Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Gas Industry Building Database Of Water Test Results, But Won’t Make It Public

EPA/JIM LO SCALZO /LANDOV

Sherry Vargson, of Granville Summit, leased the mineral rights under a portion of her farm to Chesapeake Energy. She illustrates her assertion that methane has leached into her well water by lighting the water on fire. Scientists want more access to "pre-drill" or baseline test results from private wells to better understand whether these issues are caused naturally or by drilling.

More than two years ago the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry trade group, began building an electronic database to house information about the water quality in thousands of private wells across Pennsylvania.

It’s made up of “pre-drill” or baseline data– critical information that helps establish whether drilling operations may have caused water contamination issues.

The project is already up and running, but there are no plans to make it public.

Instead, it’s available to gas companies, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and one researcher at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has signed a confidentiality agreement.

“This was designed from the very beginning to be a transparent process and to really raise the importance and profile of pre-drill data.” says MSC president Kathryn Klaber.

But some scientists wish the process were more transparent.

“I’m disappointed to hear the Marcellus Shale Coalition is not planning to release their data publicly,” says Dr. Susan Brantley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University.

Confidential Information

The natural gas boom has helped shed light on the fact that Pennsylvania lacks standards for private water wells.

A 2011 Penn State study found 40 percent of private wells across the state failed to meet federal safe drinking water standards before drilling occurred. The most common problem was coliform bacteria, but turbidity and manganese were also issues.

Two years later, scientists say they’re still having trouble gaining access to some important information about water quality.

Dr. Radisav Vidic chairs the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s the lead author of a new review for the journal Science, which highlights the need for more information when it comes to gas drilling and water.

“The only thing we can say is that based on the data available to us, we don’t see the evidence of sustained surface water impact,” says Vidic, “But we don’t know much about the groundwater impacts because we don’t have the data.”

The authors note this issue is particularly relevant when it comes to methane:

There is a substantial controversy whether the methane detected in private groundwater wells in the area where drilling for unconventional gas is ongoing was caused by well drilling or natural processes. It is difficult to resolve this issue because many areas have long had sources of methane unrelated to hydraulic fracturing, and pre-drilling baseline data are often unavailable.

“You can make all the claims you want, but if there’s no data to back it up, people will remain suspicious,” says Vidic. “I feel like [the industry] is just shooting themselves in the foot.”

Methane concentrations in groundwater and springs

courtesy of Science/AAAS

"There’s a big hole in the middle of Pennsylvania," Brantely explains, "because there hasn’t been a study released with locations." She says it's possible to make the data "fuzzy" so researchers can still use it (and map it) while preserving anonymity for homeowners.

Confidentially agreements can prevent information about water wells from being released. It’s sensitive information that could harm property values and adversely impact homeowners.

“We have to be incredibly protective of the information our companies have,” says Klaber. “It would be highly inappropriate and hugely problematic for any of the private data to be shared broadly.”

But Brantlely — who co-authored the Science review– says there are many ways to make the data “fuzzier” so researchers can use it and homeowners can remain anonymous.

“There are a lot of cases where data has to be confidential. Think about medical data,” she says. “But there have been protocols developed to protect that confidentiality. We need to do that with groundwater data.”

Klaber hopes the data will still be used for academic research. She says scientists from other institutions could partner with researchers at IUP who have agreed to confidentiality requirements.

But Brantley says it’s becoming increasingly common for funding agencies and journals to request access to the raw data.

She doubts she would collaborate on a paper without seeing the information for herself.

“I probably wouldn’t do that. I think that’s really odd.”

The database

Robert Wilson is the only person at IUP with administrative access to the database, and even his abilities are limited by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

“I can see what’s in there,” he says, “But there are safeguards built in for the way I operate.”

Wilson heads the school’s Institute for Mine Mapping, Archival Procedures, and Safety. He says there are two parts to the database: internal and shared.

About two dozen gas companies have already started uploading pre-drill testing results to their own internal section, where they can review the information, and then share it.

