Friday, March 16, 2012

EPA preliminary results on Dimock water cause stir

The quality of well water in Dimock, Pa. is the center of national attention for activists, journalists, regulators, lawyers, policy makers, and industry officials – all looking for the latest evidence from government studies that will support their cases for or against fracking.

Dimock has become one of the most prolific places in the Appalachian basin for shale gas development, and one of the biggest examples of its impact on communities. Residents here were categorically optimistic about the prospects of leasing land to operators in 2007 and 2008. That began to change in on January 1, 2009, when a residential water well exploded soon after drilling began in the area. An resulting investigation by the DEP found methane had leaked from faulty gas wells into more than a dozen water supplies. Nearly two years later, as more problems were uncovered, John Hanger, then state’s top environmental official during the Rendell Administration, declared the aquifer that supplies certain Dimock homes to be permanently damaged. To make things right, Hanger ordered Cabot Oil & Gas to develop and pay for a pipeline from Montrose to deliver fresh water to the affected residents.

The initiative was defeated after Tom Corbett was elected governor on a pro-drilling platform. Under Corbett, the DEP declared this year that Cabot Oil & Gas had met its obligation to compensate landowners for the pollution and no longer needed to deliver water to residents. The federal EPA responded with an own investigation after reviewing data from previous tests by Cabot and the DEP that, according to an EPA memo, showed "a number of home wells in the Dimock area contain hazardous substances, some of which are not naturally found in the environment." The memo identified drilling operations as a suspect.

There have been other reports of water pollution in Dimock. In 2010, testing by Farnham and Associates, an engineering firm that specializes in commercial waste-
water issues, found traces of hydrocarbon solvents—including ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene -- showing up periodically after heavy rains in the wells of people who also had methane problems

A preliminary report released by the EPA this week spurred more controversy. Results of the first 11 of 61 wells sampled showed traces of some compounds associated with drilling operations, including sodium, methane, chromium, but none of them at levels that presented health risks. Arsenic was detected in two wells at concentrations high enough to warrant more investigation “to better characterize the water quality of these wells,” according to Roy Seneca, EPA Region 3 press officer. Since beginning the investigation in January, the EPA has collected samples at 61 homes, with results from the other 50 homes pending.

The results, far from complete, provided enough for the industry to hold them up as evidence that the water is fine, and to justify reproach aimed at the EPA for butting in. “We hope that lessons learned from EPA’s experience in Dimock will result in the Agency improving cooperation with all stake holders and to establish a firmer basis for Agency decision making in the future,” read a Cabot statement.

Activists, on the other hand, are seeing something altogether different. Julie Sautner points to her well that, according to DEP records, was polluted in 2009 and eventually taken off line after a filtration system set up by Cabot began to malfunction. Julie and her husband Craig are part of a lawsuit filed by 15 families against Cabot seeking damages from pollution. They see the EPA results that show traces of drilling chemicals in samples collected from six of the 11 homes, and results pending for 50 others, as unresolved matters. “I’m not putting myself through this because I have nothing to do,” she said. “Something is wrong with the Dimock water.”

Meanwhile, The DEP is continuing an investigation into new problems and complaints in Franklin Forks, 10 miles north of Dimock, where the agency has found elevated levels of methane in three wells, and pressurized gas hissing from one in an area being drilled by WPX Energy. More results are expected in four to six weeks, said Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the DEP. Officials suspect that the pressurized methane could have passed from gas baring zones into the aquifer along imperfections in cement casings designed to seal off well bores. The EPA is not involved in the Franklin Forks investigation, according to officials form both the DEP and the EPA.

Water tables and conditions that affect them are dynamic systems. Problems may be there one day and gone the next, only to return. That’s why the EPA is calling for follow up tests in some wells for a more complete picture… along with the pending results of 50 others.

6 comments:

  1. EPA's Work Plan didn’t say it would determine if Dimock water met outdated federal drinking water standards, rather if the chemicals present in the water posed a “threat” to human health. No federal MCL limits have been established for many of the chemicals used by the Gas Industry, which are widely known to present medical risks even in small concentrations. EPA’s preliminary test results detected these chemicals, but they seem to be downplaying these results. Lisa Jackson and Region 3 administrator, Shawn Garvin, might have more credibility if they drank a gallon of Dimock water everyday.

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  2. Replies
    1. A preliminary review of a portion of the data can be found at http://pennsylvania-solutions.blogspot.com/

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  3. I have not found this on the EPA website. Here is a copy that spokeswoman Terri-A Whilte sent me:

    On Jan. 19, as a result of requests from residents and a review of the data we had in hand, EPA announced it would perform water sampling at approximately 60 homes in the Carter Road/Meshoppen Creek Road area of Dimock, Pa. to further assess whether any residents are being exposed to hazardous substances that cause health concerns.

    The first round of sampling results is now available for the first 11 homes that were tested during the week of Jan. 23. Sampling results from these 11 homes did not show levels of contamination that could present a health concern. Samples from six of the 11 homes did show concentrations of sodium, methane, chromium or bacteria, but concentrations were all within the safe range for drinking water. The sampling results also identified the presence of arsenic at two homes.

    Out of the 11 homes tested, there are currently three homes receiving an alternate water supply provided by EPA. EPA will continue to provide water to these homes while we perform additional sampling to ensure that the drinking water quality at these homes remains consistent and acceptable for use over time. EPA is also taking a second round of samples from the two homes where arsenic was detected, and although the levels meet drinking water standards, we will resample to better characterize the water quality of these wells. After receiving results from the second round of sampling, EPA will re-evaluate the need to continue providing an alternate water source.

    EPA has offered to meet with all the residents to go over their data and answer any health-related concerns. As further quality assured data becomes available for the remaining homes, we will share with the homeowners in an expedited manner. Our actions will continue to be based on the science and the law as we work to help get a clear picture of water quality for these homes in Dimock.

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  4. thanks for the synopsis...it helps me to focus when I read the course of events..I know what I know and I refuse to rewrite or negate the history of events here..thank you for pointing out what John Hanger said..also the fact that EPA saw test results that alarmed them..

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  5. This is a really helpful blog. You have some great ideas. Waste Water Testing

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