Impact of Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling on Monongahela River

Note: UMRA does not maintain that information is completely accurate in the items referenced below. Commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or policy of the Upper Monongahela River Association. We are providing unchecked information because there are many unresolved questions, and while some of the material is inflammatory or incorrect, it is important to understand the variety of positions on the issues.

Additional raw data for the Monongahela River basin can be found through our River Monitoring page.

Sections in this page:

  1. An Incident in the Monongahela River - October/November 2008
  2. Analysis of the October/November 2008 Mon River Incident
  3. Regional Planning for Gas Drilling Frac Water Disposal
  4. General Information on the Marcellus Shales and Gas Production
  5. General Information on Water Quality Issues Related to Gas Drilling & Production

An Incident in the Monongahela River - October/November 2008

Few people would ever guess that drilling for natural gas could significantly affect the movement of river barges, but recent events suggest otherwise. In late October water analyses in the mid-Monongahela valley indicated high levels of dissolved solids. To reduce dangers to pubic water supplies and fish populations, the Corps of Engineers increased releases from Tygart and Stonewall Jackson lakes. The Corps was able to do so for only a short period because of the need to supply water for downstream navigation. The lake levels are low and recreational boat access to Tygart Lake was threatened. 

Newspaper reports say that the initial alarms came from riverside industries, not governmental monitoring. Both Allegheny Power's electric plant at Masontown, PA and the U.S. Steel Clairton coke plant suddenly recorded high total dissolved solids (TDS) in their cooling water.

Preliminary analysis suggested that the threat came from large truck deliveries of waste water from gas well drilling in the Marcellus Shales to sanitary waste plants discharging, directly or indirectly, into the Monongahela River. A 11 November 2008 article in the Washington, PA Observer-Reporter, [Waynesburg, PA] Council Approves Tentative Budget, indicates that this disposal method has been profitable to both local authorities and drillers.

The following articles and press releases give a summary of the incident which began in October:

Analysis of the October/November 2008 Mon River Incident

On 14 November 2008 UMRA and the Mon River Recreation & Commerce Committee of the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting on the October incident, focussing on the shale water questions. Over fifty people, including staff from WV, PA, and US environmental agencies attended.

The following speakers made presentations:

The technical experts attending appeared to universally agree that:

Put another way, no one should panic, but attention is needed by the public and government to avoid future incidents with significant consequences.

The following technical information presented at that meeting is copied here:

High TDS in the Monongahela River: Analysis of Chemical Data, Paul Ziemkiewicz, West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University

Regional Planning for Gas Drilling Frac Water Disposal

The impacts of Marcellus Shale gas well drilling are likely to be profound.  Presently there is no regulatory agency Western Pennsylvania or West Virginia which has a handle on it or the authority to adequately control or identify the impacts.  The present situation in PA is a red-flag because it is affecting drinking water. Otherwise it would not have been likely to be noticed by the public and politicians. It may be a new environmental disaster to our waters for the next 20-30 years and could eclipse our acid mine drainage problems. It is clear that the frac technology used in exploiting the Marcellus Shales requires costly disposal of the recovered water loaded with a variety of substances, some of which may have environmental hazards. The question is who should carry the costs and the degree to which additional regulation may be appropriate.

The situation is different in Central Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River is the major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and to address regional commitments, Pennsylvania has established the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) and given it unusual powers. While they have no direct control over oil and gas drilling, their regulations governing water abstraction and release are a good model for other regions. Not only have they rigorously approached the technical issues, they have also done an excellent job of presenting their regulations and procedures on the Internet. Here is a link to the SRBC Marcellus Shale pages.

News stories related to regional planning and regulation:

Gas Firms Looking to Northern Tier to Start Work: Companies turn to PA as NY Revies Rules - Elmira, NY Star Gazette - 8 December 2008

Drill Team: Pennsylvania Needs Smart Rules with Gas Reserves - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - 8 December 2008

Eastern Gas Fuels 'a Little Gold Rush': Drilling rises in Marcellus shale - Charleston Gazette - 29 November 2008

Environmental, Sportsmen's Groups Want Stricter Regulation of Natural Gas Projects - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - 28 November 2008

Marcellus Shale Source of Clean Energy - Morgantown Dominion Post - 28 November 2008

Boom? New gas wealth - Charleston Gazette - 23 November 2008

State Needs to Plan for Gas Well Drilling Brine -The State Journal - 20 November 2008

Drilling companies: Pa. DEP hampering business - Associated Press - 19 November 2008