The DEP can only access the shared portion of the database.

The idea is to streamline permitting and skip the process of physically submitting information (usually .PDF documents on a DVD) to the agency.

Wilson has already trained about 30 DEP employees on how to use the database.

“At the staff-level, they’re more than willing to get rid of the DVD submission process,” he says, “We have some meetings coming up to talk about what the DEP’s needs are and some final legal questions.”

It’s unclear how this will impact record-keeping and Right To Know requests at the agency. A DEP spokesman declined StateImpact Pennsylvania’s request to discuss the database.

Wilson assumes the DEP will download the information.

“They’re probably going to have to take the data out of there somehow.”

Scientists Seek Paper Documents Instead

At the same time the DEP appears to be making an agreement to use this industry-owned database, scientists are attempting to get the same information from the agency– in paper form.

Susan Brantley says she’s working with the DEP on a memorandum of understanding to get access to the test results in order to put them on a public database.

“If we can get this memorandum of understanding, then township by township we can be given paper documentation of data,” she says, “We have to carefully make it electronic and make sure we redact confidential information.”

She says the DEP has been helpful, but given limits on staff and resources the process will take time.

 

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Sweeney/1674879357 Mary Sweeney

    Doesn’t PA law require home sellers to disclose any known property defects? Assuming that is the case, then it seems to me that the argument that methane levels in private water wells must be kept confidential to protect property values doesn’t make any sense, because homeowners wishing to sell their property would be required, by law, to reveal any abnormally high methane levels. If a seller knew about the high levels and did not disclose, then I think that seller could be held liable for any losses related to the methane levels, which means that not disclosing would not only be immoral, but also financially risky. So who is being protected, exactly, by keeping this information secret? (I think we know the answer.)

    • Brian Oram

      Citizens can disclose and must disclose water quality data as part of a real estate transaction – this does not mean it would be automatically placed in a public database. Again – we proposed and started a private database for educational purposes that would be supported by the public in 2009. http://www.water-research.net – We have used this information to inform and educate private well owners in PA for FREE.

      • Lone Bear

        hey brian just tell everyone the truth YOU ARE AND ALWAYS WERE PRO DRILLING AND A PAID HACK FOR THE GAS COMPANY!!!!!

  • john slesinger

    Marcellus Shale Coalition, DEP, and one person from IUP with limited information and a gag order. What a joke. In my case they were not required to test or even inform me that drilling was to occur. After over 30 years of good water, I was left with water over 8x the safe drinking water standards. I was looking to sell before this happened but now I have been forced to wait 3 years for my court case to proceed. They say there is limited damage done, but yes one must disclose any water problem history to a prospective buyer. The “stink” of gas well drilling will remain with this property for years. The one and only time I spoke to the driller his statement was “why don’t you call the DEP and see what they do” The drillers know who they had to buy off to be able to do as they please. I see now that former DEP head John Hanger is campaining for governor. Last I heard he still has ties to gas well drilling. This has to end!

  • David Eisenberg

    Who is doing the testing the results of which are going into the database? Is it the industry’s hired people or qualified third party entities without a potential conflict of interest? The transparency claimed seems not the least transparent and the validity of the data is at the very least suspect if not gathered and entered into the database independently. If the industry is not worried about what the preliminary and post drilling test data will show, they would make the information public.

    • http://www.water-research.net/ Brian Oram

      For the Citizens Database – We only take data that has gone through the chain of custody process, tested by a certified laboratory, and submitted by Citizens. This could be data the citizen paid to obtain. I link to this can be found at http://www.water-research.net

  • DoryHippauf

    As transparent as drilling mud. How about a data base that tracks the number of homes receiving water deliveries from natural gas corporations?

    Rumor has it, over 400 homes alone in Hickory PA are getting water deliveries from just ONE driller in the area.

    • FrackTrack

      Unfortunately, many families are forced to sign confidentiality agreements in order to receive water. In order to document this, people must be deployed in the field that are not connected to the individuals receiving water.

