DEP: Oil and Gas Operations Damaged Water Supplies 209 Times
Since End of ’07
22 July 2014
By Laura Legere
Oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania water supplies
209 times since the end of 2007, according to official
determinations compiled by the Department of Environmental
Protection that the agency is preparing to release for the first
State environmental regulators are planning to post the
information on DEP’s website this month, but an early version of
the spreadsheet was provided to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in
response to an open records request.
The spreadsheet lists the 209 affected water supplies by county,
municipality and the date regulators concluded that activities
related to oil or gas extraction were to blame for contaminating
or diminishing the flow to a water source.
The document does not disclose property owners’ names or addresses
and it does not detail which companies that were deemed
responsible for the damage, what caused the disruptions or what
pollutants were found in the water.
DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management, Scott Perry,
said the agency intends to enhance the spreadsheet by adding links
to the letters or orders related to each case at some point, which
should reveal more information about how water was affected.
Environmental regulators are required by law to determine within
45 days of getting a drilling-related water complaint if oil and
gas operations contaminated a water supply or reduced its flow.
DEP reports its findings in letters to property owners. It also
issues orders to companies to fix the damage in cases where oil
and gas operations are found to be accountable or are presumed to
be the cause because of the proximity between drilling activities
and a disrupted groundwater source.
Those conclusions are public records.
After initially fighting news organizations’ requests for the
determination letters and arguing it would be too difficult to
find all of them in its files, DEP has increasingly provided
access to the documents in the last year after courts required
their release and as public interest in the information has grown.
When DEP posts the tally of damaged water supplies this month, it
will mark the first time the agency has released its official
accounting of drilling-related pollution and diminution cases on
“This frequently requested information is being shared with the
public in our continued effort to be as open and transparent as
possible,” DEP spokeswoman Morgan Wagner wrote in an email. She
said the department plans to update the list as more
determinations are made.
The number of impacts is small relative to the number of new oil
and gas wells drilled during the same time period – nearly 20,000,
according to DEP records.
Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the industry trade group the
Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement that “this data
further demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of oil and
natural gas wells in Pennsylvania – over 99 percent – have been
developed without any impact on ground or well water.”
But people who have seen their water disrupted often describe the
experience as uniquely unsettling.
Drilling-related water impacts
“There are 209 contamination cases since 2008, which is a lot,
in my book, especially when you are talking about somebody’s
drinking water supply,” said Steve Hvozdovich, the Marcellus Shale
coordinator for the environmental group Clean Water Action.
The DEP spreadsheet reveals that oil and gas operations have
affected water supplies in nearly every region where drilling
occurs, from the shale gas sweet spots in northeastern
Pennsylvania to the traditional oil and gas patch in the state’s
northwest corner. DEP found that drilling activities damaged water
supplies in Bradford County 48 times – the most of any county –
followed by Susquehanna County (35 times), McKean County (24
times) and Forest County (17 times).
DEP’s southwest regional office issued the fewest water impact
determinations of the three regional offices that oversee the
industry. It found drilling activities caused water supply
problems 13 times in six years: eight times in Indiana County,
twice each in Washington and Westmoreland counties, and once in
The rate of problems has stayed flat in recent years following a
surge in cases between 2008 and 2009 as shale gas extraction
increased in the northeast region and methane trapped in shallow
rock layers escaped into groundwater through flaws in some new
DEP found 18 cases of water supply impacts in 2008, 47 in 2009, 34
in 2010, 34 in 2011, 35 in 2012, 33 in 2013 and five through May
of this year.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman said the organization
believes it’s critical to make data such as this publicly
available, “with appropriate context,” including the fact that
Pennsylvania doesn’t have private well water construction
standards and many water supplies are in poor condition or contain
methane for reasons entirely unrelated to oil and gas extraction.
“Before our members begin well development activities, exhaustive
baseline water sampling is conducted by certified third parties,
which frequently extends beyond state requirements,” Mr. Creighton
said, adding that the baseline testing gives homeowners important
water quality and public health-related information.
Environmentalists applauded DEP for releasing the information,
although they quickly added that it is only a first step.
Mr. Hvozdovich said he is “glad to see that DEP is taking some
concrete steps to try to improve transparency on this issue,
especially considering how disorganized they were and how
secretive water impacts from natural gas drilling were in
But he called the information in the spreadsheet “pretty woefully
below what the public deserves to see” and encouraged DEP to add
details such as what types of impacts oil and gas operations have
caused to water sources, which companies were involved, whether
shale gas drillers or operators of shallow, traditional wells were
found responsible, how companies addressed the problems and
whether they were fined.
Academic researchers said even the spare information in the
document so far will still be useful for understanding the
geographic distribution of drilling-related issues across the
state. And it might encourage the public to ask for more readily
Susan Brantley, a geosciences professor at Penn State University
whose research examines water quality problems unrelated to oil
and gas development as well as the ways drilling activities have
affected groundwater, said it is clear to her from conversations
with DEP staff that they also want to get more data online. “But
it takes time and money and people power and I’m not sure they
always have that,” she said.
“Even the most rudimentary spreadsheet going online and getting
people to scrutinize it – that is a positive step,” she said. “We
should encourage it. And the public should understand it so that
they demand it.”