While recently running on a popular Sproul State Forest hiking trail, Dave Hunter discovered something out of place: damage from seismic testing.
CGG Veritas, a company that conducts seismic testing to provide data about underground Marcellus Shale formations to the natural gas drilling industry, is doing seismic testing in the forest and had gotten onto the Donut Hole State Forest Hiking Trail and placed seismic charges on the trail, both Hunter and the state forester confirmed.
Thousands of acres of Sproul State Forest are under lease to natural gas exploration companies. CGG is doing the seismic tests to determine the location of Marcellus Shale formations, thus they are permitted by the state to clear land and install seismic charges. They do so by land and by helicopter.
Retired District Forester Robert “Butch” Davey stands on the Donut Hole State Forest Hiking Trail at a blast charge in the center of a once-single track section in Sproul State Forest. Seismic testing is taking place in the forest and nearby.
But Hunter, a well-known organizer of various mountain hiking competitions in the region, said CGG has damaged the popular Donut Hole Trail, much to the disappointment of he and many other hikers. He wonders what impact CGG is also having on all-terrain vehicle trails.
To the Sproul State Forester, it appears CGG did not follow "best management practices" or create a buffer zone around the hiking trail as it conducted tests.
The "best practices" fall under the Guidelines for Administering Oil and Gas Activity on State Forest Lands, but the question OF whether CGG must, by mandate, follow the guidelines remains a question.
Hunter, who helps keep Donut Hole and other area trails clear, is on the board of the Keystone Trail Association (KTA), helps to organize the annual Prowl the Sproul in July and the Try-All by Fire, and is a race director for the Megatransect, among other endeavors.
When he ran the Donut Hole trail July 17 and saw the damage caused by CGG Veritas's seismic crew, Hunter knew something was wrong.
KTA volunteers also were disturbed when they were clearing the trail on June 6, "only to find a bulldozer sharing it with them," Hunter said.
The trail had been freshly blazed a month prior with fluorescent orange hash marks on the trees, he said, and KTA had widened it by nearly three feet, "a tremendous amount of work," he said.
And then, "the seismic people ... drove equipment through it," Hunter said. "A track machine entered and exited several times and eroded a number of stream banks and dry gulches as they went through."
Hunter had weed-whacked 13 miles of the trail last year for the Try-All by Fire, and had gotten a $1,000 grant from Cliff Bar for "getting people out on bikes," he said. The groups have $2,500 worth of grants for similar work this year.
Normally, they use the Donut Hole Trail for Prowl the Sproul, a 10K race that starts and finishes from the Western Clinton County Sportsmen's Association on a loop, but due to the seismic charges on the trail, they rerouted participants to the Black Forest Trail, Hunter said.
"This year, we promoted running on the Black Forest Trail to get to Hyner starting from Slate Run instead of the Donut Hole (Trail)," Hunter said.
He quickly contacted Sproul District Forester Doug D'Amore, who has since been communicating with CGG Veritas.
D'Amore said he walked "the majority of the affected area on state forest land on July 25 and reviewed the damage." He believes the seismic equipment was in that area between late June to mid July.
He described the damage in an e-mail.
"The company doing seismic surveys in the area, CGG (Veritas), got a small drilling buggy on an old timber sale haul road that was being used as part of the Donut Hole State Forest Hiking Trail. This machine drilled approximately 55 shot holes within the trail and its buffer. The vast majority of these holes are in the middle of the old (timber sale haul) road.
"The shot holes have small explosive charges placed in them and the explosives are detonated in a precise pattern to map the subsurface of a large area. On State Forest Land the trail is required to have a 100 foot buffer on each side that is not to have any disturbance.
"The damage consists of having the shot hole in the middle of the trail; tread marks on the trail, annual vegetation like ferns being crushed and some small trees and saplings being run over, bent and having the bark scraped off," D'Amore wrote.
