Fracking and Groundwater Contamination? It's Complicated

  • John Fair of the Woodlands, Connoquenessing Township, in front of a well he says went bad after drilling began three years ago. Photo: Reid Frazier

  • Rev. Lee Dreyer wheels a case of bottled water at White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church, where a water-drive helps families who say natural gas drilling damaged their groundwater. Photo: Reid Frazier

  • A well near the Woodlands drilled by XTO went into an abandoned coal mine in June, sending polluted mine water into a stream and impacting groundwater nearby. Photo: Reid Frazier

  • Mailboxes at the Woodlands. A total of 36 families receive drinking water from a church. Photo: Reid Frazier

July 11, 2014

Every Monday, Lee Dreyer wheels out big cardboard boxes from an old Sunday school classroom into the parking lot of his church. Dreyer is pastor of the White Oak Springs Presbyterian church, in Renfrew, Pa. It’s located on a country road about an hour north of Pittsburgh.

People pull up in cars and trucks, and load the boxes in the back.

What’s in the boxes? Jugs of spring water. You’ve heard of a food drive? Dreyer runs a water drive—the Water for Woodlands.

He’s been doing it for two years.  The church buys the water using donations and gives it to 36 families from the nearby neighborhood called the Woodlands. Many in the neighborhood blame problems with their water on drilling rigs nearby.

Dreyer has seen the water first hand.

“It was about the color of used motor oil. It’s just this brown, rusty–looking water. And it smells,” he says. “I don’t think there’s too many people around who would want to drink it or cook with it.”

‘CAN’T DRINK IT’

One of the regulars on Mondays is John Fair.

Fair says he drilled a water well three years ago at his home. The water was perfect, he says. Then it started smelling bad—like rotten eggs. It looked like mud.

“You can’t drink it—you just keep doin’ what you do with it. Do your wash take your shower and do your dishes. That’s all you can do—you can’t use it for drinking or anything,” he says. 

Three years later, he gets all his drinking water from the water drive.

At his home in the Woodlands, Fair turns on the water in his sink. The hot water smells of sulfur. The cold water tastes like rust.

“Is that the way water’s supposed to be?” he asks.

Rex Energy, which drilled 65 gas wells nearby, initially provided Fair and his neighbors with drinking water. But that ended in 2012, when the state said gas activities were not the cause of the water problems.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental protection found water had high levels of iron and manganese before drilling began. The EPA agreed.

Some in the Woodlands say they’ve had problems with their well water in the past—that it smelled bad, or that after rainstorms it became dirty. But they say it got worse when drilling commenced. Some reported becoming violently ill. Some of them, including Fair, are suing Rex.

DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM

What went wrong with the water? John Stolz is a microbiologist at Duquesne University who’s trying to answer that question. He’s looked at the same data the DEP has.

“We see that a lot of the well data that we have (shows that) the wells are impacted by mine drainage—and that’s what the signature says—it’s mine drainage,” Stolz says. 

Mine drainage—not brine from gas drilling or chemicals used in fracking. The area does have abandoned coal mines nearby. Maybe mine water has been in the wells all along? From the interviews and tests he’s done, Stolz thinks the water got worse around the time drilling began. 

“A good number of people are without potable water, (and) it seems to coincide with when the drilling commenced and went full bore, so to speak,” he says.

With funding from the Heinz Endowments and the Colcom Foundation (which also support The Allegheny Front), Stolz is trying to piece together an answer. He says, it’s a complicated picture underground.

“If we were pristine—no one ever drilled a well in Pennsylvania, or mined a mine, it would be a lot easier. But we have close to a million wells that have been drilled prior to this,” he says. “That’s a lot of holes in the ground.”

Stolz thinks maybe one hole in the ground might have influenced another.

But Rex Energy disputes this interpretation. The company didn’t return phone calls for this story, but in the past has stood by the state’s findings—that its activities had nothing to do with water problems in the Woodlands.

Water contamination concerns have followed the boom in the state’s Marcellus shale gas fields since it began. Gas activities damaged groundwater in more than 160 cases across the state, according to DEP records obtained by the Times-Tribune of Scranton.

And last month, a drilling rig north of Pittsburgh punched through an abandoned coal mine, forcing mine drainage into a nearby stream and impacting groundwater in nearby homes.

But these incidents represent the minority of cases in a state with more than 8,000 Marcellus Shale gas wells—and the industry points out that the state has steadily improved its drilling rules, including a revamping of well construction standards in 2011.

Still, few hard numbers exist on how safe shale gas drilling has been for groundwater.

PUTTING NUMBERS TO GROUNDWATER CLAIMS

Sue Brantley is a geochemist at Penn State who’s trying to change that. She’s been putting together groundwater tests from across the Marcellus region.

Her project, called the Shale Network, is funded by the National Science Foundation, and has over one million of these data points so far. But she wants more.

“The data we’re really interested in right now—is data collected by gas companies before drilling began,” she says.

Before they drill a well, gas companies typically test nearby groundwater. This can help shield them from contamination claims. But these results are locked away, because legally, they’re the private property of the homeowner, like a patient’s medical records.

There’s another hurdle for scientists like Brantley: the legal system. In cases of alleged groundwater contamination—landowners will often sue a drilling company.  

“Very often companies will settle with people if they’ll sign a non-disclosure agreement. And then the data doesn’t come out—and that’s a big loss,” she says. "Wherever there really is a problem and there’s been a lot of data collected—that’s exactly where scientists would like to look at the data and that’s usually where it’s very hard to get data."

Brantley might have found a work-around. Gas companies send their results to the DEP. Her lab is working with the DEP to take identifying information like names and addresses out of these tests and put them into her database. Slowly, a picture is starting to emerge, she says. 

“We have not found a lot of incidents from shale gas,” Brantley says. “There are some for sure—but there aren’t a lot of them.”

ROCKY PICTURE

Another problem for scientists is nature itself. Fred Baldassare is a former DEP geologist. He’s been studying underground methane migration.

In a study he did with help from gas companies, he found gas that looked like it was from the Marcellus Shale was actually hanging out in rocks closer to the surface.

He thinks this has tricked other researchers into thinking gas found in shallow parts of the ground was the result of drilling or fracking in the Marcellus Shale. 

“Some were saying when you see that deep gas—that it must be from Marcellus—we’re saying that’s not an accurate statement,” Baldassare says.

The confusing nature of studying the underground doesn’t obscure Baldassare’s overall assessment: that there should be a way to do fracking without contaminating groundwater. And that the industry’s practices now are better and safer than they were five years ago.

“You look at what the industry is doing in 2009 versus 2014—it’s like day and night,” he says.

But exactly how safe is it now? To figure that out, scientists say, more study is needed.