      • http://www.water-research.net/ Brian Oram

        If the citizens released their data to the citizens database at least the predrilling data would be available. If necessary the post drilling data could be released to the database prior to signing agreements or would have to be researched through a file review.

  • DoryHippauf

    HOLES – BIG HOLES

    1. How do we know info from NG Drillers is correct and complete?

    2. NG Drillers have option of “sharing”???? What aren’t they sharing?

    3. DEP only has access to SHARED portion??? Why not the unshared portion????

    4.
    Wilson who only has access to portions of database is training DEP
    employees???? isn’t this like teaching someone how to drive a car without keys to
    the car???

    5. Why just PRE-DRILL tests? Why not POST DRILL tests for comparison???

    6. Appears to be voluntary since this is a MSC project. So how complete of a “picture” will this be???

    7.
    Isn’t a pre-drill test just a “snapshot”, and hasn’t DEP rejected 1
    pre-drill test as being insufficient to determine water conditions?

  • FrackTrack

    tools exist to compile this information independently. it’s about working together.

    http://www.fracktrack.org/

    • Brian Oram

      I agree and that is why we started this back in 2009, but it is critical that homeowners and well owners learn about what the data and information means. Many times this information is lacking. Also – we need to use this information to fix the existing private wells that are not properly constructed and producing poor water quality.

      • Lone Bear

        you lied to me in 09 as you lied to everone else ADMIT IT ORAM YOU ARE A LIAR AS YOU SIDED WITH CHEASAPEAK WHEN I SAW U AT THOSE TOWN MEETINGS YOU ARE A THIEF AND PATHOLOGICAL LIAR YOU LIED ABOUT WATER USEAGE AND SAT WITH GAS EXCUT. MAY YOU ROT IN HELL AND DROP DEAD LIKE VAN SWOLE!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Liz-Rosenbaum/100000486492990 Liz Rosenbaum

    How can Kathryn Klaber say that it’s designed to be a “transparent process” when confidentiality agreements are required? Homeowners should sue MSC for compiling the data without their consent.

    • Lone Bear

      simple she’s a corporate slut and whore thats how!

  • Jitoo Parekh

    Methane after combustion in IC engine gives more Pollutant in Air as compare to Gasoline.I have tested that in Bombay,India.1993.

  • Brian Oram

    This is why we started the Citizen Groundwater Database – this is an unfunded program.

    The first step was getting citizens to submit certified data, provide them a review, and the next step is compiling the data. There is more data in the hands of citizens than the industry. We must start working together. The program can be found at http://www.water-research.net
    Reviews are fact based.

    • Lone Bear

      UNFUNDED? THAT A REAL LAUGH IS IT THE SAME UNFUND THAT CRAP NATION GOT IT FROM WE ALL KNOW IT CAME FROM GAS COMP TO MAKE HIS MOVIE THAT U SUPPORT AND BY THE WAY ASK YOUR IRISH TRASH BUDDY WHERE DID HE GET THE ONE MILLION DOLLARS TO BUY HIS CONDO IN CALIFORNIA?

  • Brian Oram

    Request for paper copies of the data have not been approved. We tried in 2009, 2010, etc. Primary reason is confidentiality – this is different is there is an active investigation, but if PSU asks they will probably get their way. When a small college asks, the answer is no.

  • Brian Oram

    Mary – I agree, but PADEP does not regulate private wells this way and also keep in mind that this could be your house. Yes disclosure as part of a sale, but that does mean putting all the data online for the world to see. How many people disclose that their water contains total coliform bacteria in PA ? Guest what about 30 % to 50% private wells have this problem, how about arsenic 8 % have elevated levels, iron/manganese 10 to 30%, etc. There is more to this story, but not the “we know the answer” as you are suggesting. This is why the Citizens Database is using zip code and very rough GPS position and this is why we are recommending private well construction standards, annual water testing for private wells, and developing a state based program to fix wells in PA.

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