Appalachian Basin

Dimock: Never Ask a Passerby for Directions

Anti-natural gas activists in New York have long used the controversy in Dimock, Pennsylvania, as a rallying cry to keep shale development out of the Empire State.  So it was predictable that these groups would work to distort recent testing from the U.S. EPA that found Dimock’s water is safe.

But the argument put forward by activist group Water Defense was surprising. More after the jump.

Here’s what Claire Sandberg, Executive Director of Water Defense, stated in response to the mounting evidence that Dimock’s water wells were not fouled by hydraulic fracturing:

The pre­lim­i­nary results EPA Region 3 has released so far show that 20 per­cent of wells tested con­tain dan­ger­ous con­cen­tra­tions of methane (emphasis added). When the water that flows into your pipes has lev­els of methane that high, you are essen­tially liv­ing inside a bomb that could explode at any moment. And that is not safe.

Sandberg must have thought this is a home-run argument for sowing fear and spreading suspicion about the natural gas industry. There’s only one problem.  Twenty percent represents the normal baseline for methane in private drinking water wells in the Commonwealth. Don’t take our word for it, last month the Center for Rural Pennsylvania released a study entitled “The Impact of Marcellus Gas Drilling on Rural Drinking Water Supplies” the study found:

 [P]re-drilling results for dissolved methane also provided new information that documented its occurrence in about 20 percent of water wells, although levels were generally far below any advisory levels. (Executive Summary, Page 1)

An earlier study that focused exclusively on Susquehanna County, home to Dimock, showed the Catskill Formation (Dimock’s source of drinking water) is highly charged with methane. The 1,700-sample study found methane present in 78 percent of the water wells sampled.

Of course Water Defense’s claims didn’t stop with methane.  The organization’s press release declared hook, line and sinker that hydraulic fracturing is to blame for Dimock’s water woes.  The headline: “EPA Water Test Results Prove Fracking Contamination in Dimock”.

Again, the facts tell a different story.

Specifically, the Susquehanna County study – which rebuts a widely criticized paper out of Duke University – found that the isotopic signature of thermogenic gas in the area is consistent with methane found in the Catskill and Upper and Middle Devonian deposits. From the report:

 The present study, however, shows that the isotopic signatures of … thermogenic methane samples were more consistent with those of shallower Upper and Middle Devonian deposits overlying the Marcellus Shale.  This finding indicates that the methane samples analyzed in the Duke study could have originated entirely from shallower sources above the Marcellus that are not related to hydraulic fracturing activities. (Page 2, emphasis added)

Taking the research further, the Susquehanna County study also reviewed the Pennsylvania Groundwater Information System – a database of wells, springs and groundwater quality throughout Pennsylvania – to determine the structural integrity of private water wells in the area. Here researchers found:

 [M]ost water wells completed in the Catskill formation (bearing significant thermogenic gas) contain only limited grouting, and are unsealed so as to draw groundwater from multiple water-bearing horizons and-or fractures.

Water wells without grouting and sealing run a much higher risk of allowing contaminants to enter the well. This includes highly mobile methane gas molecules, especially if the well is located in a methane charged environment like the Catskill Formation.

Water Defense also claimed that “the test results also showed dozens of other contaminants, including heavy metals and dangerous chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.” Again we see an effort to scare the public into believing Dimock’s water is irretrievably fouled and hydraulic fracturing is the culprit.

However, one need look no further than the Scranton Times Tribune to see the needed context for this claim.  The Tribune reports:

 The results released Friday also showed one well with barium above drinking water standards, but a reverse osmosis treatment system at the home reduced it to safe levels. Arsenic in another well exceeded safe drinking water standards in the raw water but was within the safe limit at the tap.

Other wells contained sodium, lithium, bacteria and lead at levels that triggered an expedited toxicologist’s review, but none was finally determined to pose a threat. Low levels of toluene, petroleum hydrocarbons, the plasticizer known as DEHP and other compounds were also detected in the water supplies.

Aside from context, even the Duke Study rejects the idea that additives used in the hydraulic fracturing process impacted Dimock’s water supply.  From the Duke Study:

 We found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids.

So, what have three years of study, thousands of pages of water testing data, multiple state and federal agency reviews, and the judgment of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Hearing Board taught us?

That Pennsylvania needs private water well standards, the groundwater in northeastern Pennsylvania is anything but pure and citizens need to conduct baseline water testing, and utilize drinking water treatment systems whether or not they live in close proximity to natural gas operations.

We’ve also learned that litigants, and the activist groups that support them, don’t like taking no for an answer.

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