“In this study, statistical analyses of post-drilling versus pre-drilling water chemistry did not suggest major influences from gas well drilling or hydrofracturing on nearby water wells, when considering changes in potential pollutants that are most prominent in drilling waste fluids.”
A recent study conducted by the Pennsylvania State University confirmed statements made by U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and regulators in over 15 states that natural gas production does not impact groundwater. Seeking to find answers to the continually revisited question “does natural gas exploration impact groundwater quality” researchers found no evidence that natural gas production, and hydraulical fracturing, negatively impact private water wells. What the study did find is that private water wells in Pennsylvania have significant levels of pre-existing contamination due to faulty well design and construction standards likely attributable to the fact that Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the nation’s without regulations dictating water well construction and casing standards (the other state lacking this requirement is Alaska). More after the jump.
Methodology and Scope
The study entitled “The Impact of Marcellus Gas Drilling on Rural Drinking Water Supplies” was conducted by researchers from the Pennsylvania State University and was funded by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. It sought to achieve a comprehensive review of groundwater conditions in areas of Pennsylvania overlying the Marcellus Shale and whether natural gas activities affected these conditions. In total, the researchers analyzed samples from 233 private water wells in close proximity to Marcellus Shale operations located throughout the Commonwealth. The study, and data, was broken down into two phases:
- Phase 1: Focused on 48 private water wells located within 2,500 feet of a nearby Marcellus well pad. Researchers collected both pre and post natural gas production water well samples. These sites represent 32 separate Marcellus production sites operated by fifteen different natural gas companies.
- Phase 2: Focused on an additional 185 private water wells located within 5,000 feet of a nearby Marcellus well pad. In these samples only post natural gas production water well samples were taken. In total, the group of wells sampled in phase 1 and phase 2 were located near 141 Marcellus well sites operated by 28 different natural gas production companies.
- Control Group: Consisted of 13 private water wells far removed (5 miles) from any natural gas development
The study re-affirmed data from earlier studies of private water wells in rural areas of Pennsylvania which showed significant contamination due to a lack of contruction standards and specifications in the Commonwealth. Overall findings on the condition of private water well contamination include:
- Approximately 40 percent of the water wells sampled failed to meet at least one of the established Safe Drinking Water Quality Act standards put forward by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- The study’s pre-natural gas production results found dissolved methane in 24 percent of all water wells sampled.
- Many private water well owners lacked awareness of water quality problems in their wells.
What’s more troubling is the lack of construction standards that led to the introduction of these pre-existing contaminants. The study suggested that a lack of a properly engineered and constructed water wells in Pennsylvania could be a widespread phenonmenon. This is noticeable in the below findings:
- 2 percent of private water wells included in the sample set were hand-dug
- 13 percent lacked any visible casing above ground
- 80 percent of the wells surveyed had no sanitary well cap visible in place
- 8 percent of all wells sampled lacked a grout seal designed to keep out unwanted contaminants
No Impacts Found From Natural Gas Production In Marcellus Shale
After extensive review of private water well conditions in pre and post natural gas development, and despite significant data showing widespread shortcomings in water well construction, the research showed that there were no major influences from natural gas production, or hydraulic fracturing, on nearby water wells.
The study also found that there were no statistically significant increases in methane levels in private water wells following natural gas production. It also determined that there are no statistically significant correlations related to methane migration and distances to natural gas production operations.
In addition, the study found no significant impact on water wells from increased total dissolved solids (TDS). The only water wells the survey showed as exceeding drinking water standards for TDS existed in similiar levels in both pre and post natural gas production testing.
The study also found no connectivity between natural gas production and increased barium contamination in private water wells with all samples being well below recommended Safe Drinking Water Act standards. In fact, the highest barium concentration observed in the study existed in one of the control wells which was far removed from any natural gas production.
It is clear from the thorough testing in this study that there are many private water well issues that require significant attention in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What is also clear is that these issues pre-exist natural gas development and reflect a greater need for understanding of private well construction, casing and operation standards by the general public. This study should be a siren call for legislators and non-government organizations to assist rural residents in understanding the complexities of designing, constructing and maintaining a safe and reliable water supply. After all, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors cities across the U.S. expend nearly $93 billion annually to ensure their water systems are reliable and meet U.S. EPA standards. By this metric alone it is clear more resources should be provided to the Commonwealth’s rural residents to help them meet their water quality challenges.
In Case You Missed It
New Study Claims Drilling Has No Impact on Water -WDTV 5, Morgantown, WV
Marcellus Sites Very Little Impact on Drinking Supplies– West Virginia Metro News
Yaw Encouraged by Study on Rural Drinking Water Supplies– Towanda Daily Review
Fracking Study: Little Fouling of Water– Youngstown Vindicator, Youngstown, Ohio
Report Issued on Impact of Marcellus Shale on Drinking Water– Upper St. Clair Patch
*Update 1* November 29, 2011
On November 22, 2011, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, who funded this study, stated that previous water samples in the study linking increased bromide in some water wells to Marcellus Shale activities were the result of an error at an independent lab utilized to analyze samples. Updated data showed that increased bromide levels were recorded in only one water well of forty-two water wells, not seven wells as originally reported.