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The Shale Game Part 2: Water

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010



Natural gas has been trapped deep below the surface of Pennsylvania for eons. But only in the past two years has the industry begun in earnest to tap the rich gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale — a layer of rock thousands of feet down that runs from New York to West Virginia. Gas companies sunk nine hundred wells into the Pennsylvania Marcellus this year. With this new area in play, residents have a lot of questions. The most frequently asked: what will be the impact on their water. In part two of our series The Shale Game, WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens searches for the answer.

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Krafjack: We have carrots here. Spinach is done. There’s scallions, two kinds of lettuce, beets…

The view from Emily Krafjack’s property in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania.

The view from Emily Krafjack’s property in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania.

Emily Krafjack’s garden in Mehoopany Pennsylvania offers a panoramic view of Wyoming County. A bright red barn, horses munching grass, and off in the distance, a crease in the hillside where the Susquehanna River courses through. Four hundred feet down the road from her house, a gas company recently laid out a well pad and starting digging a well that will reach thousands of feet into the earth.

Krafjack: You stand up there at the well site and look at the house. It’s very close. [Laughs] It don’t look so bad from this view.

A year ago, before the construction began, Krafjack had noticed that gas company trucks were gathering at her neighbor Jim’s house.

Krafjack: I knew something was up. At a township meeting that night he pulls me aside and says they’re putting a well pad across the road from your house. And the first thing I said was, Jim, what about my water?

Krafjack had heard horror stories of people who could light their taps on fire, rivers that ran salty, and spills of hazardous chemicals — all due to natural gas drilling. She decided to have her well water sampled before the drilling began, so she could monitor any changes.

Emily Krafjack decided to continue testing her well water as a natural gas well is constructed 400 feet from her house.

Emily Krafjack decided to continue testing her well water as a natural gas well is constructed 400 feet from her house.

Krafjack: We haven’t had any problems with any of the water since they drilled. I was expecting some sediment or something during the drilling process. But we had nothing.
Grens: Do you feel secure or will you continue to test?
Krafjack: Oh, I’ll continue to test. I know they’re going to start fracking soon and so maybe after that we’d be looking at testing.

Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — sends a blast of sand and fluids in the well bore to crack open the shale and release gas deposits. The process is unnerving for some residents, because the fluid includes dozens of chemicals.

Theo Colborn is the president of the environmental research organization called The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, which has been an outspoken critic of gas industry drilling practices — particularly, fracking.

Colborn: We’ve been trying to get a handle or an idea of what they’re using. What are the products that are being used? What kinds of chemicals are they?

Colborn says she’s been able to get the names of nearly 1,000 chemicals companies use in the process — but almost half of those were not chemically identifiable.

Colborn: In other words, 43 precent of those names only provided a name on material data safety sheets…And industry is not telling us enough.

Theo Colborn, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, has been investigating chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Theo Colborn, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, has been investigating chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

The industry is becoming more transparent in disclosing fracking recipes, says Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, one of the most active Marcellus Shale drillers. The company prides itself on having been the first to post well-by-well fracking recipes. Pitzarella admits that some ingredients are hazardous in concentrated form.

Pitzarella: Of those components that are considered hazardous in a concentrated form, our fluid makes up 0.04 percent of what goes into the well….At that level of dilution they pose no risk to human or animal health.

Pitzarella points out that fracking has been around in various forms for decades — and it keeps getting safer, with fewer hazardous chemicals.

Pitzarella: If you look in Fort Worth in the Barnett Shale in Texas they have drilled 14,000 of these exact same wells in a 50 mile radius of the city of Fort Worth, and they have had no impacts on water, air quality.

There have been complaints from Texas residents that their water supply was affected.

The Environmental Protection Agency is soliciting input about research on fracking fluids. Previous work by the EPA was criticized as being biased toward the industry. EPA is still working out the details of this new study plan, but expects to have results in about two years.

Bryan Swistock at Penn State is leading a study to measure any impacts gas drilling may have on residents’ drinking water wells.

Bryan Swistock at Penn State is leading a study to measure any impacts gas drilling may have on residents’ drinking water wells.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is working to better protect water supplies; it has ramped up inspections and violations of unsafe truck drivers; limited the amount of pollutants drillers can discharge from their sites; and is working to improve well construction so there are no gas leaks.

DEP Secretary John Hanger:

Hanger: The industry is now reusing waste water and reducing the amount of water that they would dispose of in a river/stream because they face the great cost of cleaning it up before it goes into a river/stream.

Penn State has launched its own study on the water impacts of drilling, led by Bryan Swistock.

Swistock: There’s a whole string for opportunities for problems. Not that they’ve been widespread, but there are certain places where there is a risk.

