New documents released by the Environmental Agency reveal that fracking firm Cuadrilla breached environmental controls at its Lancashire shale gas exploration site in August.
It is the third time since Cuadrilla began work in January that the regulator has censured the energy firm for breaches of its environmental permit at Preston New Road near Blackpool.
On this occasion, the Environment Agency (EA) discovered the firm was failing to store its drilling waste correctly. Drilling cuttings are the waste dirt and broken bits of rock removed from a borehole as part of the underground drilling process and may contain naturally occurring radiation and chemicals.
The EA’s inspection report notes that Cuadrilla was using standard metal skips to store the ‘spoilt’ drilling waste. These, it found, were not ‘hydro tested for leaks’ or ‘appropriately certified for integrity’ as required under the agreed waste management plan, which classifies ‘spoiled’ drilling waste as hazardous.
This non-compliance, the EA warned, could ‘foreseeably result in a minor environmental effect’. It ordered the firm to use the correct storage containers and conduct both weekly visual integrity checks and annual thickness testing.
Revelations of this latest breach will do little to assuage local residents’ concerns over Cuadrilla’s fracking plans for Lancashire and beyond. The company has a less than exemplary track record at its UK exploration sites, with breaches of planning permits and environmental controls dating back to 2011.
Nor will it help build confidence in a fledgling industry that has repeatedly promised to operate to gold-plated standards.
Indeed, in July as protests were heating up for a month of action at fracking sites in Lancashire and Yorkshire, the Environment Agency’s oil and gas team chief Mark Ellis Jones warned the shale gas industry it could no longer afford to ignore the rules.
‘Compliance with our environmental permits is probably the most single [important] thing they need to do,’ he told a Westminster Energy and Environment Forum meeting, according to Drill or Drop.
‘This is going to be key to regaining the trust and their social licence in the communities in which they operate,’ said Ellis Jones.
Yet just weeks later on 1st August, the EA spotted Cuadrilla’s drilling waste breach during a site inspection. It has come to light only now because the EA report was not released on the regulator’s public website until last week.
The two earlier environmental breaches this year at Preston New Road recorded by the EA in March were likewise not made public until months afterward. On that occasion, the EA censured Cuadrilla for allowing the illegal discharge of excess water containing silt from its site to reach a downstream local brook’s tributary twice in one week. It also reprimanded the firm for having ‘inadequate’ surface water management systems, which it ordered must be improved ‘to prevent…pollution’.
Cuadrilla says it has now dealt with the excessive surface water, according to minutes from the June meeting of its Preston New Road community liaison group (CLG). The group’s chair however questioned whether Cuadrilla (and the EA) are ‘learning on the job’, and perhaps should have anticipated flooding might arise from heavy rainfall.
Interestingly, the EA inspectors a month after this meeting specifically noted in their August report that 'contingency plans should be in place for periods of heavy or prolonged rainfall and any changes in the normal conditions'. This would, they said, be 'checked at a future inspection'.
At the same June meeting, several CLG members also expressed serious concern over the lack of a site-specific emergency plan for Preston New Road. Cuadrilla’s PR man Sam Schofield argued the fracking site currently did not need to be treated any differently than a construction site; also brushing aside the chair’s concerns over radioactive materials by stating this was the same radium as found in Brazil nuts – a common industry riposte. The minutes show however that most of the attendees, which included local councillors, residents and regulators, voted in support of a bespoke plan to be developed before drilling began at the site in August.
Cuadrilla’s fightback against what it calls ‘myths’ and ‘misinformation’ saw the company earlier this month invite selected journalists to take a look inside Preston New Road. It also livestreamed its own Q&A webcast and first fracking online tour, fronted by an ex-BBC political editor.
The video includes footage showing how the drilling muds and cuttings are processed and separated, but not where the waste is stored.
Well services director Eric Vaughan explained that while the drilling mud is usually re-used to lubricate the drill bit, the drilling cuttings end up in ‘skips’ which are ‘sealed’ and are later taken off to a waste treatment facility.
However, he did not specify whether the drilling mud and cuttings were oil-based (classed hazardous), water-based (non-hazardous) or a combination of both.
Extract: Classification of drilling mud and cuttings from the Cuadrilla Preston New Road waste management plan (originally 2014, updated June 2017)
Environmental Agency compliance inspection report 1 August 2017
- Environment Agency
- Preston New Road
- Drilling waste