Tioga County Family Struggles with Methane in its Well Water

Williamsport PA Sun-Gazette
2 July 2011
By Cheryl R. Clarke

WELLSBORO - A Charleston Township family's experience with natural gas drilling has become the latest story of contaminated well water associated with nearby drilling, in the ongoing Marcellus Shale saga, according to family member Jeremiah Gee.

Gee and his parents, Denise and Jerry, live next door to land that has been leased to Shell Appalachia for drilling, and last winter, a gas drilling site appeared about 100 yards from a pond on their property.

It now is known as the "Vandegrift 290" well site.

Gee, a doctorate candidate at Penn State University, said shortly thereafter the family noticed a change in its well water.

"We noticed that early on our faucets were sputtering, and the water was milky looking," Gee said.

The reason it looked like milk, he said, is "because there were a billion tiny gas bubbles in it, and if you set it on the counter, it clears up."

The gas bubbles also can be heard and seen in the Gee's water well, he said.

"If you open the casing you can see the gas bubbling in the well," he added.

Though there are no other contaminates in the well water-yet "we are not drinking the well water at this time," Gee said. "If you took a match out and dropped it in the well casing right now you would get a boom."

Gee said six natural gas wells have been drilled from the one pad, and "we noticed this after the completion activities began."

"They call the whole process of completion activities a cycle," he said he was told by Shell officials. "They go to the end of a horizontal hole, perforate it, frack it, plug it and then move back and repeat the process a dozen or more times so," he added.

Shell had just started perforating two of the bores when the Gees noticed a difference in their water.

"Gas started bubbling in the 'cellars,' a deep culvert put around each well head to prevent gravel from collapsing the hole," Gee said. "It is not supposed to do that; the gas is supposed to be in the casing," he added.

DEP informed

Gee said Shell did not stop operations on the wells until the fact that his family could light their tapwater on fire was brought to the attention of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Shell began taking steps to "mitigate" the problem last week.

Gee said the family has spoken to everyone involved with Shell from "the average Joe on up to the operations manager," with less than satisfactory results.

One morning the salamanders in their pond, where the water was "pristine" according to tests done prior to drilling, began to die, Gee said.

Denise Gee, who is retired, said that water in both the well and pond had been tested before drilling began.

"Our pond was so clean the man who interpreted it said you could drink out of it, and our artesian well was huge, clear and clean. Now, the well tests positive for thermogenic methane, like that which is bubbling in the cellars on the wellpad," she said.

Jeremiah said his parents live on about 10 acres of "very private" property, and added it has been an "ordeal for them," even though Shell has taken some steps to provide drinking water.

"They have provided water, four water buffaloes, they are doing everything they are required to do," he said, adding that Shell also tested the water before and after drilling.

Gee said the family received a letter dated May 4 from DEP that concluded that the well has been "affected by gas drilling."

Though Shell is not disputing the tests, and it has not denied responsibility for the methane migration, "we still don't know what they are going to do for my parents," Gee said.

Gee said he and his parents are "worried sick about the community."

"Our state constitution, Article 1, Section 27, guarantees that the people that live in the commonwealth will have a perpetual right to clean air, pure water and even the aesthetic value of the land, is protected. Why have our constitutional rights been violated?" he asked.

Shell started bringing in "quite a few" rigs last week, he said, to frack the wells "after they fix them."

But the 'fix' they offer can compromise the integrity of the well casing, Gee said he was told by DEP, Shell, and others. In addition, it has to take additional steps to prevent a blowout.

"That is the concern right now. All they say about us is that we are inconvenienced. They don't recognize our desire for them to err on the side of our safety and our health," he said

"What is the future of Vandegrift 290 and what is the future of the people who live next door? They have given us grim hope," Gee said.

Shell responds

In response to the Gee's dilemma resulting from Vandegrift 290, Shell Communications Specialist Kim Windon, of Warrendale, said that "safety is always priority No. 1."

"There have been issues (with the Gee's water) and we regret any disruption or inconvenience to the family, but as soon as we were aware of the problem, it was important for us to react promptly, responsibly and safely."

Windon said on April 7, Shell was notified by the DEP that methane had been reported in the Gee's well.

"We met with them and have been working closely with the them and DEP," she said.

Shell offered to put the family up in a motel "to insure their safety," but that offer was declined, she said.

As a safety measure, Shell vented the well and supplied the Gees with potable water, set up methane monitoring equipment at the residence and stopped completion work on the pad,.

"After that, we completed a hydrologic assessment of the property to try to understand where it (methane) was coming from," Windon added. "As part of that offer, Shell will pay for a new water well to be drilled once a location is identified."

Shell also completed a soil gas survey, repeated ground water and well head space sampling, and testing of water to a 2,000 foot radius from the well pad.

"Then we reviewed our findings with DEP and shared them with the family. We are still working to identify the potential source (of the methane)," she said, "but we think that it may have migrated from a shallower Devonian natural gas formation, close to the well pad. Shell has prepared a shallow remediation plan to address the source, and we are looking forward to a conclusive fact based solution," she said.

Remediation begins

On May 26, Shell representatives met with DEP and presented a remediation plan and enhanced environmental and safety controls for the pad area near the Gee's residence, and offered to install a methane separation system there to restore the well water supply and maintain safety.

"We also offered to install a non-invasive electro magnetic survey which identifies a new source of water and potential gas migration pathways," Windon said.

The Gee's agreed to have that done last Friday (June 24), she added.

As for the Gee's pond, Windon said Shell had the pond water evaluated by Wildlife Specialist Inc., led by a former DCNR biologist who conducted an impact of the pond, which is downhill from the well pad.

"Due to the heavy spring rain, abnormally high run off of sediments was experienced, and the question was whether or not the sediment was impacting the pond," she said.

The biologist determined that the pond's ecosystem was healthy, according to Windon.

"On June 22, we submitted an updated remediation plan to DEP which they approved June 27," she said.

The plan outlines cement remediation to the gas well before any completion process could be continued. "Safety is important to ensure for the communities in which we reside. We do take this very seriously and we want to understand and get to the root cause of the problem," she said.

"We are doing everything we can to make sure we are operating well in that area and that we are working closely with the DEP and county commissioners and we are hoping to reach a mutually agreeable solution to this matter," she added.

DEP spokesperson Dan Spadoni said that the Gee case still is under investigation, and would not comment further.