About that Water in Your Well

Study says millions of PA residents relying on private water wells that may contain contaminants – none of which are related to the Marcellus Shale

Nearly 20,000 new wells are drilled in Pennsylvania every year. And among these, not a single one of them has anything to do with oil or natural gas.

Instead, these wells are drilled for the purpose of accessing underground sources of water. In Pennsylvania, more than three million residents rely on private wells for essential sources of potable water – second most in the entire nation behind Michigan. So lots of wells must mean lots of good, high-quality drinking water, right? Not according to a report issued last year by researchers from Penn State.

The study, available here and commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, was conducted over two years and drew on samples from more than 700 individual private water wells installed all across the state. What did the researchers find? For starters, a full 40 percent of tested wells failed to meet the state’s drinking water standards for safety. Keep in mind that Pennsylvania supports more than 1 million private water wells – which means it’s possible that more than 400,000 water wells, serving roughly 700,000 residents, are of a quality and nature of potential concern. And the worst thing about it? According to the survey, very few of these well owners even knew they had a problem.

With more than 1,300 Marcellus wells developed in Pennsylvania this year, it’s become a popular thing to assume that wells drilled for the purpose of tapping enormous and clean-burning reserves of natural gas 5,000 to 9,000 feet below the water table are having a deleterious impact on underground drinking water. The alleged culprit? A commonly deployed well stimulation technology known as hydraulic fracturing, a technique that’s been used more than a million times over the past 60 years not just for oil and natural gas, but for geothermal production and even by EPA for Superfund clean-ups.

But as mentioned, the report on private water wells from Penn State was issued in 2009, roughly 50 years removed from the first-ever application of fracturing technology in the Commonwealth — and five years after the fracturing of the first-ever Marcellus Shale well. In other words, hydraulic fracturing has been around an awful long time in Pennsylvania, and so has the development of oil (1859) and natural gas (1881). So if the critics are right, those activities must have been identified by researchers as the greatest threats to the state’s underground water resources, right?

Take a look for yourself:

Of the 28 variables measured for each well, the results demonstrated that natural variables, such as the type of bedrock geology where the well was drilled, were important in explaining the occurrence of most pollutants in wells. Soil moisture conditions at the time of sampling were the single most important variable in explaining the occurrence of bacteria in private wells. … Inadequate well construction was strongly correlated with the occurrence of both coliform and E. coli bacteria in wells.

That’s right – we forgot to mention the fecal coliform (exactly what you think it is) and E. coli bacteria. According to the report, it turns out that 33 percent of private water wells in PA were found to be contaminated with the coliform, while a staggering 14 percent tested positive for E. coli. Another contaminant of concern is naturally occurring arsenic. Two percent of tested wells had increased levels of that, which potentially translates into 20,000 water wells across the state. According to the report, arsenic “most often occur[s] naturally from certain types of rocks but it can also come from treated lumber and pesticides.” Incidentally, Pennsylvania is among the only states in the nation without regulations governing the construction of private water wells or the periodic testing of the quality of water that comes from them.

This presentation prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey will take a minute or two to load, but take a look at slide 23 if you get the chance. Turns out Pennsylvania’s water wells are among the only ones in the nation with “high contaminant concentrations” for every one of the Big 3: arsenic, nitrates and radon. Again: Nothing in the report remotely related to Marcellus Shale activities. But don’t take our word for it – ask DEP (by way of Scott Perry, director of DEP’s Bureau of Oil and Gas Management):

“If there was fracturing of the producing formations that was having a direct communication with groundwater, the first thing you would notice is the salt content in the drinking water. It’s never happened. After a million times across the country, no one’s ever documented drinking water wells that have actually been shown to be impacted by fracking.”

Protecting underground sources of drinking water is and will always be our top priority – after all, we live here too. But if we expect the quality of our water to improve, first we’ll need to be honest about how it got where it is today, and then we’ll need to get serious about what needs to be done to improve it. That, we think, is what you’d do if you genuinely cared about the state and status of Pennsylvania’s private water wells. Unfortunately, too many folks seem all too willing to blame the entire phenomenon on the development of the Marcellus Shale – irrespective of the science, and blind to the history of the past 60 years.