Swistock’s team is intensively monitoring drinking water at 50 homes around Pennsylvania, each within 2,000 feet of a well site. He says many residents are concerned about fracking fluids seeping up from the shale. But that hasn’t been the source of problems to date.

Swistock: The hydraulic fracturing has been done for a long time and has a relatively good track record. A lot of what we do see are human accidents and errors right around the well.

Spills or poor construction have led to chemicals getting into places they shouldn’t. The other problem — and perhaps the most infamous — is gas migration. Badly sealed wells allow the gas to seep into aquifers close to the surface, and then into people’s drinking water wells. Dimock, Pennsylvania in Susquehanna County had a number of cases of explosions and flammable taps.

In a year Swistock will have data on the water monitoring. While waiting for results, drilling will continue and so will people’s concerns.

Shimer: They’re scared. They know about Dimock. It frightens them and they never realized how much their water meant to them until this came along and they wish it wasn’t here.

Kay Shimer, lab manager at Benchmark Analytics, says she’s taken hundreds of calls from residents concerned about their water.

Kay Shimer, lab manager at Benchmark Analytics, says she’s taken hundreds of calls from residents concerned about their water.

Kay Shimer is the laboratory manager at Benchmark Analytics in Sayer, Pennsylvania. The company analyzes water samples from residents and companies. Shimer has been flooded with calls from worried residents, asking what they should do when the gas trucks begin streaming by to well construction sites. She refers them to Penn State’s recommendations: testing just before drilling begins, and then waiting for signs of change in the water — like cloudiness or color — before testing again.

Shimer: We tell people, take a cigarette lighter and try to ignite it. If it ignites, you have a problem.

Shimer says most of the analysis her company has done is pre-drilling. Only a few of the post-drilling samples have been contaminated with ethane or methane. But there have also been some surprises. One well had high methane levels before drilling started nearby.

Shimer: But apparently there was some drilling activity in the area they thought was too far away to affect them and apparently it wasn’t.

Some people are waiting for the EPA’s research to figure out of they want to lease their land for drilling. As gas company reps keep knocking on doors, many owners will have to choose before the data are in.


9 Comments

  • James Kennedy says:

    The gas drilling industry says that the drilling is fine, “so long as there isn’t an accident”. This is completely true, and completely disingenuous. Drunk driving is also safe, “so long as there isn’t an accident”. You can get in your car ten thousand times, sway this way and that over the yellow line in the road, swerve past bikers or pedestrians, and never hit anyone. But when you finally do, it’s pretty ugly.

    Even if the rarity of accidents associated with fracking can be supported by evidence, the fact remains that when there inevitably is a 1-in-a-million accident, it will happen in watersheds that feed Philadelphia, New York City, and other large cities.

    –James Kennedy is running for state rep. in the 188th district of Pennsylvania, for the 2012 election cycle. You can read his candidate statement at http://youngphillypolitics.com/hi_west_philadelphia_my_name_james_kennedy.–

  • Another Concerned Citizen says:

    The only Penn State studies are showing is that Penn State can be bought. From academics to athletics the school’s integrity is bought and sold in Harrisburg.

    Logically and scientifically there is nothing safe about injecting these chemicals and causing underground earth quakes without some groundwater contamination. Dunkard Creek is an excellent example where Consol was held responsible. Enough that they would need an exemption from the Clean Water Act. Ft Worth, TX is a mess and environmentalists are scrambling to prove the slaughter of these lands. Gas Companies are now coming forth to state some of the chemicals to set a time limit on when people can sue. When the gas is gone so will the companies and the jobs. We will be left with the the devastation, the clean up, and health hazards. What if the finger lakes are compromised? The damage is irreversible.

  • Joe P says:

    You’re naive if you think our politicians aren’t selling us down the river to the gas industry as I type. David C says that the EPA should have done their report before the drilling started. The truth is that there is no way to control this kind of greed, not even for long enough to do a study. That gas has been in the ground for millions of years, yet we have to destroy our Pennsylvania in a rush to get at it now. Drill safely, really safely, or wait until you can. There just seems to be no power strong enough to stop the steamroller of greed represented by the gas companies and the folks that want their “share”. Why are the gas companies not made responsible for checking the water before and after drilling? They have the most to gain. Instead, the burden is put on land owners, whether they are benefitting from the drilling or not? If drilling is found responsible for the contamination, the driller must make it right. None of this is rocket science and it wouldn’t take long to come up with a fair and safe way to manage this drilling. The problem is the gas industry won’t wait and will do whatever we and our politicians allow them to do. They are in the profit making industry, not the environmental protection business. Lots and lots of irreversible damage has to be done before even gets truly noticed. Ed Rendell has his focus, “tax it”!! He doesn’t even propose that the proceeds go to those negatively impacted by gas industry operations. He has other uses in mind for the proceeds. It took far longer to approve gambling in Pa than it’s taken to approve gas drilling. Does that sound right? We’ve all become so complacent. With our 29.99% credit card interest rates, financial enslavement policies, the ravaging of the environment, the taxing and wasting, and the overall sell out of the American people that our politicians big and small have allowed, it’s a wonder we care anymore about anything at all. Gas drilling is just the latest example of small, weak people being used, abused, and dismissed. You should be used to it by now.

