Energy. Environment. Economy.

DEP Says Gas Drilling Did Not Contaminate Susquehanna County Well Water

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Franklin Forks resident Tammy Manning with her granddaughter. Manning has become an outspoken critic of gas drilling.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says a 16-month long investigation concluded that gas drilling did not cause nearby residential water wells to contain high levels of methane in Franklin Township, Susquehanna County.

Speaking to StateImpact last September at a protest in Philadelphia, Franklin Forks resident Tammy Manning said she was convinced gas drilling caused her water to go bad.

Manning says her well water began spewing like a geyser in December, 2011. She says the contaminated water made her granddaughter vomit, before the family realized it was unsafe to drink.

“We want the gas company to leave our area,” said Manning. “I just feel like in 20 years, instead of going to war over oil, we’ll go to war over water.”

But DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly says the gas company is not to blame. The agency’s decision was based on isotopic testing, which showed the methane “fingerprint” did not match the methane extracted from WPX Energy gas wells, which are about 6,000 feet from the contaminated private drinking water wells.

“The testing determined that the water samples taken from the private water wells contained gas of similar isotopic makeup to the gas in the water samples taken from Salt Springs State Park. Additionally, the water wells and spring exhibited similar water chemistry, including the constituent’s barium, iron, total dissolved solids (TDS), chlorides, manganese and aluminum. DEP’s testing also determined that the gas in the water samples taken from the private water wells was not of the same origin as the natural gas in the nearby gas wells.”

Salt Springs State Park well water and springs contain naturally occurring methane. The park is about a mile from the homes.

“Additionally, the water wells and spring exhibited similar water chemistry, including the constituent’s barium, iron, total dissolved solids (TDS), chlorides, manganese and aluminum. DEP’s testing also determined that the gas in the water samples taken from the private water wells was not of the same origin as the natural gas in the nearby gas wells.”

Connolly says there was no baseline testing conducted on the three Franklin Township wells. The DEP also used historical water data to reach their conclusions.

“Additionally, agency staff evaluated information from a nearby mobile home park public water supply file relating to the its abandonment of a water source in 1998 due to elevated levels of methane, chlorides and TDS. The mobile home park is located approximately 2.3 miles from Franklin Forks, and this water well exhibited similar water chemistry to that of the three residential water supplies being investigated.”

Isotopic testing and historical data are two ways to trace methane migration. But that area of the state has a complicated geology with shallow pools of methane. Drilling with poorly constructed well casings can create a pathway for the shallow pools of gas to migrate into the water supply. In that case, the isotopic “print” of the gas would not necessarily match the methane extracted from the deep Marcellus formation. That’s what the DEP determined happened in Dimock, Pa.

David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State who studies methane migration, says well construction is key to preventing contamination.

“That’s common for [the gas] to come from shallower formations,” says Yoxtheimer. “And so [the drillers] need to take extra precautions, otherwise the borehole acts as a conduit that allows the gas to migrate up vertically.”

Yoxtheimer says the naturally occurring thermogenic gas makes it tricky to trace the source of methane migration in Susquehanna County.

“Seventy-eight percent of wells in Susquehanna County have measurable methane unrelated to drilling so that further complicates the situation. It’s even more important to do pre-drilling testing.”

Because the Franklin Forks wells were about 6,000 feet from the drill sites, the company was not required to do baseline testing.

“Well bore integrity is the name of the game here,” says Yoxtheimer. “You can drill and not have water quality issues.”

Yoxtheimer says by his calculation, DEP has connected drilling to methane contamination in only 16 instances.

He says investigators can now use acoustic testing you determine whether or not the well-bore is acting as a conduit for stray gas.

“You can actually hear it hiss,” says Yoxtheimer.

WPX Energy has been providing water to the residents. A spokeswoman for the company says it hasn’t decided whether the water deliveries will continue. WPX Community Relations Manager Susan Oliver said through an email the company worked cooperatively with the DEP and did its own well integrity tests.

