Appalachian Basin

Barium in Pennsylvania Wells – Did You Know?

 Earlier  I had the opportunity to sit down with John Erich, the Emergency Response Program Manager at the PA Department of Environmental Protection Northcentral Regional Office in Williamsport, PA.  Aside from his position with DEP, Erich is a leased landowner in Tioga County, PA with a lot of Marcellus activity occurring around him.  He also served as the former Sanitarian for Tioga County–this last part being why we were meeting. Now before you discount his experience simply because he leased his land, keep in mind that in his position with DEP he only gets to see the negative aspects claimed to be associated with the industry.  He is the person who gets called at 3am if there is an accident, so he has an interesting perspective and a pretty balanced opinion on natural gas exploration and production.

Did you know…

In the 1980s, well before the Marcellus Shale was a household name, Tioga County and parts of Bradford County had a series of barium contamination events that almost shut down a number of restaurants in the area?  The affected area was the Route 15 corridor between Mansfield and Blossburg–about 7-8 miles–and along Route 49.  Public meetings were held across the county to inform the public  and wells were tested to assess the situation.

Background on the Issue Above

Following formation of the U.S. EPA in 1970, states formed their own environmental agencies. Pennsylvania formed the Department of Environmental Resources, now the Department of Environmental Protection. Prior to EPA, the U.S. Public Health Service dictated drinking water standards. When EPA came into existence those standards were changed and the number of contaminants greatly increased. As a result, around 1982, the PA DER Bureau of Laboratories updated their drinking water testing parameters to follow the newer EPA parameters.  In doing this, they now had to test for something many in the office had never heard of: barium. (More after the jump…)

If you are not familiar with  barium, please read about it at the EPA’s website here. In the 1980s, an acceptable level of barium in a drinking water supply was 1 part per million–now the standard is 2 parts per million. Here are current drinking water limit explanations on barium.

During a routine sampling of public water supplies (at the time of the above occurrence), the DER started noticing barium popping up in some pretty high levels (4-11 ppm with most being in the 4-5 ppm) in Tioga County. Because they were testing public water systems (water wells) and not public sewage, the most effected locations tended to be restaurants.  Here it is interesting to note that barium is a chronic hazard, meaning that symptoms usually occur over time and with normal exposure. Erich couldn’t remember any documented cases of illness from the contamination, mostly because restaurants deal with a transient water supply where most customers would not be drinking the barium laden water daily. He said that he would not be surprised if Tioga County had increased cases of high blood pressure, though, from private water wells containing barium without treatment.


Unfortunately, prior to the days of online record keeping files were occasionally purged at DEP to make room in offices, and as a result the original samples are no longer available.  Below is Erich’s account of the findings.

“The type of barium found in Tioga and Bradford counties was barium carbonate, found in [deeper] limestone formations common in the northern tier of Pennsylvania. In this part of the state barium is found geologically in very concentrated numbers. They found many types of well construction; shallow dug wells with “perched water tables in clay, gravel aquifer wells along water courses and deeper drilled “rock’ wells. It was these deeper wells drawing water, at least in part, from consolidated formations containing limestone and hence barium carbonate that had elevated barium concentrations.”

“Good quality water wells were typically dug 50-90 feet in the glacial moraine. Shallow wells, 15-30 feet, typically had issues with bacteria and nitrates. Deep wells, greater than 100 feet, showed high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), sodium, barium, manganese, iron, and in a few cases arsenic (specifically around Millerton). One example of where they found barium was in Blossburg on the north side base of Bloss Mountain which was drilled for a public water supply but never used because of the barium concentrations.  Erich said if wells were dug deep in Lawrenceville, they would more than likely run into barium problems.  In Wellsboro at “The Muck” on Route 287, if they drill below the  gravel  aquifer they will hit barium as well. Wellsboro plans to develop a water source in this area and is aware that they must not penetrate into the barium carbonate geology.

One thing he noted was that he was surprised to find that there was little natural interconnection between wells. This means that water pumps could bring up the contaminants if used heavily (e.g, a water pump serving an apartment building), but because of their weights, there were virtually no cases of deeper wells communicating with shallower wells and passing on the contamination.

Erich finds this to be a very interesting piece of information in relation to hydraulic fracturing.  He said it shows that with proper casing, the chemicals, which are heavy, will not naturally progress upward. He said they would have to be pumped into the aquifer, so it is unlikely that fracturing water can contaminate groundwater supplies. When people ask him if he is afraid of fracturing near his home, he tells them that he is most concerned about his water during vertical operations which pass through fresh water aquifers.  Some of these operations can be close to 1000 feet deep.  Therefore it is very important that the protective gas well casing and cement grout are constructed carefully.  This means casing must not have any defects and cement must be pumped carefully and allowed to set, in the water industry the guidance is at least 24 hours, before continuing the drilling process. 

He’s not worried about  hydraulic fracturing, and with his position as the Emergency Response Program Manager, he has investigated many incidents in this area and knows perfectly well what  could go wrong.  Knowing his background, this spoke volumes to me about how misinformed the public is on the topic of hydraulic fracturing.


To remediate barium contamination well owners have two solutions.  They can either find a new source of water or put  a treatment system in place. In the 1980s, most chose treatment systems. Some people used softeners (sodium chloride) that would bond with the barium and clean it up or Green Sand. Others chose to put in reverse osmosis systems that remove the barium completely.

According to Erich, today if someone were to claim that drilling is the cause of barium in their water well, DEP would first look at the geology of the area surrounding your home as this plays a key factor in determining if you are located in an area with high concentrations of barium. They would then measure the depth of your well to see if it goes into the limestone formations below the aquifers, and Erich said he would hope a resident already had a baseline test conducted to show what their barium levels have been.

Why Is This Important?

Natural gas seems to be the new scapegoat anytime anything negative happens in the Commonwealth. From methane to barium, landowners are claiming contamination from natural gas operatrions nearby. Stray gas can occur from the production process, but it also can be pre-existing in water supplies or be found when digging for them.  Barium was a relatively new accusation, and when DEP released the results of a recent outcry we have been covering, it started to come to light that barium problems have been pre-existing in these counties for quite awhile (and not just because of the Bell Landfill Superfund Site). It is important for homeowners to be educated on this topic and to have their water tested, whether natural gas production is happening nearby or not. 

We will be adding to this in the future, so keep a look out for more information and most importantly thank you, John, for taking the time to meet with me.

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