Federal panel calls for baseline tests of drinking-water wells

    A federal panel on natural gas drilling recommended Thursday that baseline water-quality testing be conducted before drilling for natural gas.

    “One of the concerns that’s been raised with respect to shale gas drilling is whether or not it’s adversely impacting drinking water,” said Kathleen McGinty, former head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a member of the federal shale gas committee. “The only way to know that is to have a sense as to what the quality of that drinking water is before the well development, the drilling, commences.”

    She said gas companies should pay for that testing.

    McGinty said Pennsylvania is one of only a few states not already requiring baseline testing before wells are dug anywhere, so the panel’s recommendations would be an especially big change here.

    Current law holds gas companies accountable for contamination in drinking-water wells within 1,000 feet of natural-gas wells, and there are proposals to increase that to 2,500 feet.

    The report also recommends mandatory public disclosure of the new baseline data. That, said Clean Water Action’s Myron Arnowitt, is a key part of the provision.

    “It’s important that this is done in an upfront and public way and everybody knows what’s going on,” Arnowitt said.

    A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition said the industry is already conducting tests before drilling and would “be able to embrace” mandatory testing and disclosure.

    The federal panel also recommended mandatory disclosure of all the chemicals in hydraulic-fracturing fluids used in natural-gas drilling, and called for a reduction in emissions of methane and greenhouse gasses.

    Erika Staaf, with the environmental group Penn Environment, said the recommendations were more stringent than she expected. However, Penn Environment, like some other environmental groups, is still calling for a halt to drilling in Pennsylvania.

    “In states where this sort of shale-gas drilling or deep-well drilling is moving forward quickly,” Staaf said, “we would much prefer something much, much stronger, like a temporary moratorium on drilling until (stricter) regulations are in place.”

    A spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett said Thursday he has not yet seen the report.

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