  • A concerned resident says:

    Why are these processes allowed to continue before a thorough, unbiased environmental impact study is conducted? What is the rush?

    That the Delaware River watershed also supplies drinking water to inhabitants of New York City and Philadelphia underscores the magnitude of the issue, and should weigh very heavily in whether *any* gas drilling operations should be allowed in the area.

    Residents of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware must make the governors of their states aware of their concern. Those governors, plus a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, comprise the Delware River Basin Commission, which has the power to allow or halt gas drilling in the watershed. The DRBC website: http://www.state.nj.us/drbc/naturalgas.htm

  • Mike J says:

    New York has declared a drilling moratorium until the new EPA report on fracwater drilling is in. Why is Pennsylvania compromising the health of it’s citizens by allowing drilling to continue before the EPA report is issued?

    Matt Pitzarella neglects to mention in your article that:

    1) Frac fluids are exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act under the imfamous “Haliburton Exemption”. If these fluids were safe to drink it would not have been necessary for gas producers to have lobbied for this exemption.

    2) Approximately 30% of the 5 million gallons of slickwater used for drilling is returned to the surface as “Flowback” which contains added toxins leached into the fracwater from the ground including:
    • Salt at levels that is typically 5 times that of seawater.
    • Natural and hydrogen sulfide gases. Hydrogen sulfide is highly poisonous.
    • Radioactive contamination. Shale drilling concentrates naturally occurring radium 226 and 228 in sludge stored in retention ponds and tanks at the drill site and in scale in wells and on drilling equipment. An average of 50 shale wells per year have to be decontaminated in Texas due to unsafe levels of radioactivity. Pennsylvania currently has no regulations governing the detection, handling and disposal of the low level radioactive materials produced in drilling operations.

    3) Given the fact that flowback water must return up the same pipe that the slickwater went down and is allowed to be stored in open air plastic-lined pits on its return to the surface it is actually much more likely to be a source of contamination than slickwater. Improper construction of such wastewater impoundments are resposible for 20% of all drilling violations cited by the Pennsylvania DEP to date.

    4) The average rate of DEP violations likely to be environmentally damaging for all Marcellus fracwater wells drilled to date in Pennsylvania is over 80%. (I’m not sure why this statistic is not mentioned in your article.)

  • Dan C says:

    Okay – good story. But some hang ups – the only reason that fracking has a “good track history” is because when problems occured the cover ups came along or the blame games of not being able to prove that the methane or other hazardous chemicals came from the gas drilling. Plus, this fracking their are doing here is not the same may be the same as in Texas – but Texas landscapes and depths needed to drill ARE NOT the same as in the PA Marcellus Shale Area. They have to much drill deeper in PA to get the natural gas – which is not what happened in Texas. In other words comparing apples to oranges not apples to apples. And with having to drill so much deeper is why we are running into the water problems like we have in Dimock.
    Final note: Penn State was the ones involved in the supposed employment increase statistics that where falsified by payment from the Marcellus Shale Coalition. How do we know they are being honest and not working with the Marcellus Shale Coalition in the water testing they are doing now…Hmmmm???

  • Karen Berry says:

    Thank you so much for doing this series which I hope influences regulators and legislators to address the long-term impacts. It’s good that Emily Krafjack is testing her water. However, a recent news story said that a person claiming water contamination lost the lawsuit against the well owner because the water samples were not taken by an independent party. I hope Emily is able to procure an independent well water sample collector so that in the event she would have to sue, there would be no question about the integrity of the water sample and data results.

  • Robin says:

    Good story, however it is clear that so much misinformation still exists.

    The lab manager should have known that methane is in the water of many wells here and has been for a very long time. It is a natural process, the reason being that gas is under us and will escape any time it gets a chance. Water wells are a perfect way out.

    Theo Colburn will complain no matter what information she gets. She should already know that every chemical used on any site in any industry has to have MSDS on site also. Bingo! That tells you what chemical it is and everything about it.

  • David C says:

    “The Environmental Protection Agency is soliciting input about research on fracking fluids. Previous work by the EPA was criticized as being biased toward the industry. EPA is still working out the details of this new study plan, but expects to have results in about two years.” – Isn’t this something the EPA should do BEFORE the drilling and fracking starts?? Nice to see that we’ll have the analysis of these fluids after they have been pumped into the ground for two full years.

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