The 100-foot buffer zone also applies to the old timber sale haul road, as well, he said. There was also a set of gates CGG Veritas went around with their vehicles, rather than using the key provided them to go through the gates, D'Amore said.
"CGG Veritas was supplied with a set of gate keys. For whatever reason, the person driving the rig chose not to use them. The company will be required to fix the run arounds in a manner acceptable to the Bureau of Forestry," D'Amore wrote.
What is not clear is whether D'Amore and DCNR communicated that buffer zone to CGG Veritas prior to the seismic survey.
D'Amore first wrote in an e-mail to The Express, "CGG (Veritas) should have not been in the trail buffer. At some point, the trail and its buffer were missing from the information we provided the company. That error has been corrected and when notified of the error, all parties put an immediate stop to the use....The problem boils down to a basic communication failure."
When asked if the trail buffer is in the seismic agreement, D'Amore wrote, "The trail buffer is not in the seismic agreement. I believe it was conveyed verbally during (one) of our face to face meetings."
In response to the seeming contradiction between the two statements, Christina Novak, press secretary, department of conservation and natural resources, issued the following statement:
"The Bureau of Forestry sets the management guidelines for this type of activity on state forest lands. We are working with the company involved to make sure they have a complete understanding of our expectations related to seismic activity on our lands moving forward, and also that they correct any issues that have already occurred that fall outside of our management guidelines."
Novak issued no further comment.
Brad Verot, CGG Veritas project manager, could not be reached for comment, and to specifically address the question as to whether CGG followed all "best practices" and if it was required to do so.
Teddy Borawski, division manager for the minerals program, central office of the Bureau of Forestry, Harrisburg, said the buffer zone is in the guidelines document, Guidelines for Administering Oil and Gas Activity on State Forest Lands. While the buffer zone particulars vary (it could be greater than 100 feet), Borawski said, it should be communicated either in a letter, or in a meeting where the applicable section of the guidelines document is gone over with that company. The guidelines document, written April 26, 2011, is 156 pages and is not given to the gas company due to its length, he said.
The buffer zones fall under Best Management Practices, he said.
At least one "meeting (is supposed to be held) with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry district staff with the company...before any activity occurs in the field," Borawski said.
"They must meet with the district for a work plan meeting, prior to equipment going into the field of state forest lands. At that point, that's when we detail a lot of the issues, and tell them, stay that far out. (We) look at district maps.
"There was some miscommunication, and the Donut Hole Trail did get some holes drilled (in it). I couldn't tell you specifically about why communication failed here. The company may have gotten ahead of when the district was able to tell them. Also, our trails don't have continuous marking; (CGG Veritas) came in perpendicular to it, and that's when the buggies got on it. They should've called us and asked us about it when they got on the trial," Borawski said.
He further explained that between the various offices is where the communication "probably broke down."
Borawski said they have "folks on the field," but they "don't teach contractors every waking moment...but the subcontractors in the field, running drill machines, if they encounter something they don't expect, they may not ask for additional information."
Regardless of where the communication failure came in, CGG Veritas will be responsible for cleaning up the disturbance, which could go into November, D'Amore said.
Hunter later hiked the Donut Hole Trail again with Robert "Butch" Davey, retired forester who worked for the Bureau of Forestry for over 40 years, The last 20 years of his employment with the bureau, Davey was the district forester of Sproul State Forest. Davey is also on the board of directors of KTA.
Davey reiterated what D'Amore said, that there is supposed to be a 100-foot buffer zone around the trails.
"That (activity) was out of bounds on the trail. This would not have been permitted for any other timber activity. The Donut Hole Trail is a designated State Forest trail; there's supposed to be a 100 or 150-foot no cutting zone (buffer zone) around the trail...for aesthetics; these are hiking trails. Some are parts of old woods roads, some are single track trails that were fire trails.
"There are 18 state forest trails in Pennsylvania where buffer zones and other types of restrictions are placed adjacent to these trail surfaces. It would not be allowed to run track vehicles on these trails...They put charges right in the trail surface itself," Davey said.