“WPX voluntarily provided potable water to the three residents throughout the investigation period,” said Oliver. “More than 80 tests to evaluate water quality and more than 55 tests to ensure the integrity of two WPX natural gas wells were performed as part of the investigation. We’re pleased that a science-based, fact-finding effort by the state definitively showed that our operations were not responsible for methane migration issues in Susquehanna County.”

DEP is making no recommendations to the residents on whether or not it’s safe to drink their water.


  • john slesinger

    Of course the DEP always determines that the gas well in question is not at fault. Remember: its not a question if a cement casing will fail, its a question of when will it fail. Thats a statement I know all too well. I also know thet the DEP field investigators are not capable of monitoring the cementing process. They would sign off on the cementing if it was done right or wrong. Then their superiors will hide their mistakes. Try to get anyone in the Pa government system to even look into the obvious corruption in the DEP. No one can insure the integrity of a gas well casing if the department thats supposed to monitor this has no integrity.

  • suegarelik

    So just how much methane is “migrating” into the atmosphere from FRACKING operations and worsening global climate change????

    Trashing our air and water for this gas is beyond stupid and shortsighted, it is criminal negligence.

    • Gary L Perry

      Sue, are you saying we don’t need this gas or should not get it? How do you heat your home, cook your food, dry your cloths etc.?

      Do you drive a vehicle that runs on gasoline? Do you have electricity at your home?
      Where do you think your energy comes from?

      Howe is retrieving this natural gas trashing our air? It is cleaner to burn than coal, wood and crude oil.

      • suegarelik

        ESCAPING methane is not fueling anything except global warming!

        FIRST we should reduce the incredible waste of energy by inefficient homes, cars, and especially old power plants.

        THEN talk to me about what our energy mix ought to be.

        • Gary L Perry

          Methane has been escaping naturally since the beginning of the earth.
          We have some of the most fuel efficient and clean burning vehicles that have ever been produced.
          All new buildings are being built to new energy efficient standards. There are many home renovations taking place to improve energy efficiencies.
          Energy companies are applying for permits to build new cleaner operating plants but the EPA and other state and Federal regulatory agencies have slowed the permit approval process to a decade long and very costly process.
          If our Congress would look at the over-regulated regulatory government agencies to streamline them energy companies could be building newer clean burning plants today.
          You did not answer any of my specific question?
          How would you address the 3 points you brought up? I wish that China and India were using the latest clean technology when building their power plants and vehicles. I have read that between these two countries thay bring a new coal fired power plant on line with little to no pollution control.

  • Jim Harper

    Something about this stinks. I’d want to see their testing protocol, test results, how they used blanks, the qualifications of the labs they used, etc., etc. Some of the language in the news release seems vague (“similar isotopic makeup”? What is similar? Shouldn’t it be better to “similar”? A fingerprint being similar to another fingerprint doesn’t prove they’re from the same individual, or in this case the same source). This 16-month investigation should be public record and subject to FOI, but I didn’t find anything on PA DEP’s site. Someone needs to get it and go over it with a fine-toothed comb. The news articles also ignore an obvious fact: even if the methane in the contaminated well water was from Salt Springs and not directly from the fracking, that in no way proves that fracking did not alter the regional hydrogeology. In other words, if there was no previous connectivity between Salt Springs Park and the contaminated home wells, and if the hydrogeology (pattern of fracturing, e.g.) was affected by the hydrofracking, and this estabished subground connectivity between Salt Springs and the homes, then the causality still exists. The news reports I’ve seen don’t seem to address this. Something about all this smacks of cover-up.

  • David

    No one should be surprised that the methane detected in the well water was not of the same “source” as that of the well head. It is not a question of direct leakage. It never was. The question is, does the process of fracking disrupt OTHER, nearby methane deposits. [The answer is yes]

    You want a good example of an operation that wasn’t supposed to have any effect on the environment’s residents? Look no further than Scranton’s coal mines. Result? Sinkholes and contaminated water. Oh, and don’t forget that town call CENTRALIA. Think we’ve learned from our mistakes and we are “so much wiser in the 21st centrury?” Think again. History repeating itself. That’s nothing new.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »