Appalachian Basin

Spiking the Facts in Head Space Games

Recent articles in the Scranton Times-Tribune (here and here) reported on a methane spike at the home of Craig and Julie Sautner, the  litigants who parade around the Northeast with jugs of untested dirty looking water.  The latest articles added to the story but, as has been all too typical, ignored some important details, beginning with the fact the Sautners have refused to allow regular testing of their well, there was no gas exploration taking place in the area  and the methane spikes were in the wellhead space, not the drinking water.  These head space games leave the casual reader thinking normal spikes in methane levels have endangered drinking water quality when the truth is precisely the opposite.

The first news article, to be fair, did allow Cabot’s spokesperson to point out the test result was “an anomaly that could be impacted by seasonal or weather-related effects”  and noted “gas migration underground is affected by changes in barometric pressure, temperature and precipitation.”  It also quoted DEP spokeswoman Freda Tarbell as saying “she could not characterize if the test results were a spike or part of a trend.”  Well, perhaps it’s worth examining the following plotting of dissolved methane test results conducted on the Sautner well by independent contractors employed by Cabot (see here and here) and against the 7 milligrams per liter (mg/L) standard involved in the Cabot/DEP Consent Order:

There are several things to notice.  First, note the continually declining level of dissolved methane.  Second, the methane levels  consistently met DEP standards from May, 2010 until November of that year, when a short spike occurred but the Consent Order allowed for this with a 75% rule (see page 9) that anticipated spikes in an area with well documented existing methane.  Third, it is noticeable that when this spike occurred, it was short-lived and methane levels quickly went back down well below the DEP maximum.  Finally, it is important to realize regular testing stopped in late 2010 when the Sautners refused to allow anything other than sporadic testing by Cabot, even though it was specifically provided for in the Consent Order as a condition of receiving delivery of alternative water supplies.  The Sautners have not honored the terms of the Consent Order and, as a consequence, there is only limited test data to accurately evaluate patterns with their well since that point.  Notwithstanding this, the two dissolved methane tests the Sautners did allow in 2011 (on July 20 and August 9) resulted in “non-detect” readings – that is to say there was less than 0.026 mg/L of dissolved methane, the detect threshold.

The Scranton Times-Tribune articles, unfortunately, didn’t report the specific numbers for the Sautner well or their duration, and provided no historical context, giving the impression a recent spike was evidence of unresolved methane contamination.  But, the spike in question had nothing to do with dissolved methane levels and everything to do with gas in the well headspace.

Indeed, the test done in September that Craig Sautner has been speaking about at every opportunity and, which was the last occasion when he would allow any testing at his home, could not be taken in the normal manner because his well pump wasn’t working.  When the laboratory visited the Sautner’s residence to collect the sample from their water well, they were informed the relay switch in the well pump was not working and would likely not be repaired until the following week.  However, methane screening was performed at the Sautner’s well head, the Consent Agreement providing for both types of testing.  The free gas measurement in the headspace of the well was 20% CH4 by volume, well below the 28% actionable level.  It was obtained by accessing the screening port in the well head vent.

Note the word “vent.”  The Sautner well is vented  to ensure this free gas does not become a problem by accumulating in enclosed areas of a structure where it could become combustible.  Therefore, there was no problem with the water itself, excepting that some folks are deliberately playing head space games by implying the gas in the wellhead space is the same as dissolved methane in the water.  It is not, and spikes in the former have no bearing on the latter, even though that can also spike from time to time under normal conditions, as the data above illustrates.  There is no particular correlation between the two numbers, although the Scranton Times-Tribune and others seem to miss this point.

Regardless, spikes are common in wells with methane issues, regardless of the presence or non-presence of natural gas exploration nearby.  There is no on-going natural gas development activity in this immediate vicinity.   A recent study from Japan regarding Spike-Like Concentration Change of Methane found “peaks of methane concentration appeared when the groundwater level increased quickly.”  It concluded “Spike-like increases of the methane concentration in groundwater were observed when the groundwater level changed quickly” and could be reproduced by a logistic model that treated the methane supply into groundwater as a function of the groundwater level change.  It further suggested the methane concentration in groundwater is “controlled by the hydrostatic pressure gradient in the aquifer.”

The weather, in other words, is a major factor.  Significant differences in methane can be caused by atmospheric conditions.  Lower barometric pressure can cause out-gassing from a formation to increase or cause methane that is trapped in some part of the formation to move.  This would not mean a new release from any source – just a release from a “gas pocket” attributable to changing pressures.  Gas exploration is not required to effect such changes – they are a normal result of the kind of weather the region has been facing recently.

There are other possible explanations for the recent spike in the wellhead space gas reading (remember, now, the last dissolved methane readings were non-detect).  One of these is the lack of regular pumping and purging of the water supply, which allows gas to accumulate.  And, guess what?  The pump wasn’t working.  Frankly, the only thing surprising is that the reading wasn’t higher under those conditions but that’s probably because the system is vented.  Could Cabot’s activities have caused the spike?  No, as there is no natural gas development activity occurring in that area and there hasn’t been for years, although one certainly hopes that will change soon.  The methane levels in this area are high by nature and have been for a long time.  Spikes in both head space and dissolved methane readings will occur in these situations regardless of gas exploration.  Cabot has documented this itself with its own baseline water testing.  The following data assembled for presentation to DEP tells the story:

The key point that must not be overlooked, however, is the lack of regular testing during 2011 that would allow the discernment of patterns from beginning to end.  That has not been possible because the Sautners have only periodically allowed testing to suit their purposes, presumably connected with ongoing litigation.  It is not the program envisioned by the Consent Order and has resulted in the Sautners continuing to receive free water even though there is no proof they need it, the methane spikes (regardless of type) being easily controllable with a combination of filtering, venting and frequent purging of wells.  Cabot made the case for that here and DEP has now agreed.

Cabot has been completely transparent in its activities, has offered treatment systems, which the Sautners have refused to accept while simultaneously maintaining their water is contaminated and refusing testing on a regular basis.  This has created a limbo world where everything is stopped and allowed the Sautners to make their extended bid for fame.  It has allowed them to shout “contamination” and recite lists of other non-methane contaminants when there is not even one with levels exceeding EPA drinking water standards.  Fortunately, DEP is now bringing that abuse of the system to an end.  It was time to do so.  It’s also time for the Sautners and some others  stop playing head space games and spiking the facts!



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