Monday, March 4, 2013

Pa. DEP considers fracking in Dimock water pollution case Tainted water wells in no-drill zone, but fracking allowed

Pennsylvania environmental officials are attempting to track the source of explosive levels of methane in two private water wells in a shale gas field in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

That in itself is not especially newsworthy. The small town in northern Susquehanna County has been the focus of state and national investigations since 2009, when gas linked to nearby drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas seeped into the aquifer and caused a water well to explode. It’s significant, however, that the recent problems emerged in the middle of a 9-square mile area where the DEP banned drilling four years ago due to chronic methane migration problems. It’s also significant that the agency allowed fracking to resume at two nearby gas wells.

 EPA technician collects samples at a Dimock home last year
Photo James Pitarresi 
Dimock, population 1,400, was among the first Pennsylvania towns to feel the expectations and impact of the Marcellus Shale rush. Much of the town was leased for shale gas exploration in 2006 through 2008. Since then, a history of problems and complaints have made Dimock a household name for those questioning the role of shale gas extraction in the country’s energy future.

Last August, Cabot Oil & Gas reached an undisclosed settlement with 32 of 36 Dimock families suing for damages related to pollution of their water wells.  Other lawsuits are pending. Due to widely publicized concerns, the federal Environmental Protection Agency began its own investigation last year. After six months of testing, the EPA found elevated levels of arsenic, barium, manganese, or methane, in five of 64 water wells – roughly 8 percent. It concluded that the concentrations could pose health risks, but those risks were mitigated by treatment systems drilling companies had installed or planned for the homes. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now following up with an evaluation of it’s own.

In recent weeks, investigators, responding to complaints, have found two new cases where methane concentrations in private water wells pose an explosion hazard, said Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the DEP.  The contaminated water supplies are near the Costello and Gesford gas wells. Those wells, drilled into the Marcellus Shale, were fracked last fall, Connolly said.

And this makes the story more than another gas-migration case. The industry has disputed claims that fracking – the use of pressurized chemical solution to break rock and release gas in deep formations – poses a threat to water tables above them. In fact, it has denied that it has ever happened. That denial is at the root of a national controversy that has raised the stakes on the outcome of ongoing investigations by the DEP and the EPA in Dimock and elsewhere.

It is known that methane migration can happen naturally in gas rich zones. It is also known that drilling (apart from fracking) can cause or intensify problems by opening pathways through the aquifer into pressurized zones below. The problem is managed by casing the well bore with cement to seal off the aquifer, a method that is effective but not foolproof.  

Not do be confused with drilling, fracking is done to stimulate the flow of gas after the well bore has been cemented. It’s functionally and technically a separate process from drilling. The industry’s insistence that fracking cannot create pathways for pollution to reach the aquifer has drawn scrutiny in several controversial cases.

An EPA investigation in 2011 found water wells near fracking operations on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Pavillion, Wyoming were polluted with synthetic chemicals, glycols, alcohols, methane, and petroleum hydrocarbons “consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids.” The drilling company implicated in the study, EnCana, has denied responsibility, and the industry is challenging the EPA conclusions.

In a lesser-known case, the Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management concluded that fracking caused an explosion in Bainbridge in 2007. One house was destroyed and 19 other homes were evacuated due to high methane levels.  According to the agency’s investigation, the problem arose when Ohio Valley Energy Systems Corp fracked the well without properly cementing the production casing.  

The most recent problem in Dimock surfaced after a water well near a gas well turned turbid in early February, according to the DEP's Connolly. She declined to disclose the location, but residents report that crews have been working at two affected homes near the intersection of Carter Road and State Route 3023, which are also near gas wells that have been fracked.

Cabot Spokesman George Stark was unavailable for comment today. The company has blamed the problem on a frozen pipe used to vent methane gases, Connolly said.

The water wells have been taken off line, and methane concentrations have fluctuated since the problem began, Connolly said. Regulators have not reached conclusions about the cause of the problem, and they are continuing to monitor the work of Cabot, Connolly said. Cabot contracts Crews were at the site last week with a drilling rig used to service and inspect gas wells.

While there is relatively little documentation associating high volume hydraulic fracking to water pollution -- apart from spills and accidents related to handling fracking chemicals and waste above the surface before and after they are injected into the ground -- risks of methane migration from drilling are relatively well known. In September, 2009, the DEP issued a draft report that found methane migration from gas drilling, had “caused or contributed to” at least six explosions that killed four people and injured three others in Pennsylvania alone over the course of the decade preceding full-scale Marcellus development. The threat of explosions had forced 20 families from their homes. At least 25 other families have had to deal with the shut-off of utility service or the installation of venting systems in their homes. At least 60 water wells (including three municipal supplies) had been contaminated.


  1. Tom,

    Do you know whether the DEP (or anyone else) is currently testing the water wells in the area near the Costello and Gesford gas wells for contaminants other than methane?

