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Finding Answers

by Lisa Duchene

Dottie Johns (photo by Steve Williams)Dottie Johns

Dottie Johns had reached her wit’s end. For three years the Harrisburg woman had been sick on and off with nausea, skin rashes, and diarrhea. In an effort to banish all toxins from her home, she’d tossed out plastics and furniture with formaldehyde, clothes made of synthetic fabrics, and chemical cleaners. She’d added air filters. But nothing had worked.

Last summer, when her dogs got sick all at once, Johns began to wonder about her well and started using bottled spring water. When that seemed to help, she had her water tested. The lab told her she had a big problem: an E. coli measurement 16 times what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers unsafe and a total coliform count more than 200 times the EPA standard.

But Johns didn’t know where to go from there, what to do, what the problem meant, or how to fix it until her online search turned up Penn State Cooperative Extension’s Web site on drinking water. There, in addition to information about water testing options, water treatment, how best to construct a private well, how to make sense of water test results, and how to protect drinking water from nearby Marcellus shale gas drilling, Johns found the phone number for her local Cumberland County extension office.

She called Tom McCarty, a water quality extension educator and one of about a dozen extension staff statewide who help people safeguard drinking water from their wells, private springs, or cisterns.

Water quality extension educator Tom McCarty (photo by Steve Williams)Tom McCarty

McCarty explained what her test results meant and advised her to install a device in her basement that uses ultraviolet (UV) radiation to kill bacteria at the main waterline before it reaches the rest of the house’s plumbing. He helped her find the right unit with the right features, like an automatic shutoff of the water if the UV unit malfunctions. He walked her through chlorine-shocking the house’s plumbing with bleach to kill any bacteria lingering in the pipes.

McCarty suspects dog waste from Johns’s yard is somehow infiltrating and contaminating her well. The long-term solution, he’s advised Johns, is for her to hire someone to dig around the area of the buried wellhead to find it and inspect it for cracks. She should also move the dogs as far away from the well area as she can, says McCarty.

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Johns of when she first received the water test results. “I didn’t know where to go. Until I found Penn State and Tom, I was going crazy. When I found him it was like an answer to a prayer, I’ll tell you. He walked me through everything. He e-mailed me. He called me.”

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Three million people, about one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s population, rely on some private source of drinking water. Each year, about 20,000 new water wells are drilled statewide.

But no state regulations govern well construction, location, or testing of private water supplies, says Bryan Swistock, senior extension associate who oversees the Water Quality Extension program. Pennsylvania and Alaska are the only two states without any rules involving private water supplies.

Often, people don’t realize they have a problem, says Swistock, until, like Johns, they have been sick and start looking for answers. Or, sometimes people are sick and blame food poisoning or a stomach flu, never realizing the problem was their well water.

Water workshop in Tunkhannock, Pa. (photo by Steve Williams)Almost 100 people turned out in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, to hear Bryan Swistock explain how well owners living near natural gas drilling sites should take steps to monitor their drinking water.

“Some problems are obvious,” says Swistock. “If you have iron in your water, you know you have iron. You see it and taste it. If your water is hard, you know it and you see it. But, many of these obvious problems don’t cause you any harm. The water problems that can affect your health usually aren’t apparent. The water may look, smell, and taste good yet be unsafe to drink. That’s when water testing becomes important.”

Penn State Cooperative Extension has been working to ensure that people with private water sources have clean, safe drinking water since the early 1980s, when then College of Agriculture faculty member Bill Sharpe identified the need for education. He helped spearhead extension’s first safe drinking water clinic in 1984. “Bill Sharpe understood how important private water supplies are in Pennsylvania and his early research and education really laid the groundwork for everything that we do today,” added Swistock.

Now, water quality extension specialists and educators like Swistock and McCarty educate private well owners with publications, fact sheets, in-person workshops, webinars, volunteers, and one-on-one troubleshooting.

