State DEP Says it Follows Industry Standards in Testing for
3 November 2012
Timothy Puko, Staff Reporter
Timothy Puko can be reached at 412-320-7991
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection follows
industry standards in testing for water contamination, but it
could help landowners by sharing more test results, water experts
said on Friday.
The agency is under fire from state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, and
a Washington County law firm that is suing the DEP, both claiming
the agency withheld data about contamination near Washington
County gas wells.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Pennsylvania is reviewing
their request to investigate the state agency, its spokeswoman
said on Friday.
White and the law firm Smith Butz complain the DEP made judgments
and sent reports to landowners refuting claims of well water
contamination based on just a few of the chemicals for which it
That’s common, several water experts said. Lab testing can be
extensive and expensive, and anyone who requests a lab test for a
specific type of contamination likely will focus on key, telltale
chemicals and disregard the rest.
“They could have 100 different (contaminants) from an analysis,
but they’re going to report what’s related to what they’re trying
to investigate,” said David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist at Penn
State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. “That’s pretty
much standard industry practice.”
The state recommends testing for about 20 chemical signs before
drilling starts near well water supplies. It tests for the same
chemicals when people make allegations of drilling contamination.
That’s comparable to Ohio’s and Michigan’s policies that are
posted online, noted Jerry Parr, executive director of the
National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program.
If tests don’t show those chemicals — including barium, strontium
and calcium — then it’s unlikely drilling is at fault, no matter
what other chemicals show up, said Radisav D. Vidic, a University
of Pittsburgh civil and environmental engineer.
DEP testing includes looking for multiple other chemicals,
including the metals chromium, cobalt, nickel and lithium, but the
agency excludes many of those from its analysis, according to
Smith Butz, which deposed DEP officials for its lawsuits.
White claimed that is evidence of unlawful conduct, a rigged
testing system that he asked the U.S. Attorney, the state attorney
general, the Environmental Protection Agency and Parr’s program to
The state Attorney General’s Office and officials at the
accreditation program have not seen the allegations, officials
there said on Friday. Officials at the EPA did not respond to a
request for comment.
“Why should the DEP care if (contamination) came from drilling or
not?” White asked. “If they did the test, and they know you have
elevated levels of chemicals, what possible reasons would they
have for not telling you this? They know, and that’s the crux of
If the DEP finds elevated levels of contaminants — even some not
from drilling — in private wells, it would be a common-sense and
helpful move to call for further testing and alert those water
users, Yoxtheimer and Vidic said.
The downside is that it could be confusing, shining a critical
light on something that may not actually cause public harm, Parr
“I agree that maybe it’s not the right thing to do, but that’s the
way it’s been,” he said.
The DEP does not have power to regulate private drinking water
supplies and recommends well owners test their water annually, no
matter how close or far they are from drilling, spokesman Kevin
Sunday said. There are a lot of potential contaminants, Sunday
said when asked why the agency should not alert well users when
agency tests indicate other possible signs of contamination.
“Is the expectation then that we should also screen for E. coli
and fertilizer runoff from a farmer’s fields?” Sunday asked. “Our
reporting gives us an indication of whether drilling has impacted
a water supply. That is our duty under the Oil and Gas Act — to
make determinations as to whether oil and gas activities impacted
a water supply and that is exactly what we do. We stand behind our
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be
reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.