DEP releases updated details on water contamination near drilling sites

Some 240 private supplies damaged by drilling in past 7 years




Pennsylvania regulators found an array of contaminants in the roughly 240 private water supplies they said were damaged by oil and gas operations during the past seven years.

Most were the usual culprits: methane, metals and salt that had apparently seeped from well sites or been stirred up by the activity of extracting fossil fuels from the earth.

But on May 14, after the Department of Environmental Protection responded to a Susquehanna County resident’s complaint of rank, foamy water, inspectors said they found something else. The water contained volatile organic compounds, ethylene glycol and 2-butoxyethanol — chemicals regulators said were consistent with the surfactant Air Foam that was used to drill a natural gas well 1,500 feet away.

That discovery is contained in records DEP released on Aug. 28, when the department posted for the first time an official tally and supporting documents of water supplies that were damaged by oil and gas activities since the end of 2007. It is the only case where DEP explicitly linked a drilling operation to the presence of industrial chemicals in drinking water.

DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said the chemicals were introduced to the groundwater during the drilling process, not hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the method of freeing oil or gas from deep rock by cracking it with a high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals.

The most recent sampling event did not detect the chemicals in the water, she said, and the company presumed responsible for the contamination, Chief Oil and Gas, is providing the home with a temporary replacement water supply.

A Chief spokeswoman said the company “worked closely and immediately with the landowner and DEP to investigate the cause of the temporary impact to the individual water well and to resolve it in a timely manner.”

But the state and the company do not yet know how the drilling chemicals got into the aquifer that feeds the residential water well.

“That's what we’re trying to determine,” Ms. Connolly said. 

Details released

DEP’s list of water supply impacts reveals interesting if inconsistent details about the types of disruptions that have affected homes, businesses, a church camp, even an orchard with 15 goats, as well as how long those problems last and who is blamed.

Regulators are required by law to determine within 45 days of getting a drilling-related water complaint if oil and gas operations caused contamination or diminished the flow of water. DEP reports its findings in letters to property owners. On some occasions, it also issues orders to companies to fix the damage when the agency determines — or presumes, based on proximity — that a company was responsible for causing the problems.

According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of the letters and enforcement orders detailing the 243 incidents, oil and gas activities degraded water quality in 234 of the cases, either by introducing compounds that weren't there before or by raising them above standards set for reasons of health, safety, taste or appearance. Sixteen water supplies diminished in flow or went dry because of nearby drilling activities, and seven of the water supplies were affected by both pollution and diminution.

Fewer than 200 of the letters and orders identify which compounds were found in the water above drinking water standards or the background levels measured in the water supply before drilling began.

The drilling chemicals found this year in the Susquehanna County water well may be the most alarming contaminants on the list, but by far, the most common pollutant is methane, which was reported in 115 of the damaged water supplies. As DEP describes in the letters, methane can be hazardous when it escapes from water and concentrates in confined spaces, creating a danger of fire or explosion.

After methane, the most commonly elevated compounds are iron (79 water supplies) and manganese (76 water supplies), followed by two markers of salinity: total dissolved solids (29) and chlorides (25).

DEP says many of the complaints have been resolved and the list does not necessarily reflect ongoing impacts. Records for 86 of the incidents specify when the water supply was restored, either on its own or through a remedy provided by a drilling company. Many other letters report steps that operators will or have taken — installing treatment systems, drilling new water wells, paying settlements, patching leaking gas wells. The letters describe 44 of the disturbances as temporary.

Only three-quarters of the letters and orders name a company in connection with a disruption, but 47 different oil and gas well operators are represented on the list. Chesapeake Energy is named in the most letters and orders (25), followed by Cabot Oil and Gas (23), Catalyst Energy (17), Schreiner Oil and Gas (14) and U.S. Energy Development Corp. (12).

Nearly 40 of the letters and orders note that oil and gas operations are presumed — not proven — liable for the problems based on the distance from a water well and the time of the impact.

Few of the documents describe what exactly went wrong, but some provide a glimpse of recurring problems: Methane channels through flawed well bores and abandoned wells or is displaced from shallow pockets during drilling to sputter out of faucets, infiltrate basements and bubble up in streams. Sediment from road, pipeline and pit construction clogs spring boxes. The briny fluids and rock waste that are a byproduct of oil and gas extraction seep into shallow water sources from spills, breached pits or other pathways left undefined.