In 2004, Sharpe and Swistock secured funding to create the Master Well Owner Network, a network of 400 volunteers patterned after the Master Gardener program. The well-trained, private-well-savvy volunteers serve as “boots on the ground” to help create awareness of basic private water management issues in their respective communities. “Once they learn about their own situation, they want to teach others,” says Swistock. In the past six years, the Master Well Owners have educated about 30,000 people—many more than had turned out at workshops over the drinking water program’s first 15 years.

Shouting Guidance into the Wind—Until Marcellus Drilling Boom
Penn State recommends an annual water test for coliform bacteria and a test for pH, total dissolved solids, and any local pollutants every three years. Kits for the state-accredited water testing lab at Penn State are available at most county extension offices.

For new wells, Penn State also recommends including a grout seal around the metal or plastic casing. A 10-inch-wide hole is dug for a 6-inch well pipe. The 2 inches surrounding the pipe are filled with bentonite clay to form a seal, protecting it from exposure to contaminants above. Without that extra seal, the pipe can be a conduit for bacteria-laden surface water to reach the clean well water below, explains Swistock. “It’s like a straw and [contaminated water] just runs along the edge of the straw right down into the [well] water,” he says.

Penn State also suggests people take extra care with what they apply to the land in a 100-foot radius around the wellhead. Well owners should not use fertilizers, chemicals, or pesticides or allow animal waste anywhere in that area, says Swistock.

Bryan Swistock, senior extension associate (photo by Steve Williams)Bryan Swistock

About half of the state’s private well owners have never properly tested their well water and about 41 percent of wells tested failed to meet at least one of the health-based drinking water standards, according to a January 2009 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania conducted by Swistock, Sharpe, and Stephanie Clemens from the Master Well Owner Network. Fourteen percent of the 701 private wells sampled throughout the state contained E. coli bacteria.

But concern over the impact of gas drilling in the Marcellus shale is changing everything, says Swistock.

Three years ago, maybe 10 or 20 people out of thousands of private well owners in any given county would show up to learn about interpreting water test results. Now, hundreds attend meetings to hear Penn State’s advice on protecting private water supplies from potential drilling-related problems, says Swistock.

“[Marcellus shale] has created a real teachable moment for us,” says Swistock. “People now come to the meeting because they want to learn about Marcellus, and while they’re there we can provide some of this basic information about private water system management that is very surprising to them.” Gas well drilling has the potential to threaten private wells and springs because wells are drilled through groundwater to access the natural gas. Drilling produces hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste fluids.

In the hydrofracturing process used to access Marcellus shale gas, high-pressure fluids—several million gallons of freshwater with chemical additives—break rock to allow the flow of gas. An average of 10 to 20 percent of the hydrofracturing water returns to the surface as “flow back” waste fluid. That waste fluid is then often stored in pits on the site, another cause for groundwater concern.

Concerned private water supply owners, therefore, have many questions. For answers, they can turn to several fact sheets published by Penn State Cooperative Extension (available on the Marcellus Shale section of the Extension Water site or from your local extension office) reflecting Swistock’s research into the gas-drilling process, contaminants, and the laws governing gas drilling and private water. Under Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act, private well owners who live within 1,000 feet of gas drilling receive special protection. “Gas drilling companies are ‘presumed responsible’ for pollution of drinking water supplies within 1,000 feet of their drilling site for six months after drilling,” says Swistock. This means that the company must prove it is innocent of problems in these water supplies or face the legal responsibility and cost to provide a home with safe drinking water.

However, in different circumstances if the water supply is more than 1,000 feet away from a drill site or six months has passed since the well was drilled—the burden of proof lies with the homeowner.

Prior to drilling, gas companies will take a baseline test of all the private water supplies within 1,000 feet of the well, sometimes more. A water testing lab or consultant representing the gas company will likely contact the private well owner to collect predrilling water samples. Essentially, the gas company is documenting the baseline, predrilling condition of the well.

