Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Burning Questions: The Who, What, Where, When and Why of Water Testing

Susan Phillips / WHYY

Bradford County resident Crystal Stroud says nearby drilling activity poisoned her water well with barium. But she conducted her baseline test after well construction began.

Last month, we asked you to submit your burning questions about natural gas drilling – the information and context you need to know about the industry that’s overhauling so much of Pennsylvania’s economy. Today, we begin answering them. All this week, StateImpact will address some of the hundreds of questions readers have sent in.

Then, on Friday, you can vote on which topic we’ll cover next. 

Alton Fly wins the prize for having one of the most succinct and direct burning questions, and therefore, the first to be answered. “What water qualities should I test for?” Fly asks this because he’s one of 3 million Pennsylvania residents who rely on private drinking water wells, not a municipal water treatment facility. No regulations of private water wells exist in the state, so those folks are on their own when it comes to maintaining quality drinking water.

First, even though SirFly didn’t ask this, we’d like to answer the “when.” Why? Because every time we here at StateImpactPA hear about or report on residential water contamination, the one crucial but missing puzzle piece is baseline water testing. Baseline means getting your well water tested before any drilling activity occurs. That means before the area starts to get cleared for drilling, and not simply before fracking happens. The independent baseline test is needed to prove a connection between drilling and contamination. Kevin Green from Seewald Laboratories in Williamsport, says do it as close to the start of production as possible.

“Once they come in and do some work and then you have it tested, they can say ‘Oh well, your water could have been like that forever.’”

But it’s important not to do it too long before gas production begins. Bryan Swistock is the water resources coordinator with the Penn State Extension Service.

“You don’t want to be testing and have the drilling begin three to four years from now,” says Swistock. You definitely want to have the well tested within a year. The closer you can get to the start of drilling, the better it really is.”

Swistock cautions homeowners that the labs are often busy, so contact them ahead of time. For an independent lab test, a worker needs to come directly to the house to collect the water sample. In order to know when production will begin, Swistock recommends signing up for the Department of Environmental Protection’s e-notice site to get information about permits. Once a pad is constructed, drilling can begin very quickly.

The Department of Environmental Protection has a list of accredited labs. The state requires drilling companies to test water wells that lie within 1000 feet of a gas well. If water quality changes within a certain period of time, the gas company is held liable. But many residents prefer to conduct their own water testing. In that case, the state does provide some guidelines. Both the DEP and the private labs have broken these tests down in tiers, with the first tier being the least extensive, but also cheaper than the other tiers.

The most common pollutants to test for are salts, metals and organic materials. The cheapest level of testing includes total dissolved solids, sodium, methane and ethane, as well as iron, manganese and barium. The cost for this test would range between $200 to $300 dollars.

More extensive tests would also include total suspended solids, calcium, magnesium, bromide, selenium, potassium, strontium, oil and grease, surfactants, lead, arsenic, alkalinity, coliform bacteria, sulfate and nitrate. This could run a property owner up to $500 dollars.

The broadest test, and the most expensive, could run between $800 to $1000 dollars. This test would look for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, petroleum hydrocarbons, uranium, radium, radioactive materials and radon. This would provide the highest level of legal protection.

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Answering your burning questions

Some companies do their own pre-drill testing of water wells near drilling sites, which can be free to the property owner. But the companies are not always willing to release those results, and some residents don’t trust them. When it comes to interpreting the tests, laboratory staff can be very helpful. Penn State Extension Service also provides an interpretive tool for reading a water test result.

Once you’ve got your baseline test in hand, periodic testing of water is recommended. But how often to do it depends on affordability. Some residents test their water every six months. Carrie Davis is the quality assurance officer with Benchmark Analytics in Sayre, Pa.

“If you start to notice something, smell, taste, color, appearance, then you would want to get another check.”

Davis says depending on the state of the water, the lab may recommend something less than the full battery of tests the second time around.

 

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