Paper: Drilling Damage in 161 PA Water Supplies
20 May 2013
SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — Oil and gas development damaged the water
supplies of at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and
businesses between 2008 and the fall of 2012, according to state
records obtained by a newspaper.
The (Scranton) Times-Tribune first requested the records in late
2011 under the Right to Know law, but the Department of
Environmental Protection mounted legal challenges and didn't
release the records until late last year.
The Times-Tribune analyzed nearly 1,000 letters and enforcement
orders written by DEP officials. The determination letters are
sent to water supply owners who complained that drilling
activities polluted or diminished the flow of water to their
About 17 percent of the investigations across the five-year period
found that oil and gas activity disrupted water supplies either
temporarily or seriously enough to require companies to replace
the source. According to the letters, faulty wells channeled
natural gas into the water supplies for 90 properties. Three of
those cases were tied to old wells, one of which caused an
explosion at a home after gas entered through a floor drain and
accumulated in a basement.
The department repeatedly argued in court filings that it does not
count how many determination letters it issues or track where they
are kept in its files. The DEP has also fought efforts by The
Associated Press and other news organizations to obtain similar
The state's records suggest that drilling-related contamination
incidents increased with the start of the Marcellus Shale drilling
boom, with about 4,000 wells producing gas since 2008. Drilling
damaged water supplies at a rate of more than 16 cases per year
during the past five years, but for the 20 years prior to 2008 the
rate was fewer than three per year.
The department's water testing and reporting protocols have come
under scrutiny in recent months as environmental activists and
homeowners whose drilling-related complaints were dismissed have
come to doubt the accuracy of DEP findings. In January, state
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced his office is
conducting a performance audit of the DEP's water testing program.
Department spokesman Kevin Sunday told the Times-Tribune that the
increase in problems can be attributed to a shift from drilling in
western areas with a long history of oil and gas extraction to
central and eastern regions where the geology is less studied.
Those factors mean "that there will be an adjustment period"
during which drillers refine practices.
Sunday added that the records suggest that tougher state
regulations on drilling have reduced the number of problems. The
department counted five contamination cases in 2012 compared to 18
cases in 2011, but some of those cases involved more than one
drinking water source.
Some of the problems were short-lived: the department described 20
of the confirmed contamination incidents as temporary.
Marcellus Shale Coalition CEO Kathryn Klaber said the state and
natural gas industry have focused on strengthening standards for
drilling. She said the industry has worked to investigate and
respond to contamination complaints, including providing drinking
water to homeowners.
The environmental protection department's records also describe an
array of problems that exist in Pennsylvania water supplies
unrelated to oil and gas exploration, such as high metal, salt and
methane content and bacteria from surface water or nesting
creatures invading poorly built water wells.
A 2011 Penn State study found that about 40 percent of water wells
it tested prior to gas well drilling failed at least one federal
drinking water standard. Pennsylvania is one of only a few states
that doesn't have private water well construction standards.
Other contamination in the records involved drilling-related road
construction in two cases and construction of a large
water-storage pond at another, while pipeline construction twice
polluted water supplies with sediment. Seven water supplies were
contaminated by stray cement or rock waste displaced by drilling.
Critics of natural gas drilling say the ambiguity left by DEP
investigations means the state needs more robust tools and a
stronger will to pursue clues about contamination.
Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University,
said the environmental protection department's record-keeping
doesn't answer the question of "how many individual families'
private drinking water wells have been contaminated by oil and gas
"No one knows the answer," Ingraffea said.