Hunter explained the Donut Hole Trail head starts at Farrandsville at the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) Camp.
Davey said the damage they observed was from Carrier Road where the Donut Hole Trail crosses it until the left fork of Ferney Run, a high-quality stream there.
He emphasized that the only road open to vehicular use is Carrier Road.
Davey described what he saw.
"The first part of the DHT is located on State Gamelands 89. The trail exits SGL89 just before the trail intersects Carrier Road which is a maintained State Forest road open to licensed motorized vehicles.
"The trail crosses Carrier Road and into the forest as a single track trail. It then intersects an old timber sale haul road which is closed to motorized vehicles and goes south west to a metal gate which was placed across the retired haul road. On this part of the road and trail is where the wheeled vehicle tracks end and the track vehicle tracks continue.
"From Carrier Road and (that) old haul road, that part of the trail was okay. From the old haul road to (the) gate on that road, the trail was somewhat rutted, and I could see where track vehicles that set the charges, and also where wheel vehicles came down the same trail, and had been rutted by that action.
"At the gate, where the trail makes a turn to the north, the old woods road was not rutted by wheel, but track vehicles. There were several places where trees were across the trail (dead falls); instead of cutting them away, (CGG Veritas) went around the edge of the tree, back onto the trail; I'm afraid that will encourage use by all-terrain vehicles and off-road motorcycles if something isn't done to remediate it.
"A tributary to the left fork of Ferney Run was rutted at that place, too. The same scenario was at the left fork of Ferney Run. From the first tributary to the left fork, parts of the trail were single track and parts were old woods road, and track vehicles went through the whole thing....The charge was set in the middle of the trail, close to the left fork of Ferney Run. If there were people using the trail at the time, that's not a very good idea," Davey said.
"Not far from the second crossing of Ferney Run is where the first explosive shot hole was encountered. It should be noted that the trail surface at some places is single track and at other places retired old roads that were re-vegetated and stabilized," he added.
Even if signs are posted warning of the undetonated charges, "I (don't) think that (is) adequate for the safety of the public," Davey added.
Hunter highlighted that the headwaters of Ferney Run were muddied when the vehicles drove through it.
"You don't muddy up the headwaters of a beautiful, pristine stream," Hunter said.
Davey said that "Ferney Run, a high-quality stream, is very good quality water."
He explained there are three main classifications for streams: exceptional value (highest quality water), high quality (little less than exceptional value), and cold water fisheries.
"The difference is by the amount of human activity that occurred on that watershed. Most of the exceptional value watersheds, there are no permanent dwellings, businesses, on there, etc. no human activity going to pollute water," Davey said.
To protect exceptional water streams, no activity is allowed to degrade it, he said. A high quality stream, like Ferney Run, could have "earth moving and that type of activity, if there's an overriding economic reason," Davey said. "If it degraded the water somewhat, economic interest overwhelms it."
In the Sproul State Forest, there are "12 exceptional value and many high quality streams, and some impaired waters and cold water fisheries," he said.
D'Amore did not respond to questions regarding Ferney Run, and Borawski was not aware of any activity concerning Ferney Run.
According to the Guidelines for Administering Oil and Gas Activity on State Forest Lands, certain "setbacks" are provided for protection on current, legacy or non-leased areas, including a 200-foot buffer zone from "any stream or body of water."
The explosive charges will remain in the ground and will be detonated at some point, D'Amore said. The "shot holes" into which the explosives are placed are about "6 inches in diameter and 25 feet deep," he said.
"The safest way to remove the explosive charges is to detonate them. As they are already in the ground, we are allowing them to remain until they are detonated as part of the project. CGG Veritas will provide extra manpower with the shooting crew to ensure the public using the trail will not be placed in danger during this process.