    1. Connolly said the DEP is not testing for constituents other than methane. This struck me as odd, given the report of turbid water.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I'm wondering about the casings on the gas wells that were fracked last fall. Could bad casings be responsible for the methane migration and if so, could the casings have allowed other contaminants to enter the water--including, perhaps, contaminants from fracking fluid and/or naturally occurring contaminants that are normally underground at levels beneath the aquifer? Does anyone know if either of the fracked wells has had any casings violations?

      Whatever is going on, it's very striking that this is a case in which methane migration has followed the fracking of the wells (as opposed to the drilling of the wells) and yet is apparently not being extensively investigated (if testing so far has been just for methane). Maybe the fracking had something to do with the methane migration, maybe it didn't. But an investigation is needed to determine what is going on!!!

    4. You would think this would be a huge story...there has been nothing in the news since the statement that it was a frozen is just business as usual in the "patch" or as I call it living in the gasfields...I'm not moving, I want the truth.

  2. "Methane migration" is a euphemism for shale gas pollution.
    What comes out of the distribution pipe is almost pure methane, but what comes out of the ground is mostly methane with a complex and highly variable mix of organic chemicals. While methane is not toxic (although highly explosive), the health effects of the numerous other chemicals is largely unknown. Across the country hundreds of families have reported health problems following shale gas pollution of their drinking water. Also the movement of shale gas through the aquifer almost always stirs up fine sediment making the water cloudy an unpalatable even if it is potable.
    Shale gas does not migrate, which sounds part of the natural cycle. Unlike birds, this pollution does not migrate out of the aquifer and back deeper into the ground with the coming of spring.
    By using "methane migration" you are advancing industry propaganda.
    As notorious as the Dimock shale gas pollution in Pennsylvania today should be the Levant shale gas pollution in New York back in the mid to late 1980s. Hundreds of pages of documentation are available in this incident that DEC had whitewashed.

    1. The Center for Disease Control (CDC)via the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) sort of punts on setting safe breathing levels on methane since it's so explosive. In other words, the acute hazard of getting blown up probably outweigh chronic effects (my guess). In even different words, methane is so ubiquitous in an industrial society that nobody may want to put a number on safe breathing levels - acute or chronic - the state or industry. So it's classified as a "simple asphyxiant." I'm not sure what the word "simple" is suppose to mean here.

    2. Thanks Michael. Good context. Yes, Methane is not known to be acutely toxic when consumed in water. But unpredictable and random household explosions tend to be unhealthy.

    3. If the methane is shale gas methane then there will be radon bound with it. Drinking water with radon will increase the chance of organ cancers.

  3. update-THERE IS NO UPDATE! DEP said they have not made any conclusions yet. Service rig back and still on Costello well.

  4. Thanks for status report. I will follow up this week.


    Hydraulic Fracturing a Danger to us All.

    Why would anyone think we have water to waste.

    Only the wicked in mind Leaders in this Nation and around the world would let anyone Pipe Pollution into the ground to get gas in return from the Ground. Most all scientist have know this for many years that this will end safe drinking water for all that are in the area of where they are fracturing, in which Millions of Gallons of Dangerous Poison Chemically Treated Water are forced underground to break up rock and free gas. We need regulations from GODLY People that will stop 10,000+ wells a year drilled using hydraulic fracturing to free and make the Dangerous Poison Chemicals underground into gas. The primarily affect will be unsafe drinking water and many will become sick. THE HEALTH OF MANY WILL DETERIORATE because of A Few Wicked Greedy Leaders. Those who have made these decisions do not know Jesus Christ. Soon He will say i know you not. They belong in jail soon it will be hell for them. What sick in mind would let or want anyone to put Dangerous Poison Chemicals underground or into the ground anywhere.

    The wicked are trying to sell and tell all if it is not near your home or land it is safe. This is the biggest ling of horse manure. Do they think most of We The People are that dumb or that most Americans lack any intelligence at all. What ever is put on or in the ground makes it way to our underground Aquifers, Rivers, Lakes and the Oceans. Every Scientist on Earth knows this and most all that have made it to eighth grade in school.

    So why would any Leader with a good healthy mind ever say or want this?

    Vote any wicked that has anything to do with this out of office they work for WE THE PEOPLE. Then need to go to jail. Soon it will be not jail but Hell.

    United We Stand In GOD We Trust

    The Lord's Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    Wicked Leaders telling their friends as long as you can cover it up and it will not get back to me it is ok with me. Are you sure we will not go to jail for making money by Polluting the ground and water. Of course not we make the laws to fit our needs not the health and welfare of others or as they used to say We The People. Its now the Wicked Leaders and rich Rule. Till our Lord GOD comes!

    Solar Energy the way to go.
    Many States Are and are Banning Fracking.

    Archimedes and Albert Einstein
    These two are at the top of the list of the World’s Greatest Scientists,
    Viewed by Scientist around the World.

    Sad that for the last 25 years or so of every teacher asked no matter what
    Grade k through 16. At least 80% of them did not know Archimedes. Even sadder 90%
    of them could not tell you what one of the most Brilliant Scientist to ever
    live on Earth. Won the Nobel Prize for.

    It was for the work Albert Einstein did to show the World it could get
    Free Energy, Electric from the SUN. (THE PHOTOVOLTAIC EFFECT).

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