Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Past Time To Regulate Water Well Construction In PA

Only Alaska and Pennsylvania do not regulate the design, materials, equipment, and construction of a water well. In Pennsylvania, the result of no regulation or a "buyer beware" approach has been hundreds of thousands of poorly constructed water wells with substantial water pollution problems.

Across the Commonwealth, approximately 3.5 million people drink water from more than 1 million water wells and about 20,000 new wells are drilled each year.  As many as one-quarter of those wells has one or more contaminants that endanger health.

It is time to regulate water well construction in Pennsylvania.  This is not a situation of fixing a problem that is not broken.  We have hundreds of thousands of water wells that are broken, that threaten the health of those who drink from them.

Legislation to regulate water well construction has been introduced by Rep. Ron Miller.  See

Marcellus drilling is shining a light on water wells and water quality.  Passing regulation of water well construction would be a great benefit, derived from the public attention created by gas drilling.  Pass it!


  1. Concerned ScientistFebruary 22, 2012 at 7:33 AM

    Great point - and I will say it again: Areas where Marcellus drilling occurs are going to end up with CLEANER water than where drilling does not occur. That is because many people have bad water now and don't know it and the only way they will find out is through the testing that gets done BEFORE drilling occurs. They will then take their lease and royalty money and get their wells fixed. Drilling may lead to methane contamination in a handful of cases but this is a tiny fraction of the people whose wells already have drinking water that does not meet EPA standards for methane and a host of other things.

    1. Dear Concerned Scientist:

      It is truly striking that you can take a post not--at least not in any way directly---about fracking, and covert it into a promotion for fracking. I can only wonder, moreover, what kind of scientific credentials could justify so fully speculative a claim. Here are four reasons to regard this claim as specious:

      1. As you certainly know, testing well water for the chemicals used in fracking is VERY difficult. This is neither exclusively nor primarily a test for Methane--but rather a host of carcinogens, surfactants, and biocides, etc. NOT tested for in ordinary well-water kits. In fact, the kit required to test adequately for these pollutants is very expensive, difficult to arrange, and must be repeated.

      2. The claim that fracking leads to methane contamination in only a handful of cases is absurd. It is a fact that these cases are far more than a handful, that that number is growing daily not only in Pennsylvania, but anywhere fracking occurs. Methane (again) is also only one of the relevant pollutants involved in fracking--many others including endocrine disrupters are another.

      3. the actual fracking is only one of the sources of contamination via fracking--the transmission lines, compressor stations, and truck emissions are other significant sources of pollution that Concerned Scientist fails to acknowledge.

      4. That lease and royalty money will suffice to pay to get bad wells fixed is unlikely. Though some leases have paid handsomely, many have not--especially now that the gas producers are cutting back their operations in light of the low price of the gas. Moreover, however much it may cost a landowner to fix a well, that it's presence on the property will forever be connected to fracking means that the property owner may never be able to sell that land--a very high price to pay to find out you have a bad well.

      Wendy Lynne Lee
      Department of Philosophy
      Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
      Bloomsburg, PA 17815

    2. Dear Wendy,

      I am a Pennsylvania licensed professional hydrogeologist and I have been involved with extensive water testing related to Marcellus shale activities. In my experience it is very common to encounter residential wells and water systems that are sub-standard and have been poorly constructed. Many residences have wells that leave them susceptible to contamination, due to poor well construction.

      Natural gas companies are required to conduct pre-drilling water surveys. The surveys include water testing at all residences within a proscribed radius. The water testing is not complicated and it is not very difficult. The cost for sampling is paid by the natural gas company.

      There have been many instances where the pre-drilling water quality has been very poor. Common contaminants include nitrate, bacteria, metals, and methane. Yes methane is a common contaminant. Many of these problems are caused by poor well construction. Residents are provided copies of the pre-drilling water quality results and have the right to address any issues that may be present.

