Water Tests Show Problems With Rural Water Sources

2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

With water being one of the biggest issues related to Marcellus Shale drilling, it might be good for a landowners to know what’s in their water before signing a lease.

“Regular testing of water supplies is an important aspect for private water owners,” said Jim Clark, a Penn State water resources Extension educator from McKean County who led a discussion on water quality testing during a Jan. 30 webinar.

In 2011 and 2012, Penn State, along with the Clearfield County Conservation District and Headwaters Resource Conservation & Development Council, got a $150,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation to pay for pre-drilling water quality testing for mostly low-income families in an eight-county region of central and northern Pennsylvania, including Cameron, Clearfield, Centre, Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter counties.

A total of 689 private water supplies, including 547 wells, 141 springs and 1 pond, were tested for 21 different water quality parameters.

Clark said the purpose was to target low-income families that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a water-quality test on their own.

The money paid for 100 tests in each of the eight counties.

Another 56 tests are scheduled to be performed this year.

While things such as pH, coliforms and E. coli are standard protocol in a water-quality test, levels of methane, ethane and chloride can be important when it comes to possible impacts from Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

The hydrofracking or fracking process, which sends millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground to break up shale rock containing natural gas, could possibly contribute to higher levels of certain chemicals and gases in drinking water, one of the main concerns of Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

“One of the major accomplishments of having this baseline data is that it comes from these groundwater sources,” Clark said.

Even though methane and ethane can occur naturally, the results showed that for the most part, these gases were found at very low levels, if at all, in the water samples collected.

Clark said 86 percent of the water sources tested below detectable levels for methane, while the highest amount of methane was measured at 35 milligrams per liter. Ethane levels also tested very low, but Clark pointed out that there is no drinking water standard for either methane or ethane.

Chloride, another naturally occurring chemical that can be affected by Marcellus gas drilling, also tested very low, with only 1 percent of drinking water sources testing above the standard of 250 milligrams per liter.

“This is one of the key parameters we look for when testing for impacts from gas well drilling,” he said.

Unlike Bradford and Tioga counties, most of the counties involved in the survey have little gas drilling activity going on, at least up to this point.

Still, Clark said having a pre-drilling test is significant because it gives a landowner at least some proof that gas drilling contributed to water problems and can allow them to put enforceable water quality standards in a lease with a gas company.

Pennsylvania Act 13, which was passed last year, changed pollution liability parameters with a new rule stating that gas companies are presumed responsible for polluting a water supply, even if it’s as far as 2,500 feet from a gas well and it occurs within 12 months of a well being drilled.

“The numbers were good, because before the drilling happens, you know the numbers are low. If there is an impact, you will see it and there are other contaminants in the watershed this test will benefit as well,” he said.

If anything, Clark said, the survey showed a significant problem with overall water quality in some rural areas of the state.

Results showed that 41 percent of water sources tested above or below the pH water standard, which is anything between 6.5 and 8.5.

Another 50 percent of water sources tested positive for coliforms, which can cause flulike symptoms, and 19 percent of water sources tested positive for E. coli.

A follow-up survey showed that 53 percent of people getting the tests had some sort of water treatment installed in their homes and that the average cost of water treatment, which can include anything from a basic filtration system, water softening, ultraviolet lights or in-line chlorinators, was $1,127.

The Penn State water lab does a basic water test for pH, coliforms and E. coli for $50.

More involved tests, such as the one in this survey, can run from a few hundred to well over $1,000, depending on the lab performing the test.

Clark said the fact that the state has no construction or location standards for water wells is likely contributing to the poor water quality in some areas.

“If it’s not constructed or maintained right, contamination from the outside can get into that well,” he said.

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