HDD mud spills force authorities to halt wastewater pipeline construction in NY’s Genesee County

(UI) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put a stop to the construction of a wastewater pipeline meant to serve the Science, Technology, and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) due to multiple incidents of drilling fluid spills in a protected wetland, as reported by Investigative Post (IP).

State environmental regulators had previously cited the project for violations.

In response to three separate spills of drilling fluids onto federally protected land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued an order to cease construction of the wastewater pipeline that was intended to support the Genesee County Economic Development Center's STAMP project.

This shutdown, initiated by the Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday, will persist until the spills are effectively cleaned up, and the necessary reports and plans are reviewed and approved. The state Department of Environmental Conservation had already issued its violation notice the previous week. Both agencies have indicated that fines could be imposed.

This setback represents the latest obstacle for the Genesee County EDC's STAMP project, which was anticipated to bring around 9,000 high-tech jobs to rural Genesee County. STAMP's development has been in progress for over a decade, with the Genesee County EDC currently overseeing the infrastructure construction, including a 9.5-mile long wastewater pipeline. This pipeline extends into Orleans County, where it discharges into the Oak Orchard Creek.

Orleans County had filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt the pipeline's construction. Furthermore, an investigative report by the Investigative Post revealed that if the pipeline were to be completed as planned, it could potentially violate the federal Clean Water Act.

A temporary restraining order issued by an Orleans County judge prevents the pipeline from crossing the county line, but construction within Genesee County is still allowed. The spills and the cease order from the Fish and Wildlife Service are related to the construction of the part of the pipeline within Genesee County.

The drilling fluid, a mixture of water and Wyoming sodium bentonite, has spilled three times since mid-August. This slurry is used to facilitate horizontal drilling for pipelines by solidifying the tunnel walls.

The drilling is taking place along the eastern edge of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, which comprises over 5,000 acres of freshwater wetlands that flow into Oak Orchard Creek and Lake Ontario. In wetland areas, the slurry can increase turbidity, alter water chemistry, and expose plants and animals to potentially harmful chemicals, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The first spill, a minor incident, occurred on Aug. 15, with approximately 15 gallons of slurry spilling and being contained in a roadside ditch. The second spill, reported by the DEC and the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, occurred when contractors were attempting to clean up the first spill. It was discovered that an additional 400 to 600 gallons of slurry had spilled into the regulated freshwater wetland.

The third and most significant spill took place on Sept. 7, involving 100 more gallons of slurry entering the wetlands. It was this third spill that prompted the DEC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take action.

A week ago, the DEC informed the Genesee County EDC that it had violated its permits, with the potential for fines of up to $86,000 per day. The Fish and Wildlife Service's notice last Friday escalated the situation, ordering a complete halt to pipeline construction until the cleanup is completed. In addition to the cleanup, the agency has outlined several requirements, including presenting a report on the causes of the spills, conducting a geotechnical engineering review, developing a monitoring plan lasting one year, and updating the contingency plan.

The Tonawanda Seneca Nation, whose members utilize wells for drinking water, expressed frustration and concern over the spills into the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Grandell Logan, a spokesperson for the Nation, stated to the Investigative Post that the need to stop the drilling and withdraw the permit, citing the potential risks to groundwater.

Representatives from Genesee County EDC, the pipeline contractor G. DeVincentis and Son Construction Co., and the engineering firm Clark Patterson Lee did not respond to requests for comments. Spokespersons for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DEC declined to provide further comments.

This story was originally published by Investigative Post.

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