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 yet.

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 contamination.

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 shallow aquifers.

“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 gas.”

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 water intake.

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 confidence.”

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.”