Even though the Oil and Gas Act stipulates that a gas company is presumed responsible for any problems within that 1,000-foot radius, this presumption does not apply in cases where the water supply owner refused to allow the representative of the water testing company working for the gas company to conduct a predrilling water test. That’s why, says Swistock, it’s absolutely critical for owners of private water supplies to cooperate with any industry-sponsored predrilling water testing.

If a homeowner denies testing access prior to drilling, the company is no longer presumed responsible for that water supply.

The gas company’s test is free to the homeowner. Swistock recommends homeowners ask what will be tested and arrange to receive the testing results so they can decide whether to do their own test.

For homeowners, here is another critical detail: those who want to purchase their own water test should always contract with a state-accredited water testing laboratory and arrange for an “unbiased professional,” typically a laboratory employee or consultant, to collect the water samples.

“This is called ‘chain-of-custody’ water testing,” says Swistock, “which is critical to ensure that the results are accurate and legally valid. This testing will provide a legal baseline to document any changes in the water supply due to drilling.”

Homeowners who don’t have predrilling water test data can have a more difficult time proving that gas drilling damaged their water supply. “If the water is fouled due to gas drilling, you may have to prove it in a court of law. Just showing that the water is bad after drilling has occurred is often not enough. Ideally, you want to be able to show that it was good and now it’s bad and that the bad things are related to that activity.”

Homeowners can expect to pay between $200 and $1,000 for a water test. The price differs depending on how many pollutants the test is looking for. The least expensive test is typically for a few basic parameters, like methane, total dissolved solids (TDS), barium, and chloride. It is better than no testing but provides less legal protection than a larger and more expensive list of parameters, says Swistock.

“Obviously, not everyone can afford a $1,000 water test, but the more testing you do, the more protection you will have should any problems occur,” he says.

Extension’s goal is to not only correct health-threatening problems with drinking water from private sources and help improve water quality but to provide information and build awareness to prevent them in the first place.

Emily Krafjack (photo by Steve Williams)Emily Krafjack

Emily Krafjack is making the most of the information the college has published on protecting drinking water supplies in the face of the Marcellus shale gas drilling boom.

If Krafjack has a problem, she will have plenty of data. Every day, Krafjack, who lives in Mehoopany Township about an hour from Scranton, tests the water in her private well for simple signs of changes due to gas drilling. She learned the dangers of contaminated well water in a previous home after she, her husband, and dog were all sickened by coliform bacteria.

A spring initially supplied water to Krafjack’s current property. In 2007, when it was clear gas drilling would occur in the area, she attended a Penn State seminar on water and the Marcellus shale. “Water is a basic thing you use in your home for everything,” says Krafjack. “To me, it is just of the utmost importance.”

The spring supplying Krafjack’s water is located on an adjacent property that was leased for drilling. Gas drilling can change a spring’s flow, usually temporarily. But gas well operators are not presumed responsible for a change like a drop in volume of the spring that supplies Krafjack’s home.

In fall 2009, Krafjack drilled a new private well. When it was finished, she had a baseline test conducted by a state-certified lab and arranged for lab personnel to collect the samples. “We wanted to protect our property,” says Krafjack. “We wanted to be assured as much as we could that our water would be OK. We have heightened concern just because we don’t know what all this means yet.”

She tests daily for total dissolved solids using a TDS meter and records the results in a logbook. Total dissolved solids levels are very high in gas drilling waste fluids, so any increase of the TDS level in Krafjack’s water supply could indicate contamination and warrants more investigation. This type of daily testing with a TDS meter has limited legal value, but it would provide an early indication that problems are occurring that warrant further water testing and investigation.

Krafjack thinks of the steps she’s taking as an investment in peace of mind. If she sees a change, she can call DEP or the gas company and know she has the data behind her. “I’m hoping I’m never going to make those phone calls, but if I have to, I’d rather be prepared.”

Photos: Steve Williams