Natural gas drilling operations in Dimock, Pa., are violating laws to protect water and the public, Pennsylvania regulators have determined.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is holding Cabot Oil & Gas accountable for allowing natural gas from lower formations to contaminate fresh water supplies, according to a “Notice of Violation” sent to Cabot dated Feb. 27.
While tapping gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, the company has violated the state’s Oil and Gas Act and Clean Stream Laws, the notice states. Both of those regulations protect drinking water supplies from natural gas hazards.
Gas from Cabot drilling operations has migrated into an aquifer providing water for local residents, the DEP has determined. More than a dozen wells proving water to homes along and near Carter Road have been affected. Four have been taken offline and others have been vented.
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Hundreds of water wells polluted with hydrocarbons have been discovered in and around natural gas drilling sites in Wyoming and Colorado. Some wells have undergone explosions and other strange phenomena. Hydraulic Fracturing is being done to these wells, although the jury is out if this is causing all of the problems. Another theory involves “the backwash” of trucks and equipment that access these water wells.
In these Western States, water well contamination from oil or gas drilling is nothing new. However, the burden for proof required to remedy these situations often lies with the regulators. Such proof can be difficult to find as many times several different companies will be drilling wells in the area, and each company will deny being the source of the
problem. Sometimes there will be only one company in the area, but they will still deny the problem and demand proof.
Here are two stories about the water wells, one from a Pro Publica story that ran in the Denver Post, and one from a local newspaper, Pinedale Online, in Wyoming.
A contingent from Cornell attended the PA gas summit organized by Penn State University from Dec 10 – 11. The powerpoint presentations from the summit are now available online. Since the development of the Marcellus is more advanced in PA, my objective for attending the summit was to see what lessons could be drawn from the PA experience for protecting New York’s water resources.
DEP (PA equivalent of NYS DEC) assistant council (Scott Perry) stated that wastewater disposal is now the most pressing water issue for the development of the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, and I think the same will be true in New York/ The SRBC has developed a robust methodology for regulating water withdrawls while protecting other uses and ecosystem services. They are also promoting creative solutions such as water ‘banking’ during high flow periods, re-use of fracing waters, and the use of water resources that are already contaminated (e.g. acid mine drainage). Activities in DRBC deserve further scrutiny, but I believe that they are following the lead of SRBC. A big issue for New York pertains to the portions of the Marcellus play that fall beyond these two basins. At present, the DEC is not equipped to manage water withdrawls with the same competency as the river basin commissions.
PA has adopted a ‘presumption of responsibility’ standard to ensure that drilling companies restore or replace water supplies that suffer an impairment of quality or quantity within six months of any drilling activity. The DEP has also adopted a progressive approach to storm water pollution prevention that requires the same BMP’s and reporting standards as other development activities.
On a promising note, industry representatives now claim that most wells in the Marcellus will be not be hydraulically-fractured multiple times as was the case in the Barnett Shale. Whether or not this is just technological optimism or is grounded in experience is too early to say. With respect to volumes, experience in PA suggests that most of the areas of the Marcellus are ‘dry’ and all the produced water is actually frac water that has interacted with the salts and other constituents of the formation.
Specific points that emerged from the presentations:
- Municipal waste water treatment (MWWT) facilities are not equipped to handle the type and concentration ranges of pollutants in ‘frac’ and produced water. The chemical signature of produced water varies significantly from E to W and N to S in the Marcellus (e.g. high Barium concentrations in eastern portion of play). High TDS concentrations in wastewater can also significantly disrupt biological processes that underlie almost all MWWT processing. PA has now capped treatment of gas drilling wasterwater at 1% of total annual flows to MWWT. Even so, many facilities do not have any excess treatment capacity. By itself, MWWT is not a long-term solution (acts only as a dilution mechanism) and there is limited scope in the near-term to accommodate more in-flows. With pre-treatment (either on-site or at specialized facilities), this would alleviate some concern with respect to metals, NORMs, etc. Not clear what component of the brines would be removed with some of these options.
- Specialized treatment facilities (e.g. Hart Resource Technologies, HRT) appear well-equipped to separate out pollutants such as metals, benzene, and NORMs from the fracing fluid and produced water. Sludges created in this process are immobilized (i.e. resistant to acid precipitation and leaching) and then land filled. However, the existing specialized facilities in Pennsylvania are operating at or near capacity and although new facilities have been proposed, none have been permitted yet by DEP. In the near and mid-term, it is extremely unlikely that facilities in PA with be able to accommodate any wastewaters from New York State.
- Even with advanced processing in specialized facilities, the end products of treatment must be disposed. This is especially problematic with respect to TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). HRT maintains that the salt they produce at their specialized treatment facilities is nearly food grade. But what do you do with it after it’s produced? Demand and prices for salt are extremely low. Moreover, it already appears that water quality is being significantly impaired in the Monongahela River from TDS discharges resulting from Marcellus drilling. Many water bodies are at their assimilative capacity with respect to TDS and cannot accommodate additional loadings (e.g. West Branch of the Susquehanna).
- Due to geology and other factors, scope for disposal with deep injection wells is extremely limited. At present, there are only 7 of these wells in PA and they only accept very small volumes for disposal.
- HRT comments that technologies are really driven by volumes involved, and this play will require a different set of infrastructure than is currently in place.
A key take-home message for me was that although PA is much further along than NYS in developing the Marcellus and an effective regulatory framework, they are still grappling with the issue of cumulative impacts and are already experiencing negative impacts (e.g. Monongahela River) as a consequence.
-Andrew McDonald, WRI Research Coordinator
Clearly one of the most important issues surrounding the impact of gas well drilling in the Marcellus shale is the disposal of the frac water, due to the potentially high content of dissolved salts. The Scranton Times Tribune reported yesterday (Jan. 14) that the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) is forming a partnership with gas well operaotrs to treat and dipsose of drilling wastewater in ways other than releasing wastewater into streams and rivers. (http://www.scrantontimes.com/articles/2009/01/14/news/sc_times_trib.20090114.a.pg3.tt14dep_s1.2228339_top9.txt)
Susan Riha, WRI Director