The History of Pennsylvania Water Quality
The last Franklin Citizens for Truth informational meeting included a host of speakers from WPX Energy, Williams, and others who came to educate members of the community about natural gas development and the infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) accompanying it. Every speaker was impressive and informative; however, the one who stuck out for me was Licensed Professional Geologist, Brian Oram. This meeting gave me another opportunity to learn about Pennsylvania’s water quality history and how the elements currently found in many people’s drinking water are, typically, naturally occurring.
I give credit to the Franklin Citizens for Truth group for bringing someone with Oram’s credentials to speak. He is truly educated on this issue and is a terrific resource for anyone looking to get baseline testing done or who has questions about water quality and hydraulic fracturing. The best part for landowners is this: he’s independent and will explain their test results for free. Here is his experience, as well as the link where you can find his resume.
Mr. Brian Oram is a licensed professional geologist, licensed Well Driller, Professional Soil Scientist, and licensed Sewage Enforcement Officer in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with over 20 years experience in conducting hydrogeological investigations related to water supply development, contaminant migration, wetland mitigation, and land based wastewater disposal systems. With respect to land based wastewater disposal, Mr. Oram’s primary expertise is in site selection and evaluating large volume wastewater disposal systems, spray irrigation, conducting permeability assessments, hydrogeological studies and nitrate nitrogen loading assessments. Mr. Oram has conducted environmental training workshops related to water quality testing and analysis, groundwater quality, on-lot wastewater disposal, lake management, and the development of citizen monitoring programs. – Wilkes University Center for Environmental Quality.
During Oram’s presentation he provided a lot of information on why baseline testing is so important. He also reviewed the history of private wells in Pennsylvania which so many people seem to either not know or have forgotten. Before anyone attacks Oram for being “Industry” he made it very clear he does not work for any operators and has turned down every master service agreement he was ever offered. He is here to serve the community and anyone looking to educate themselves on water quality. There was no fear or emotion throughout the presentation, just the facts.
We can’t forget past activities when trying to establish a baseline. We have a past history here and in order to separate the fact from fiction in contamination claims, we need to be aware of this history and have adequate baseline testing done for every homeowner. For instance, did you know during the civil war soldiers were buried after being embalmed with arsenic.
Embalming is a process in which a body is preserved until burial or transport. From the Civil War, until about 1910, arsenic was the main ingredient used in embalming fluids throughout the country. Between the period of 1880 and 1910 it would be fair to assume a large cemetery, or collection of cemeteries in a given community, might include as many as 2,000 bodies. If half of those were embalmed with arsenic, using six ounces of fluid per person, the cemetery would contain 380 pounds of arsenic. If the embalmers in the area used more arsenic, such as three pounds per person (which wasn’t rare) then the cemetery would contain over one ton of arsenic. This is a potent amount of toxic material to put in the ground especially so close to water aquifers. As we look at our baseline tests now and see the traces of arsenic or other elements present in some, its easy to point fingers at the gas industry, but we need to start looking at the whole picture for answers.
Who’s Really at Fault
Again, its very easy to blame an industry and “poorly constructed” gas wells but, what about poorly constructed water wells? Pennsylvania has no standard for water well construction, meaning anyone can go drill a hole to receive water and call it a well. Some of the water wells in the area are decades old. These water wells have the potential to fail, just like gas wells. For example, near Nicole’s property wells have to be vented for methane and sulfur and have been for years prior to any natural gas development. These issues are likely due to placement and poor water well construction.
Many private wells are poorly constructed. Water wells are drilled too deep, I have seen some drilled as deep as 900 feet. Saline and brine solutions are naturally occurring and found around 300 feet. So when you drill to 900 feet you go through that saline and brine essentially contaminating your well instantly.
Even the placement of wells can influence the pollutants found in the water. People shouldn’t just care about the natural gas industry. They need to ask things like, “was there an old gas station nearby,” “is there an old dump close,” or “has the well ever been vented for methane or sulfur.” When Cabot was seismic testing in Susquehanna County they found methane at only 20 feet! There are many other elements that can affect water quality besides natural gas development. Instead of taking a step back and looking at facts, the gas industry is instead scapegoated based on emotion and fear.
I have baseline tested areas with no gas development at all. 49% of the people had water you couldn’t drink because of bacteria. 20% of these had e-coli and arsenic above the drinking water limit. We are also finding elevated levels of barium. Again this is in an area of no natural gas development.
These naturally occurring problems are due to poor water well casing and construction. Another issue is the type of pipe used in the constructions process. Many people with black coil pipe down their wells are experiencing elevated levels of contamination. According to Oram, this contamination is due to the black plastic and how it releases plasticizers. These issues were not known at the time of water well construction.
Addressing the Problems
Oram is very clear in his presentations there is potential for surface spills or migration of methane due to structural issues with natural gas well casings or disturbance from the drilling process. However, he also acknowledges the strides being made and technological advances to mitigate these risks.
As any industry progresses and matures, it adopts new procedures and better regulations. Companies have increased the number of strings of cement and steel in their casing. DEP has increased regulations and the time cement must set before continuing with the development process. Developers have also switched to air and compressed gas when penetrating the aquifer and often for the entire vertical leg of the well. The industry started utilizing a closed loop drilling process to help in the prevention of surface spills, meaning no produced water or additives are stored in open containers. Pennsylvania’s DEP also increased the baseline testing requirement to 2,500 feet from the well head, and many companies are going even further to 4,000 or more feet. Industries saw problems and made the fix. The only problem not solved is the poorly constructed private well.
No matter what we do and how we make the activities we do better, until we identify a fix for the private wells that are inducing contamination we will never solve that problem.
We need to understand there is a water history in Pennsylvania as well as the rest of the nation. There have been past factors that are contributing to water quality issues now. Its time to stop beating this dead horse and stop scapegoating an industry that has brought economic prosperity to the area. We need to work together to address other factors contributing to the problem and prevent future issues.