      The natural gas industry certainly has a major impact on the environment. However, it is very important to understand what and where the impact is. For instance, there has never been a reported case in which frac fluids have migrated from the target frac zone to a freshwater aquifer. All reported cases of freshwater contamination have been a result of improper well seals, improper well controls, surface spills or similar failures. If you don't believe me, check out the USEPA reports or the recent article by the PCPG. Frac-fluid, well fires, and gigantic spills capture the media and public attention. However the largest impact that natural gas E&P has on the environment is related to land development, traffic, and air emmissions. For some reason frac-ing gets all the attention.

      I've been involved with cleanup and characterization of several large frac-fluid spills. At the end of the day the cumulative environmental impact at these locations has been less than the impact of road salting.

  2. I agree that water wells need to be of a certain standard. Living in a gasfield I lean towards a community well that is regulated and tested regularly..especially because of the drilling and related gas activities. I do take issue with the assumption that our water was always bad. Seeing is believing and the water in some homes here is still not drinkable. In fact, a home that took the treatment system cannot drink their water yet. Somewhere, somehow, the burden of proof has been put on the landowner while the gas company gets to rewrite the law-with the help of DEP. You really believe we were drinking cloudy, bubbly, gray foamy water before drilling? We saw orange slimy or sluggish black water in our washing machines and ignored it until the cash cow showed up?

  3. Yoko, the burden of proof is not on the landowner, it's on the driller. It's called "presumed liability". If there is something wrong with the water, even if it's preexisting, and the gas company didn't take pre-drilling water samples to show it, then the gas company is automatically liable. Just ask Cabot.

    Also, I've talked to many rural politicians, several of whom are in leadership positions, who have said that private water well regulation is a "third rail" type issue. If such a regulation were to come (and I hope it does), it will be a very sensitive issue.

  4. Folks:

    There is an additional water-well related issue:

    Old unused water wells that have not been properly sealed and plugged. These are a clear and present danger to the acquifers.

    There is an estimate that there are 100s of thousands of these in both PA and NY.

    In researching the issue I found it remarkably easy to find these: just ask around in rural areas, especially near older dwellings and farms. About half the people I asked said, "oh sure, there is one in my backyard, or over there, etc.

    Right now there is one in my neighborhood on the former site of a manufactured home that has been taken away. Others I found were large dug wells with not even a cover and others that were covered by big rock slabs.

    Plugging and sealing old water wells is probably fairly pricey and apparently not required. Thus few people would even know that it should be done.

    You can easily see how a surface spill of drilling-related substances (or other spills), if not contained, could easily contaminate neighborhood water.

    Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Binghamton, NY

    1. Concerned ScientistFebruary 23, 2012 at 9:03 AM

      Stanley, I knew you would have to end a reasonable sounding post with a dig against the gas industry. I would say the likelihood of a gas well being sited right near an old abandoned water well that had not been plugged (and that the company didn't plug prior to drilling) and a spill occurring where the spilled substance went down the old water well would be extremely remote. The chances of something else such as fertilizer, pesticides, household cleaners, human or animal waste, etc are probably many, many times higher than spills from a drilling operation. If you want to ban something for fear of groundwater contamination near old abandoned water wells you should probably start with farming and then move into human occupation. Gas drilling would be way down the list in terms of actual risk.

  5. Dear concerned "scientist"

    I dont like to yammer on these blogs and attack people but: give me a friggen break:

    1. One of the Dimock spills went right down an old well.

    2. I did say "(or other spills)"

    3. Your opinions about where old wells are and their proximity to a well pad have absolutely no place in any attempt to have a discussion based on science.

    There is an empirical way to assess this risk. If you knew anything about science you would know this.

    Prejudgeing an empirical outcome is the very best way to do bad science.

    Please try to be both concerned and reasonable.

    Stanley R Scobie, PhD., Binghamton, NY

    1. Stanley

      Do you have a link that describes a Dimock spill going down an old water well? I googled that and could not find it.

      The point is that you are holding gas drilling to a different standard. Is your concern about groundwater contamination or about possible groundwater contamination from gas drilling only? Because if your concern is groundwater contamination, there are many practices that are more damaging to people's well water than gas drilling. First among them is water well construction. This is followed by poor farming practices. Gas drilling is way down the list.

  6. ron millers house bill 1855 will result in a loss of property rights, greatly increase costs of owning and maintaining a water well, and is the first step in taxing water from private wells