Western PA Streams Emptied By Natural Gas Drilling

WTAE-TV Pittsburgh
13 November 2008

PITTSBURGH -- Channel 4 Action News investigative reporter Jim Parsons has learned that government is doing more to protect water in eastern Pennsylvania than here in the western part of the state.

It's happening because of a drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale of western Pennsylvania. Getting through the Marcellus requires millions of gallons of water for each well. In western Pennsylvania, drillers don't need anyone's permission to pump all the water they want, free of charge.

You can view the video at http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/17973811/detail.html or ftp://ftp.usace.army.mil/pub/lrp/WTAE%20Marcellus%20Report/

What follows is a transcript of Parsons' report:

They are popping up across western Pennsylvania in record numbers: Gas well drilling rigs. And they are thirsty. Very thirsty.

John Hanger, DEP Acting Secretary: "Each drilling operation in the Marcellus Shale will require substantial volumes of water, much more than conventional drilling operations."

They need more water because they have to drill much deeper -- sometimes a mile-and-a-half deep -- using hydraulics to fracture the Marcellus Shale and release the vast reserves of natural gas trapped beneath it. Each well can require as much as 6 million gallons of water. And drillers -- like these guys -- are taking that water from our rivers, our streams, our reservoirs.

Jim Parsons: "Who gave you guys permission to take water out of the river and not pay for it, not get a permit, nothing? No comment."

Water haulers are here at the Monongahela River in Masontown so frequently they sometimes leave their hoses behind at the water's edge. And this hose -- attached to a diesel pump -- takes water from the river continuously.

The hose runs up the bank and into this tanker truck. But that's not all. It also splits off into this tanker truck and that one and that one. In fact, nine tanker trucks in all filling up 24/7. There's 180,000 gallons among these trucks. And for some Marcellus Shale gas wells, these trucks will come back and refill with water 40 times.

Carl Carlson, Independent Oil & Gas Association: "Pennsylvania is blessed with abundant water resources. We have three times the rainfall here as they do in north Texas, where they've drilled 10,000 of these similar shale wells."

But a nationally recognized expert on water resources said there is reason for concern.

Conrad Volz, University of Pittsburgh: "Even though we have lots of water in this area, that does not mean we cannot have severe localized repercussions from drawdown of water."

In fact, Team 4 has learned, the repercussions have already begun:

Aug. 27, 2008: Pennsylvania's DEP investigates reports that a gas drilling company "pumped dry" Sugarcamp Run in Independence Township, Washington County.

Aug. 1, 2007: A driller pumps water from Cross Creek in Hopewell Township, Washington County, "down to the rocks on the bed of the stream," according to DEP.

Conrad Volz: "We have no control, absolutely no control over our region's water destiny."

And here's why: in eastern and central Pennsylvania, no one is allowed to take large volumes of water without getting permission first from federally chartered river basin commissions. Not so here in western Pa.

John Hanger: "We are looking at the question of whether there is a legal gap to protect groundwater outside of the river basin commissions."

That means us. Western Pennsylvania, where any company can take as much H2O as it wants. Pitt environmental health professor Conrad Volz has seen what can happen in other parts of the country.

Conrad Volz: "We have had bottlers move into areas where they are taking water at unsustainable rates out of ancient water aquifers."

And water withdrawal is just part of the challenge with Marcellus Shale gas well drilling. Treating all of that water after it's been contaminated in the drilling process is another problem. Even the head of the DEP admitted it in a recent hearing in Harrisburg.

Rep. Camille George, (D) Clearfield County: "Do you think we have the facilities available to be able to treat this fracking water? When it comes out of the ground?"

John Hanger: "I am concerned about the capacity to treat the water…There is a problem looming."

And the problem is this: Pennsylvania only has a half dozen specialized treatment plants like this one in Franklin that take heavy metals and salt out of gas well wastewater. Drillers are creating millions of gallons more wastewater than these plants are able to deal with. So instead, drillers have been taking their wastewater to municipal sewage treatment plants.

Conrad Volz: "Our wastewater plants are not in the business of removing metals."

Arthur Tamilia, ALCOSAN: "In every case where I've had the inquiry, I've turned them down."

ALCOSAN's Arthur Tamilia has refused to accept Marcellus Shale wastewater.

Arthur Tamilia: "This is not an industrial wastewater treatment facility."

Just last month, tests showed higher-than-acceptable levels of total dissolved solids in the Monongahela, and the DEP fingered gas well drilling as part of the problem and urged thousands of people to drink bottled water. The DEP sent a letter to all municipal sewage plants warning them to get state approval before accepting gas well wastewater. And because of that letter, Charleroi and Allegheny Valley sewage treatment plants have stopped taking the wastewater.

Environmental groups are urging the DEP to get tough now on gas drillers and their use of our water.

Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action: "You want to make sure you're doing this right. You don't want to be left with millions and millions of dollars of damage to deal with afterward. The fact that we have a history of people losing their water, of dead streams, that's the kind of thing we want to make sure doesn't happen."

Prior to June, the DEP didn't even ask drillers where they were getting their water from. Now, they're required to tell and to file monthly reports revealing how much water they've withdrawn. So far, not one company has filed a monthly report.