"CGG Veritas will also be required to cut damaged vegetation at ground level and drag it outside the trail buffer to reduce the visual impacts. There is actually very little of this work needed across the several miles I walked. Any ruts caused by the drilling machines will be required to be smoothed over by hand tools. There is very little of this work needed also. The annual vegetation damage and the tread marks will be fixed through natural processes. All flagging and stakes will be removed once the shoot is completed. I anticipate this occurring between now and mid November," D'Amore wrote. He went on to detail the explosive charges.
"The actual explosive charges are very small. Typically, the crew is standing within 100 feet of the hole when the charge is detonated. The crews will have extra individuals assigned who will stop all public use of the trail during the shooting process. This will delay a trail user by no more than 15 minutes if they happen to (be) using the trail the day the charges are detonated.
"The charges themselves have several safety features in place that make an accidental detonation nearly impossible. An individual walking down the trail is in no danger of an accidental discharge. As the seismic shoot moves north, all flagging, stakes and damage will be cleaned up and repaired. The clean-up crew is generally a couple of weeks behind the shooting crew.
"The trail is open for the public to use and enjoy," D'Amore wrote.
When asked if there are plans to inform hunters during archery season, the early muzzle loader doe season, and small game hunters, as well as hikers, D'Amore responded, "Trail notifications have been posted on third party websites."
The power to prevent this from happening again seems uncertain.
The Bureau of Forestry does not have the power to fine offending parties-that falls under the Department of Environmental Projection's jurisdiction.
And does the Bureau of Forestry have the ability to monitor activity sufficiently in the Sproul State Forest?
When asked if anyone has been assigned to field checking the work of CGG Veritas, or if it will be dependent on hikers to find the problem, D'Amore replied, "Bureau of Forestry employees have been and will continue to monitor CGG Veritas's operations. We welcome all input and observations from the general public as well."
However, Davey said one of the problems is that the Sproul State Forest is the largest state forest in Pennsylvania, but it doesn't have the largest staff.
"I have every confidence in the Bureau of Forestry and the people that work there, it's just that sometimes, there's more work to do than there are people to do the work," Davey said.
While Hunter praised the quick response of D'Amore, he wishes more could be done to prevent it in the future.
"My biggest concern is we have helicopters landing in our woods, private contractors running all over our woods, with nobody watching them. Nobody thought what would happen to state trails.
"If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere," Hunter said.
Hunter was also involved with the inception of the Hyner View Challenge, "hacking out trails out there and everything to get it going."
"The Donut Hole Trail is all volunteer made. And it's been trudged on by machinery," he said.
Davey, as part of the board of directors on the KTA, emphasized the work KTA has done for the trails.
"We re-painted the blazes on the trail (2 by 6 inch paint blazes so people have confidence when they go out and hike). Since 1986, KTA has done trail work twice a year, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, all volunteer work. There's not another recreational user group in the state of Pennsylvania that has done as much for recreation as KTA, to protect hiking trails for hikers...(and) they don't ask for any money.
"I think damage should be repaired and I don't think it should happen again," Davey said.
Davey pointed out that another problem is CGG Veritas doesn't make a profit off of cleaning up state forest land.
"CGG Veritas does not get paid and make a profit for clean-up, only the seismic survey," Davey said. "There should be disincentives! If we find a place where there's an explosive charge on a hiking trail, you get fined so much money."
It also matters if the workers have an appreciation for their surroundings, he said.
"Many people working here are not Pennsylvanians, not environmentalists, they don't know rare plants, etc. They're just looking for places to put their flagging up, collect data, and going back home," he said.
Hunter spoke along the same lines.
"It's a shame everything is reactive, not proactive. Had I not hiked on Tuesday, that Donut Hole Trail would've...(been) used for seismic activity....
"The real glitch was that it happened....If it was a quiet time of year, it could've gone unnoticed. The forest has incredible recuperative power, but I wonder how many places in Pennsylvania will have beautiful places annihilated."
One big question still looms:
"It wasn't done on purpose, but why'd it have to happen in the first place?" Hunter queried.