Test before they drill that shale well



Penn State University Extension

(Part I of two-part series)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many people with a private water well have never or seldom have their well water tested. Pre-drilling water testing provides homeowners with useful information on their water wells as well as helpful research data.

Regularly test supply

Water testing by the natural gas industry in the Marcellus shale region is affirming the need for all rural Pennsylvanians to regularly test their private water supply. Pennsylvania state law defined in the Oil and Gas Act of 1984 regulates oil and gas drilling.

Recent amendments to the law have refined the act to account for the unique circumstances involved with developing unconventional oil and gas resources from shale. An important section (208) of the law addresses the protection of drinking water supplies.

Drillers responsible for one year

The law requires operators to follow specific practices to protect ground and surface water supplies while developing the natural gas resource.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the law presumes operators to be responsible (for up to a year after a gas well is drilled) for any impairment of a private water supply within 2,500 feet of their drilling operation.

Furthermore, the law requires an operator to restore or replace any private or public water supply deemed impaired by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). As a result, responsible operators make efforts to limit their liability by collecting pre-drilling water samples from landowners near proposed gas well locations.

Sample collection

Typically, a landowner is asked to grant access to a consultant hired by the driller to collect the samples before drilling occurs in the area. Once collected, the consultants deliver the samples to an accredited laboratory for analysis.

While the samples are collected and analyzed in a legal context to protect the driller, the results also have utility for the landowner. A landowner may duplicate or extend this testing on their own, but must use a third party sampler and a DEP-accredited laboratory for results to be considered as legal evidence of their pre-drilling water quality.

Routine well testing

In the absence of state law regarding water well construction standards and minimum consumptive quality standards, Penn State Extension has long advocated for the wise management of private water systems. Perhaps the most common theme to our educational message has been to encourage landowners to routinely test their private water supplies.

Testing, and reacting appropriately to any contaminant found at harmful levels, remains the measure of our educational objectives and impact.

Penn State research prior to Marcellus shale development has found that only half of the private water supplies in the state have been tested, and fewer still have been tested regularly. A result of the natural gas development has been a significant number of private water systems being tested for the first time.

Data collection

Statewide to date, tens of thousands of water tests have been completed by the natural gas drilling companies. One company alone has collected over 18,000 samples in Tioga, Bradford, Susquehanna and Sullivan Counties. Other companies, working in the same area, have added significantly to the total number of tests run.

The collective water quality data provided by the industry correlates closely with previous studies conducted in the area by Penn State Extension. Previous studies and current results show that many private water supplies in Pennsylvania fail at least one water quality standard — and many of these pre-existing conditions warrant the attention of the homeowner.

(Next week: What the data reveals.)

(The author is a county ag educator with Penn State Extension in Sullivan County, providing agronomy, water quality and energy development programming.)

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