Marcellus Shale: Ensure water testing is part of lease agreement before drilling



Contributing writer

ROCKSPRING, Pa. — Before allowing Marcellus Shale gas extraction on their land, property owners should spell out, in the lease agreement to drill, what kind of water testing is done before — and after — drilling.

Potential aftereffects of hydraulic fracking, a method of pumping pressurized water and other chemicals through shale to “fracture” the rock and extract the natural methane gas, has some questioning the safety of water supplies.

To ensure water supply safety, a Penn State extension educator believes in the importance of outlining, in the drilling lease, when water is tested, to ensure against potentially dangerous pollutants. In the fracking process, wastewater is generated and must be removed from the drill site.


The important thing to remember is: accept the water testing from the drill company. If you want to test the water yourself, “decide what you can afford,” said Bryan R. Swistock, extension associate, School of Forest Resources and Environmental Resources Research Institute. Those costs can be hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Swistock spoke Aug. 17 during the annual Penn State Ag Progress Days at Rockspring, Pa. The topic: protecting water supplies during Marcellus gas drilling.

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The important thing to remember, according to the extension educator, is to ensure the well testers are independent, from a state-accredited lab, and not employed by the gas company. Ensure the testing is spelled out in the lease agreement.

“Whatever is in the lease agreement will trump” when it comes to ensuring well water is protected. “The more testing you do,” said Swistock, “the more legal protection you have.”

Over one million Pennsylvania homes and farms and 3 million people use private water wells and springs, according to Swistock. Ninety percent are drilled and 10 percent are hand-dug wells and springs.

About 45 percent have never been properly tested (Pennsylvania is one of the few states that do not require testing) and approximately 41 percent fail at least one health-based standard.

In addition, Swistock stated he sees a number of issues with regard to proper design and maintenance. Wells are often not capped properly — he has discovered bees’ nests, rodents or even no caps at all.

Another hazard is animal control — he once saw a dog tied to a well with his doghouse placed well within the 100-foot setback.


Important guidelines, according to Swistock, are:

• Maintain your own wellhead site, free from pets and other intrusions to protect the overall quality of your well water.

• Ensure enough setback from streams and waterways. At least a 100 foot radius protection area should be maintained from existing well heads, streams, and wetlands for storage of farm and home items, animals, etc.

• Casing should be above ground, with a sanitary well cap, grout seal, and sealed spring box, etc.

• Understand that pre-drilling problems are common. In a 2006-2007 survey of 701 wells, the water contained or was corrosive, hard water, coliform bacteria, iron, and low Ph among other issues.

• Naturally occurring methane is present in about 20 percent of water wells. Low amounts are less than 1 milligram (mg) per liter. A cause for concern is when methane reaches 5-10 mg per liter (the well must be vented).

If the measurement reaches 20-25 mgs per liter, the water should be aerated. But methane is one of the “easier” items to remove from water, according to Swistock. There are no drinking water standards for methane, he said.

• Don’t wait too long before drilling. Make sure the testing is done close to the time that well drilling begins.

“Cooperate with testing, allow testing to occur,” he said. The testing runs in “tiers,” with costs dependent on the level of testing, which can run into several hundreds of dollars.

Basic testing looks for methane, chloride, sodium and other elements and compounds. More complex testing will look at baryon, iron, manganese, and others. Ensuring water safety rests on the drilling company for 1,000 feet of the gas well and within six months from of the start of drilling, according to Swistock.


Penn State will soon see the results of its own water well research on 250 water wells across the Marcellus Shale drilling region. The report will be released in the fall and may answer a lot of questions about the safety of fracking.

The study will be released by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and will look at approximately 18 different elements and compounds in water and what effects on well water fracking may have.

One question: does fracking affect the very deep underground water, known as “brine,” originally from eons-old oceans, but stored deep underground?

Brine is “nasty stuff,” said Swistock.

The big question is, if drilling and fracking penetrates deep enough, could brine move into protected waters? Additional research is needed, despite the ongoing work in opening up new wells daily.

For more information on water resources and their protection, visit or contact Swistock at 814-863-0194 or email


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