Sunday, November 11, 2012

After 5 years, water remains focus of drilling debate Transparency issues still hamper knowledge base

When Marcellus production ramped up in Pennsylvania five years ago, questions arose about the volume, contents, and endpoint of the waste it produced and its impact on water supplies.

If we knew then, what we know now….

We still wouldn’t have known much. Despite advances in public awareness of the risks and rewards of drilling, what a land play looks like, the sums of money at stake, the role of shale gas in domestic energy production, and technical aspects of high volume hydraulic fracturing, precisely tracking the shale gas waste stream and determining its impact on water supplies remains a politically complicated task. And it’s a task hampered by an inconclusive, and often conflicting body of science and policy initiatives.

So the work continues. Last week, news on several fronts demonstrated both the level of commitment to assess and address problems, and the amount of work still to be done by scientists and policy makers. Here’s a summary:

BROMIDES IN THE WATERSHED: High concentrations of bromides, one of the many constituents of drilling waste, are often a signal of larger water quality problems related to Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), a unit that generically quantifies concentrations of all soluble material in a given water sample. These include various constituents of drilling waste, including brines and metals.

With the onset of the Pennsylvania Shale Gas Boom from 2008 through 2010, TDS levels spiked in major Pennsylvania watersheds, including the Monongahela and Allegheny river systems. The spikes coincided with the disposal of drilling waste to municipal treatment plants that were not equipped to treat it. After TDS levels hit crises levels in the Mon, the Pennsylvania DEP drafted new rules, under Chapter 95 of Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Laws, to discourage the disposal of drilling waste at treatment plants by setting TDS ceilings for incoming shipments. But many plants ended up grandfathered into the old standard, and the industry found other ways around the new rule, and the problem persisted.(More on tha here) After repeated calls for the industry to voluntarily stop taking drilling waste to plants ill equipped to handle it, TDS levels have recently dropped dramatically in the Mon River. (See Friday's Associated Press report here.) But they remain a problem in the Alleghany. See the Trib Live report here. The picture is complicated by other factors – including mine drainage -- that influence TDS pollution.

EPA STUDY: With the presidential election decided and the future leadership and direction of the EPA no longer an uncertainty, a leading agency official provided an update Friday on a critical federal study to assess the impact of fracking on groundwater. EPA Science Advisor Glenn Paulson reported that a progress report on the study would be released on schedule by the end of this year (within seven weeks). The final study will be submitted for peer review in 2014.

The EPA endeavor includes analysis of data from 21 research projects in several drilling states to determine if and how the country’s natural gas boom and fracking in particular is affecting drinking water. Paulson gave the update at the University of Pittsburgh’s annual conference on the health effects of shale drilling. Trib Live’s Timothy Puko reported that Paulson told a crowd of about 150 people that the EPA effort “has the promise to be pretty close to definitive on the drinking water/fracturing issue ... as anything else that’s going on.”

AP’s Kevin Begos also covered the conference, where Paulson built high expectations for the study’s significance. Begos reports:

Paulson said the study of fracking and drinking water “is one of the most aggressive public outreach programs in EPA history.” He said the progress report will show the “range and depth” of what EPA is looking at, and will be open to public comment.

“It will really be a lot for experts to chew on in their particular fields,” Paulson said, noting that EPA is reaching out to geologists, academic experts, the industry, environmental groups, and even Indian tribes.

The EPA study was commissioned in 2010 by members of Congress, who challenged the industry’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The exemption, known as the Halliburton Loophole, was granted under the Bush/Cheney administration to help encourage shale gas development.

While the EPA”s work is reportedly progressing on schedule, the agency may not be able to complete its wish list of objectives, according to Puko’s report. Specifically, Paulson told the Pittsburgh audience that officials have been unable to get industry cooperation for access to well fields in Washington County or other areas to conduct a series of controlled tests to gather localized water quality data before and after drilling.

DEP TESTING PROTOCOL: Earlier this month, Pennsylvania State Rep. Jesse White called on state and local authorities to investigate the DEP for fraud and misconduct – charges stemming from allegations that the agency manipulated water quality data in reports to residents in drilling districts.

The DEP has a long-standing policy of releasing results that are filtered through agency officials rather than a complete set of raw data, according to agency Secretary Michael Krancer. Officials have defended this practice as a tool to screen relevant data from noise.

White sees the practice as an easy and convenient tool to manipulate data. He cited an example stemming from testimony of a state official in a lawsuit brought by homeowners against Range Resources and the DEP. DEP Bureau of Laboratories technical director Taru Upadhyay testified that agency employees use a ‘Suite Code’ that limits information coming back from the lab to the field office, and ultimately to the property owner. For example,. Suite Code 942 reports results for only eight of 24 metals in the test: barium, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium and strontium. It doesn’t report results for silver, aluminum, beryllium, cadium, cobalt, chromium, copper, nickel, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, tin, titanium, vandium, zinc and boron.

Authorities defend the practice as a long-standing and sound method to filter noise from relevant data. Although metals excluded from the report might be byproducts of drilling, the DEP does not consider them to be prevalent and typical markers of a drilling-related problem. According to Krancer, “Professional staff, trained in evaluating water complaints, utilize the relevant data and information to inform their conclusions. Although other results are generated by the lab tests, such results would not contribute to answering the question at hand--determining whether there is a connection between the gas well activities and the water supply.

Critics argue that the fields blocked by the suite code are useful indicators of drilling contamination and other problems. Moreover, homeowners have a right to all results of water quality tests that can flag health risks.

Looking for a non-partisan voice in this, I will offer the reflections of John Hanger. Hanger is the former DEP Secretary who often comes to the defense of shale gas development and the DEP’s handling of regulations. But not this time. He has called on the agency to release comprehensive test results as a matter of policy. He told Rachel Morgan of Time On Line:

My view is that the (DEP) should release all the test results of any substances found,” he said. “It’s just better to release all the substances to the owner of where the water was taken, whether or not the pollutant of substances (found) are relevant to an investigatory purpose. It would concern me if the department found a high (concentration) of a substance that posed a threat to the health of the owner and would not release it.

The questions of bromide levels in rivers, the status of the EPA study, and the controversy over the DEP testing protocol represent just a few of the dynamics in the matrix of developing science/policy/politics that will shape long-term viability and economics of shale gas development. It’s been a long and grueling process. Don’t expect it to end anytime soon.


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