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Seismic testing stirs waves of concerns


WAYNE COUNTY, PA — The trigger was the appearance of small flags along Wayne County roadways, followed by the presence of crews and trucks on Saturday, April 17. Seismic data collection took place next, as specialized vehicles from Dawson Geophysical Company lumbered along rural roads. Each new stage of the process has sent ripples through a community already on alert to the advance of natural gas exploration activities in the region.

In response, some flags have been removed along River Road in Damascus Township and disturbing rumors of threats have begun circulating.

A group of alarmed citizens met on April 17 to discuss the evolving situation and to share information, according to Beverly Sterner, a resident of Milanville. Sterner, whose home rests only a few yards from the roadway, is concerned about the potential impacts of seismic vibrations on the foundation of her home, its stone structures and a vigorous stream that courses next to the house. Many of those in attendance shared Sterner’s concerns.

But Sterner is equally concerned about the rumors and the threatening language being used by some in response to the testing. As a longtime practitioner of non-violence, Sterner stressed the importance of respectful dialogue. “It is essential to remain non-violent in our outreach on this issue,” she said. “We need to do our research and inform others to minimize the chance for surprises, which can provoke violence.”

On High Bridge Road in Milanville, Karl Wasner and his two young sons observed the trucks on Sunday as they rolled in a line of three along the road near his home. “The crews mustered at 8:00 a.m. and then started working,” Wasner wrote in an email. “I could hear them a mile away.” When the trucks came into sight, the driver of the lead vehicle asked Wasner and his sons to leave the road. “We went back up the driveway and into the house. The whole place was shaking. The dirt road is scarred where the trucks dropped their plates.”

Another resident of Damascus described a similar experience on the blog, “Breathing is Political,” operated by Liz Bucar. (Visit to see the post.)

But others say concerns about the activity are overblown, and that providing information in advance would have helped to reduce the fears of residents in areas being tested.

Dawson has been contracted by Newfield Exploration Company to perform the seismic evaluation using sound waves in a process called “vibroseis,” according to Keith Schmidt, senior communications coordinator of Newfield, which expects to drill several test wells on lands owned by Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (NWPOA) members this summer. “Seismic has been used for decades around the world to support exploration activities and the majority of authorities and agencies believe it to be a safe and environmentally friendly way to plot seismic structures under the ground,” Schmidt said.

In response to concerns about the placement of flags along the river side of River Road in Damascus Township, Schmidt wrote in an email, “Placement of the flags is merely due to traffic flow. We are only in this location near the river because the road provides public access. We are not gathering data on the river or the particular formations underneath it. Rather, our interests are in the very broad based geologic formations deep under the ground… thousands of feet below the surface over a very wide range and not associated with the river.”

Dawson field director Jeff Forney confirmed that the trucks being used in Wayne County are similar to those used by Dawson in January 2009 to gather seismic data along roads in Pike County. (Visit to view footage of that seismic testing along Route 6 near Greeley.)

Marian Schweighofer, executive director of the NWPOA, which represents 1,300 landowner families and 70,000 acres in Wayne and Susquehanna counties, said that confusion over the testing is causing unnecessary worries. In a press release, Schweighofer states that the testing “does not involve the use of explosives and will not damage roads, house foundations or water wells.

“We’ve been hearing from township officials who say they’re getting panicky calls from residents about the damage the Dawson survey work supposedly will do,” Schweighofer said. “There’s absolutely no truth to it.”

According to Schweighofer, the seismic work should minimize the risk of drilling nonproductive wells. It can also help to identify potentially problematic faults to be avoided. But others say the testing gives an unfair advantage to gas companies who may use the data in negotiating leases.

During the testing, large vibrating vehicles send sound waves into the earth. “Echo technology” is used to record sound waves reflected from the rock formations below. The resultant data is collected by “geophones” on cables laid along the roadway. The readings are analyzed and converted into two-dimensional images to show a cross-section of the land where the sonogram was performed.

Schweighofer said that survey work using the same technology was carried out in Preston and Mt. Pleasant townships during 2008 and caused no damage. She added that another seismic survey currently underway in Lebanon and Mt. Pleasant townships does involve the use of small explosive charges. That survey is being performed by Geokinetics, Inc., on privately owned land with the permission of the landowners involved.

Others raise the issue of trespass, questioning whether the seismic vibrations that pass through both homes and land alike are a form of trespass. As one concerned resident pointed out, “It would not be okay to risk damage to my home by hurling a rock at it; why would it be okay to do so by sending a shock wave through it or under it?”

Another person advises homeowners near the activity to photo-document the condition of their homes before testing begins, in order to establish proof for claims of structural damage to buildings, walls or other structures. Still others are investigating permitting and right-of-way issues.

(Visit www.riverreporter.comissues/09-01-08

to see a photograph of a seismic testing vehicle collecting data in Pike County last year).

TRR photo by Sandy Long
Laura Moran, left, and John Roth document the activities of seismic survey crews as the crews place cables across the driveway of their home in Milanville, PA. The couple has also posted signs along the property that specify “No seismic testing.” (Click for larger version)