline until remediation is complete. In its letter to Genesee County EDC, the Service said in addition to cleaning up the spills the agency must:
- “Present a consolidated report on what went wrong and why.”
- “Conduct a thorough geotechnical engineering review.”
- “Develop … a monitoring plan” that will last for one year.
- “Develop … an updated contingency plan.”
Like, DEC, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it may issue fines.
The spills into the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge have members of the neighboring Tonawanda Seneca Nation frustrated and worried, said spokesperson Grandell Logan. Both he and his father spoke out against the pipeline construction at an eminent domain hearing in July.
“We would like this to stop, we’d like the drilling to cease. We would like the permit to be withdrawn,” Logan said. “It doesn’t really make sense to us that this is at all a safe practice. And the spills are only further evidence of that.”
Logan said many Nation members use wells for drinking water. While the groundwater is currently clean, he said, spills of any kind set people on edge.
“We care immensely about the types of things put onto the ground and eventually into the ground,” he said.
Representatives and a lawyer for Genesee County EDC did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the pipeline contractor, G. DeVincentis and Son Construction Co., nor Clark Patterson Lee, an engineering firm monitoring the work.
David Eisenhauer, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, declined to comment beyond providing its letter to Genesee County EDC.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from DEC.