New study: drilling causes water contamination in Pennsylvania wells

An analysis of drinking water sampled from three homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania revealed traces of a compound commonly found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids, according to a study published on Monday.

“This is the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances” into drinking water, said Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found traces of the chemical compound 2-BE in the wells. The compound is often found in drilling and fracking fluid, as well as paint, cosmetics and fluids, but the authors identified drilling as the most probably source. According to the study, the contaminants “migrated laterally through kilometers of rock at shallow to intermediate depths” to reach the wells.

A well in Bradford County, PA. Photo: Reuters

A well in Bradford County, PA. Photo: Reuters

Wellbores the source of contamination
We should be clear about the source of contamination in the study. The oil and gas industry can hold on to its big lie about fracking and water contamination. That’s the one that says that, because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk. While the residents of Pavillion, Wyoming would disagree, the fracking process itself is not the source of contamination in this case.

What we’re talking about in this case is a lack of wellbore cement casing integrity, a common problem in oil and gas drilling. The researchers suggest that the wells, which were established in 2009, were constructed with a protective intermediate casing of steel and cement from the surface down to almost 1,000 feet. But below that depth the wells lacked the protective casing, putting them at greater risk of leaking their contents into the surrounding rock layers.

According to the researchers, it is likely that fracking fluid escaped the borehole while crews were first drilling the gas well and migrated over time through the rock subsurface to the wells.

How does Montana regulate casings and wellbore depth?
Montana has some regulations regarding cement casings, but it is unlikely they would prevent the kind of contamination described in this study. Montana does not require that drillers meet American Petroleum Institute Standards for well casings, which include:

  • Conductor casings should be cemented to the ground surface
  • Intermediate casings should extend above aquifer and hydrocarbon zone
  • Production casings should be cemented at least 500 feet above the highest formation where fracking is performed
  • Surface casings should be cemented to a pre-determined depth across all aquifers and below the deepest aquifer

Instead, Montana standards do not address these standards for conductor casings, intermediate casings, production casings or surface casings.

well casingWhat it means for us
The study released this week is important because it confirms that a lack of wellbore integrity can cause water contamination miles from a fracking site, and it demonstrates the clear risk to wellbores that are not properly regulated.

The Administrative Rules of Montana do not properly regulate the integrity of wellbores. This is critical for Montana residents to understand, and I encourage all of you to read the regulations for yourself.  You can find them in the following sections of the Administrative Rules of Montana: 36-22-1001, 36-22-1002, 36-22-1416, 36-22-1010, 36-22-1011, 36-22-1013, 36-22-1106, 36-22-703. There is a good summary of the basic provisions of these laws at Law Atlas (click on map of Montana to see summary).

The bottom line, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, is that Montana communities need to take control of the regulation of oil and gas drilling. The American Petroleum Institute has set forward standards for protecting wellbore integrity, which Montana law does not follow. It is worth noting that Pennsylvania (click on Pennsylvania map), the site of the contamination in this week’s study, has adopted the American Petroleum Institute standards subsequent to 2009, when the wells in question were established.

It’s your water. Take action to protect it.

Related: Why a car’s engine has more integrity than a shale well

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
This entry was posted in Fracking Information, Health impacts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to New study: drilling causes water contamination in Pennsylvania wells

  1. Dennis Hoyem says:

    David, once again you have amassed a compendium of absolutely crucial information that all Montana residents should be aware of. Thank you. I say “all” because I believe that all residents are affected to varying degrees–either directly or indirectly, whether or not they live within or near the reaches of frac wells.
    You always provide information, and links, to very credible sources, too. Your hard work makes it so easy for the rest of us.
    I’m certainly glad that states like Pennsylvania at least eventually appear to learn from their earlier mistakes or consequences of their ignorance.
    I found the Well Atlas site referenced right after the well casing diagram (Fig.3) very telling and very important. To me, it solidly reconfirms the fact that states must have both 1) sound, protective, administrative rules or statutes, 2) as well as the willingness and ability to enforce them.
    This information is germane to the upcoming property rights forum coming up a week from tomorrow (next Thur) which will also include some discussion on “pros” and cons of frac drilling. The forum will be held at the Anipro Event Center south of Absarokee in Stillwater Co.

    • davidjkatz says:

      Thanks Dennis, for the kind words. I agree that the Law Atlas site is excellent, and it clearly shows Montana’s shortcomings in protecting property rights.

      I’ll be doing a post about the property rights forum in Absarokee soon.

  2. Pingback: New EPA report links fracking to water contamination. That’s great, but local regulation is still required | Preserve the Beartooth Front

  3. Pingback: Action Alert: Your voice is needed to put strong Montana setback rules into place | Preserve the Beartooth Front

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