Number of well impacts fell

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, identified other trends, including a decrease in the number of water well impacts between 2010 and 2014.

“We believe this is attributable to the collaboration between state regulators and the industry to strengthen the regulations that govern oil and natural gas development, including well construction and cementing standards,” spokesman Patrick Creighton said.

More Pennsylvanians rely on private water wells than residents of all but one other state, but the water wells are largely unregulated, and they often fail at least one drinking water standard. All of the most commonly elevated compounds DEP associated with drilling-related disruptions are also frequently present in Pennsylvania groundwater under natural conditions.

Given the number of private water wells — more than 1 million — and the number of conventional and shale oil and gas wells drilled during the time frame covered by DEP’s list — 20,000 — “the percentage of water wells impacted is statistically very low,” Mr. Creighton said.

“First and foremost, as an industry (both conventional and unconventional), we’re working towards zero events and continually refine and improve practices to achieve that goal,” he said. 

Some lasting effects

For property owners, the effect of a water supply disruption can linger years past the date when DEP approves a plan to fix it.

David Buck, who runs Endless Mountain Outfitters along the Susquehanna River in Bradford County, saw the naturally present methane in water wells at two of his rental properties increased after gas wells were drilled nearby. DEP eventually listed his wells among 17 water supplies tainted with methane that Chesapeake Energy was responsible to restore under the terms of a 2011 enforcement agreement that carried a record fine.

The company installed and maintains complex treatment systems on the properties, he said, and the methane levels, though still elevated, have decreased.

But he can’t say he’s completely satisfied with the solution.

The properties are for sale and the treatment systems — which, he estimated, cover a 6-by-4-foot area — “are not just like a little filter down in the basement.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what the loss in value of a property is that’s got a water treatment system on it,” he said. “That effect? I have no idea.” 

List to be revised

The number of affected water supplies has shifted and it will shift again.

In July, DEP gave an early version of its official list to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with 209 entries. By the time it posted its list to its website on Aug. 28, DEP had added 34 cases to reflect new determinations it had made and old determinations that had been overlooked during its first search of its files.

DEP now plans to revise the list to remove five duplicate entries related to a 2010 gas migration case in McKean County, spokeswoman Morgan Wagner said.

It also plans to keep the list updated with new water supply impacts as they are confirmed and add further detail to the list by designating which cases are related to unconventional, shale gas operations versus traditional, conventional operations.

“This interactive spreadsheet represents the first statewide effort to create a dynamic, comprehensive list of all private water supply impacts from oil and gas activities,” Ms. Wagner said. “While the department is confident in the thoroughness of its review, efforts will continue in our regional offices to ensure the information is accurate and up-to-date.”

What the list doesn't include, except on rare occasions, are records of private agreements reached between drilling companies and landowners to resolve water complaints, even when DEP is aware of them.

Three cases on the list, in Washington County last year and Bradford County in February, describe a damage release agreement and a waiver of additional water tests that residents signed with gas well operators after DEP opened its investigations.

DEP officials have acknowledged that the agency doesn’t typically issue violation notices or determination letters or assess fines when water contamination complaints are privately settled.

That practice was sharply criticized in a special audit of the oil and gas program released by the Auditor General in July, which said it gives the impression, whether real or not, that companies can “make a deal” and avoid a blemish on their record. It also risks undercounting the actual incidence of harm.

In an interview, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said that without records of those private settlements, “it’s not an accurate total, and it’s certainly not open and transparent.”

Ms. Wagner said the department is currently revising its compliance and enforcement policy to address privately reached agreements. The policy is expected to be published for public comment soon.

The department is also creating a standard template across regional offices to establish required information and improve consistency in its determination letters and records, she said.

Mr. DePasquale commended DEP for making those improvements and for releasing the information, but he questioned the completeness of the list.

His audit studied 15 instances when DEP made water supply impact determinations, but his office found only eight of those cases on the list posted on DEP's website.

He said the changing totals reveal the depth of the record-keeping problems he identified in the audit.

“A month ago it was 209. Today it’s 243,” he said. “That, to me, is very clear that DEP has a lot of work to do to get full and accurate information.”

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com

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