A Case of Poor Casing and Other Well Problems (Water Wells That Is)
Information often takes a circuitous route in being employed in policy discussions. You never know where you might find something useful. Often times it comes from researching the citations connected with reports others have prepared. A fresh pair of eyes can seize on the obvious and bring out something others have missed. Let me offer a case in point. Our friend Nick Grealy, who writes that terrific blog called No Hot Air from the U.K. watches very closely what’s going on our side of the pond and noticed something very interesting in the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission’s recently released report. He saw, on page 108, this little statement (emphasis added):
According to the Penn State Cooperative Extension, more than 1 million water wells serve over 3.5 million residents in Pennsylvania (second only to Michigan), with approximately 20,000 new water wells drilled each year. According to a study financed by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, approximately 41% of private water wells in Pennsylvania failed to meet at least one of the health-based drinking water standards. Poorly or improperly constructed water wells can result in pathways for bacteria and other contaminants, such as naturally occurring shallow methane, to migrate into the potable water supply. Pennsylvania remains one of only a handful of states without statewide private water well construction standards.
Many of us have heard that statistic thrown around before but, Nick, recognizing its importance and being curious asked where it came from, asked where it might have first arisen. A little research on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania website produced the orginal report, entitled Drinking Water Quality in Rural Pennsylvania and the Effect of Management Practices. It’s worth reading for a great overview of the existing situation in Pennsylvania with regard to well water issues, as it was written just before Marcellus Shale development ensued in earnest. Here are some key excerpts and findings that may be derived from the report:
- More than 3 million rural and suburban residents in Pennsylvania rely on a private well for drinking water, and about 20,000 new wells are created each year in the state.
- Pennsylvania remains one of the few states where well location, construction, testing and treatment are the voluntary responsibility of the homeowner.
- Out of 701 water wells examined as part of the study, 96% lacked one or more recommended water well construction components (which include casing, burying of casing, cementing/grouting of casing at the surface, ground sloped away from the casing and a sealed well cap), 84% lacked two or more components, 54% lacked three or more, 13% lacked four or more and 3% lacked all five recommended water well construction components.
- Water treatment equipment was installed on many of the private wells, with 53% having at least one piece of treatment equipment. Half of well owners indicated that they had installed water treatment equipment because of obvious stains, odors or tastes. The other half of well owners with water treatment owned it because they had water test reports showing a problem (32%) or inherited it from a previous owner (20%).
- Overall, approximately 41 percent of the wells tested failed to meet at least one of the health-based drinking water standards. These results apply to raw water and do not include the effect of water treatment devices or bottled water that some well owners used to avoid health-related pollutants. In fact, roughly 25% of well owners with a health-related pollutant was avoiding it by using proper water treatment or by drinking only bottled water.
- Wells with high arsenic occurred mostly in northern Pennsylvania regions, presumably due to the geology of these areas. The three northern regions of the state had significantly higher arsenic concentrations than the southern regions with the highest occurring in the northwest region. Arsenic is thought to originate primarily from natural geologic sources.
- Sedimentary and sandstone/shale bedrock types, which are both comprised of various types of sandstone and shale, predictably produced nearly identical water quality results. These results suggest that the natural geology where a private well is drilled plays an important role in the resulting water quality, regardless of well construction and nearby land use impacts.
- Overall, about half of the homeowner participants in this study had never had their water tested properly (either never tested or only testing was a non-certified lab). Homeowners that participated in this study had rarely followed recommendations. In fact, three-fourths of homeowners had either tested their water quality just once (44%) or had never had their drinking water tested (30%).
- Iron was also reported as a problem by 21% of the study participants. Although this study did not measure iron to confirm it’s presence, the 21% that reported having it in their water agrees with the percentage found to actually have high iron by Sharpe et al. (1985).
- In comparison to natural influences and well construction features, nearby land-uses were less important in explaining contamination of private wells.
It is impossible to read this report without realizing our region was, long before Marcellus Shale was on anybody’s lips, characterized by widespread private water well quality issues relating to the natural geology, water well construction standards or a combination of these. While methane migration is not specifically discussed, the role of poor water well construction in areas of difficult geology is fairly clear. The migration of contaminants into water supplies is facilitated by such poor construction and blaming it on natural gas development is hardly consistent with the evidence. Hydraulic fracturing has zero to do with it.
This is not to suggest methane migration is not an issue or that it cannot be exacerbated by the creation of any well (water or gas) but the facts indicate the more likely culprit is the construction of the receiving well. Moreover, the lack of widespread water testing has obscured these facts from most of the affected landowners. It is only when natural gas development arrives on the scene that many of these landowners learn, via baseline water testing, that there may be a problem, although aesthetic issues may have led many of them to install treatment systems. One of the many benefits of natural gas development, indeed, is the vastly increased knowledge base being created about existing water wells through such baseline testing. As this data gets further analyzed going forward, we can expect to learn much, much more. This will, ironically, lead to improved practices related to both gas and water wells, yielding, in the end, improved water quality across the board – as a result of natural gas development! Now, how about that!