Gas Drilling Raises Water Well Concerns

Gas well 'fracking' pumps chemical contaminants deep underground.

Published on: Aug 14, 2008

Landowners from New York to West Virginia are rubbing their hands in anticipation of potential windfalls from leasing land for natural gas drilling. And a number have already pocketed deals.

But protecting stream and groundwater quality is of equal or greater value, cautions Bryan Swistock, Penn State Extension water resources specialist. "Decades ago, we weren't careful with coal mining. And, we're still paying huge sums to clean up acid mine drainage. We need to be careful and vigilant, or we could see lasting damage to our water resources from so many deep gas wells being drilled."

Drilleers are trying to tap the Marcellus shale formation, a mile or more down. Relatively new drilling technology employs horizontal drilling and hydraulic pressure to "frack" or fracture the shale layer so trapped gas can escape.

The real risks are…

"Fracking" requires several million gallons of water for each gas well. Some wells may be fracked more than once during their active life, which might span more than a decade, says Swistock. "Where that water comes from, and what the drillers do with it when it's recovered, is a big issue.

Fracking water will also have chemical additives - formaldehyde, benzene and chromates - along with natural contaminants from deep underground when it comes back to the surface. So it needs to be collected and treated or recycled properly. Only about 70% of what's injected is recovered for recycling.

Most municipal sewage-treatment plants can't or won't accept gas-well waste fluids. Another potential hazard from gas-well wastewater is the release of radon and other naturally occurring radioactive materials, notes Swistock.

"Radioactive substances are not uncommon in Pennsylvania groundwater to begin with," he says. And, waste fluids that come with gas production also may contain high levels of salt, metals such as iron and manganese, and traces of barium, lead and arsenic. "Although highly diluted with water, the proper treatment of all gas-well waste fluids is a big issue that needs to be addressed."

Sample well water beforehand

People who live close to gas-drilling operations should have their water tested by a third-party, state-approved lab, advises Swistock. "Homeowners who have their own well or spring and are within 1,000 feet of a gas-well site are very likely to be visited by water-lab employees hired by the gas company," he says. He advises taking advantage of this free testing. Make sure to get copies of the results, which are entitled to by law.

Want to do your own testing? Swistock advises against it. "It's important to have an unbiased expert from a state-certified lab collect the samples in case the sample results are needed for legal action," he explains.

Timing of sampling is also important. Have well water tested within a few months before drilling starts. Once a company has started drilling, it's too late.

If a resident decides to test for any impacts after the drilling has occurred, that needs to be done within six months. Drillers are presumed responsible for any damage to water supplies within six months after drilling has begun.

"The regulation written into Pennsylvania's gas and oil act states that any water supply within 1,000 feet of a gas well is the driller's responsibility for six months after drilling," he says. "If there's any complaint, the driller is guilty until proven innocent. Outside the 1,000-feet distance and six-month time frame, the burden of proof shifts to the homeowner."

Note: Visitors to Ag Progress Days, Aug. 19-21 at Rock Springs, Pa., can learn more about the impacts of the deep-well natural-gas boom in Pennsylvania and have questions answered about the legal, social, economic and environmental issues associated with gas exploration and production. A special program on it will be offered daily in the Ag College theme building

A related Natural Gas Impact Area exhibit in the nearby Ag Renewable Energy Tent -- at West 10th and Main streets – features Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences experts, who will offer advice on natural gas issues.