A Watershed Moment in Bradford County
Opponents of responsible onshore energy development in America are slowly but gradually starting to change their tune when it comes to making their case. After attempting to convince the public that natural gas operations in general, and hydraulic fracturing in particular, were detrimental to water resources, now the focus appears to have shifted to other areas and “concerns.” It’s worth asking: if the development process itself hasn’t changed, why have the opposition’s talking points?
The answer, we think, most likely derives from the fact that the overwhelming body of available evidence on the science of fracturing – as seen in study after study – suggests not only that fracturing can be deployed safely, but, in fact, that it is being deployed safely. The latest addition to this growing roster of science-based studies is an independent analysis of water samples collected in Bradford County, Pa. by EPA as part of the agency’s ongoing HF study. In reviewing the extensive background information and water samples collected before, during, and after natural gas development, the analysis found:
“The plots show that the EPA study well water quality is relatively consistent over time, and that there is no significant deviation in water quality from baseline to post-drilling sampling ” (page ES-3)
The analysis adds, “this concludes that these fifteen water sources do not appear to impacted by natural gas drilling or production activities including hydraulic stimulation.” (page ES-4)
In reaching this conclusion, analysts (commissioned by industry, but not directed by it) reviewed thousands of pages of data from the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Information System and National Uranium Resource Evaluation on the quality of groundwater in Bradford County. The data, which spanned all the way back to 1937 well before natural gas development in the area, was then compared to EPA primary and secondary maximum contaminant levels, as well as EPA screening levels for tap water. Upon this comparison, the historic quality of groundwater in Bradford County became pretty clear. From the study:
“…the total arsenic, total barium, total iron, total manganese, total lead, total lithium, dissolved methane, chloride and total dissolved solids are commonly found in groundwater from water wells in these areas at concentrations that naturally exceed applicable screening standards.” (emphasis added, page 6-3)
The researchers also found that methane in groundwater is a widespread phenomenon in the area, impacting nearly a third of the entire sample reviewed.
“…naturally-occurring dissolved methane was found in detectable levels in groundwater in 1,187 of the 3,773 (31.5%) baseline samples analyzed collectively for the western, central and eastern areas evaluated in this study. Dissolved methane values over 3mg/L were found in 299 of the 3,773 (7.9%) baseline samples, and dissolved methane over 20 mg/L were found in 66 of the 3,773 (1.75%) baseline samples for these 3 areas.” (emphasis added, page 6-3)
The study also examined the historic presence of arsenic in groundwater in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier. The findings of this review corroborated previous results from a USGS study which examined arsenic’s presence in water throughout the United States, including northeastern Pennsylvania and Bradford County, specifically. The recent review found:
“For the eight studied counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, 20% of the wells within the Lock Haven Formation had detectable levels of arsenic and 7% of the wells within the Catskill Formation has detectable levels of arsenic.” (page 2-4)
So in the end, what does this analysis tell us? For starters, it indicates what that the residents of northeastern Pennsylvania have known for some time; that they should pay close attention to the quality of water in their drinking water wells due to natural conditions there.
However, this review also highlights something that folks who follow the debate over hydraulic fracturing have known for awhile: opponents of natural gas may see value in trying to link pre-existing cases of pollution to shale development, but in the end, the science does eventually get out – and the facts are eventually revealed for what they really are. Of course, by the time the final reports are written and released, the activists are usually long gone — off to the next town to spin a narrative and stoke up as much fear as they can.