Natural Gas Rush Stirs Environmental Concerns - Morgantown Dominion Post - 16 November 2008

It's All Part of the Drill: Natural gas drilling has been a boom for some, a bust for others - Washington, PA Observer-Reporter - 16 November 2008

Marcellus Shale also has its Risk - Morgantown Dominion Post - 9 November 2008

New Drilling Efforts Raise Questions - The State Journal - 14 August 2008

General Information on the Marcellus Shales and Gas Production

Natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale are a major player in America's search for new resources. According to a 4 November 2008 story in the Charleston Gazette, Penn State University geoscientist Terry Engelder says that he now estimates 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be recovered over the next few decades from the 31-million-acre core area of the Marcellus region, which includes southern New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio, meaning it could meet the entire nation’s natural gas needs for at least 14 years. Geologists have long known about the existence of the Marcellus shale, but exploration there accelerated only recently when the price of natural gas rose high enough to make it economically feasible to use the advanced drilling techniques necessary to produce gas from the hard rock thousands of feet underground. Production on the Marcellus gas field, or “play,” is considered to be in the early stages, but the sheer size of it is drawing heavy interest from the exploration industry.

The article Marcellus Shale - Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play at gives a good summary of the potential of this reserve.

The West Virginia Geological Survey has on-line information on the gas shales. On the WVGES website you will find a variety of information about the Marcellus Shales at

Geology of the Marcellus Shale

Hydraulic Fracturing Considerations for Natural Gas Wells of the Marcellus Formation

The West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization offers information on oil and gas leases, the Marcellus Shale, and many other land owner references at

The official entry point for Penn State Cooperative Extension's educational and research materials about Marcellus shale, natural gas, and how it may affect the Commonwealth is at

As is usual when there is public controversy about a highly technical problem, factual errors have crept into some of the information being published. Zane Shuck, a retired engineer, and former DOE researcher, has offered some comments on Public Misinformation about Marcellus Shale

Washington, PA Observer-Reporter's website has a video about shale frac water at Click on "See a video.".

General Information on Water Quality Issues Related to Gas Drilling & Production

The Venture Engineering - Blog has some detailed information on brine treatment in a post entitled "Marcellus Shale Play – Water Treatment Options Worth Considering"

Drill for Natural Gas, Pollute Water - Scientific American - 17 November 2008

OGAP Report on the Marcellus Shale - Scranton Times Tribune Reader Blog - 25 June 2008

Political Approaches to Natural Gas Drilling

Election May Bring Hard Look at Oil-Gas Exemption: Change in Washington may bring new scrutiny for oil, gas exemption from safe-water law - CNN Money - 28 November 2008

More Regulation of Gas Drilling in the Cards?

by Kristin Jones, ProPublica - December 1, 2008 Tags: Drilling, Hydraulic Fracturing, Natural Gas

Democrats' control of Congress and the White House could bring tighter regulation of hydraulic fracturing, a process of shooting water, sand and a covert cocktail of chemicals deep underground to release natural gas, the Associated Press reports.

The AP story follows a running investigation by ProPublica digging into whether the growing practice of hydraulic fracturing is putting U.S. water supplies at risk. As ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten detailed last month, the EPA understated contamination at natural gas drilling sites around the country. That article also reported that as a result of concerns about contamination, Colorado and New York politicians had introduced a bill to close a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act that allows hydraulic fracturing to go unregulated.

The bill has a good chance of passing under the administration of Barack Obama and the leadership of Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to AP.

Agencies Address Drilling: DRBC sees first application for 999,999 gallons of water - Narrowsburg NY River Reporter - 13 November 2008

N.Y. Plans to Consider Law Limiting Natural Gas Drilling - from ProPublica website - September 9, 2008
Assemblyman James Brennan, who represents part of Brooklyn, has announced hat he will introduce a bill in next year's session that would permanently prohibit drilling in New York City's watershed. Brennan worries that drilling in the New York City watershed might contaminate the water supply that serves more than half of the state's population.

Hinchey Pushing Bill to Protect Drinking Water from Natural Gas Development - WBNG-TV - 19 November 2008

NYC Wants Consultants to Probe Effect of Gas Drilling on Drinking Water - ProPublica - 25 November 2008

Another ProPublica release release reports that a study of the gas drilling process and horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the water-intensive drilling technique proposed for wells in the Marcellus Shale, found more than 1,000 instances of water contamination in western states. The DEC says there have been no instances of contamination in New York state.

A ProPublica release Buried Secrets: Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies? is at