Fracking’s Impact on Water Discussed
Morgantown Dominion Post
1 November 2012
By David Beard
The global shale gas boom has people questioning how hydrofracking
might affect water supplies. Two experts at a water conference
Wednesday in Morgantown said there’s not enough data to decide
Shikha Sharma, an assistant professor in WVU’s geology and
geography department, and Marc Glass, a principal in environmental
consulting firm Downstream Strategies, talked about fracking’s
impact on water supplies, during a session of the 2102 West
Virginia Water Research Conference, put on by WVU’s West Virginia
Water Research Institute at the Waterfront Place Hotel.
At the same session, Morgantown Utility Board (MUB) General
Manager Tim Ball described a success story — how it worked with a
driller to protect the city’s water supply.
Sharma explored the problem of dissolved methane — called stray
gas — migrating into public drinking water supplies. She said
studies of methane in West Virginia groundwater show no
correlation between abandoned wells or coal mines and gas
migration into the groundwater.
There does seem to be a tie to topography though — the methane
accumulates in low lying valleys.
In coal mining areas, she said, methane can leak from shallow gas
strata, coalbeds and gas storage fields.
With a significant lack of data to work with, she said,
researchers need to keep monitoring aquifers to understand any
possible ties to fracking.
They need a good baseline of current dissolved methane for
subsequent measurements, and well-established dissolved-gas
sampling protocols, she said. The protocols would include natural
geochemical tracers that can track stray gas sources.
“Unfortunately, this is still not well studied,” she said.
Glass said the chief known hazard associated with natural gas
production is surface spills. “We see the highest quantities [of
potential pollutants] and highest risks for that to happen.”
He cited an example of a water well situated 1000 feet from a gas
well. The well showed elevated levels of pollutants. At the well
pad, an impoundment liner was torn and compromised.
This suggested the likelihood chemicals migrated from the site —
but not definitive proof. Given the regulatory environment at the
time, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fined the
producer for the liner problems, but didn’t investigate the water
It’s unclear, Glass said, how or if natural and artificial
geologic conduits — cracks and fissures and so on — may permit gas
migration from the shale layers thousands of feet down up to the
“What we lack is conclusive data,” he said.
The DEP does know about one certain problem, though, he said. In
its recent State of the Environment report, the DEP wrote,
“Unplugged wells or improperly plugged wells can lead to
groundwater contamination with crude oil, salt water and natural
While the DEP has spent $6.2 million during the past 10 years to
plug or reclaim 252 wells or well sites, there remain 13,000
permitted abandoned wells. The legislative auditor’s office
criticized the DEP for this problem in a September audit, saying,
“The [DEP’s] Office of Oil and Gas is not enforcing statutory
requirements as they concern abandoned oil and gas wells, which is
causing the number of abandoned wells to Increase.”
A Morgantown success story
In May 2011, The Dominion Post became aware of and notified MUB
that the DEP had permitted two gas wells in March — with no public
notice — for the Morgantown Industrial Park, across the
Monongahela River and just 1,500 feet upstream from MUB’s public
This was before the passage of the Natural Gas Horizontal Well
Control Act and the regulatory environment was uncertain. “We felt
like we were in the Wild, Wild West,” Ball said.
Within two weeks, MUB had negotiated an extensive set of
precautions with the developer, Northeast Natural Energy, which
Northeast agreed to incorporate into modified permits.
DEP did everything required, Ball said. “The problem was the
regulations didn’t require much of them.” Northeast’s cooperation,
however, smoothed the way for DEP to allow the modifications.
“We accomplished more than most expected we would,” he said.
Since then, MUB has been conducting regular water testing at
several sites on the well pads and in the river. “We’ve not found
anything to cause any suspicion we’ve had a release.”
If he had one do-over, he said, he would have asked Northeast to
share the testing expense: 47 tests so far at $3,000 each,
totaling $141,000. But it’s been worth it. “The bottom line is
this: public confidence. You can’t put a price on public
Ball said that while MUB was working to manage and minimize risks
from a technical approach, the city was taking a public policy
approach — a drilling and fracking ban extending a mile beyond
city limits, which ultimately failed in court.
Although the ban failed, Ball said he thinks the twopronged
approach — policy and technical — contributed to the success of
MUB’s efforts. “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”