Saturday, May 15, 2010

Baseline Independent Water Testing Water Quality Testing - Marcellus Shale Development What Parameters Should be Tested?

For the past 20 years, I have stressed the importance of private well construction standards and getting your water tested for your private well or water source.  Because of the specifics concerns with respect to the Marcellus Shale, the citizens are recognizing the importance of documenting the baseline quality of their drinking water and recreational water sources.  The primary concern is that many professionals are recommending baseline analysis that either provide a very broad range of parameters that are not specific enough to target the Marcellus Shale or a baseline analysis that targets only the potential impacts related to the develop of natural gas and in some cases there are companies with very little experience in environmental consulting.
From the citizens perspective - It is my professional opinion, the baseline analysis needs to take into consideration the following:

a. The existing geological conditions that may affect water quality for the region or area.
b. The existing land-use or activities occurring within the recharge zone for the well or spring or watershed area for the surfacewater resource.
c. Potential sources of contaminants from proposed developments that target the various phases of the development, i.e., drilling / drilling muds, intermixing of freshwater with saline and brine water, interception of shallow gas deposits, and management of the drilling pad.
d. The existing quality of your water and type of water source.

Of these 4 items, I believe that if the professional you are considering hiring does not ask you questions about your well and your current water quality you will not be establishing an affective baseline.  In addition, the professional providing this information should not be just reading off a list of recommendations by some third party, but have solid understanding of earth sciences, hydrology, well drilling, and groundwater. Remember - you are establishing a "legal" baseline that may need to address a multitude of issues not just Marcellus Shale Drilling or Hydrofracing.

Establishing a baseline - the following questions should be asked and used in the decision making process.

1. Where are you located and What is the type of water source?
2. If it is a well, what is the depth of the well, static water level, and depth of casing?
3. Does the water system have an existing treatment system?  If yes, why?
4. Does the water quality change when there is a heavy rain or snow melt?
5. Has it been tested in the past?
6. Are there any problems or issues?  Such as: discolored water, metallic taste, turbidity, staining, blue-green staining, etc
7. This water source supports what type of use? Single-family home, house and small farm, etc.
8. What is the size of your parcel?
9. What is the existing and past use of your parcel?
10. What is the land-use surrounding and upgradient of this source?

If the person conducting your baseline analysis - is not asking you these questions - he/she may not be providing you the help you need.

The following is a listing of parameters that PADEP identified as "potential parameters of concern" as it relates to Marcellus Shale Wastewater (2009):

pH, acidity, alkalinity, aluminum, ammonia nitrogen, arsenic, barium, benzene, biochemical oxygen demand, boron, bromide, cadmium, chemical oxygen demand, chlorides, total chromium, cobalt, copper, ethylene glycol, gross alpha, gross beta, total hardness, iron, lead, lithium, magnesium, manganese,  MBAS (surfactants), mercury, molybdenum, nickel, nitrate, nitrite, oil & grease, osomtic pressure, total phenolics, selenium, silver, sodium, specific conductance, strontium, sulfates, toluene, total dissolved solids, total kjeldahl nitrogen, total suspended solids, zinc, total nitrogen, and total phosphorous.

Again - these are parameters of concern or interest from a wastewater perspective, but it is possible to use this list to create a suitable baseline for testing private wells.  For the parameters listed above - I would recommend the following:

Minimum Baseline Monitoring for Northeast Pennsylvania
pH, acidity, alkalinity, ammonia nitrogen, arsenic, barium, bromide, chemical oxygen demand, chlorides,  total hardness, iron, manganese, MBAS (surfactants), nitrate+ nitrite, oil & grease, sodium, specific conductance, potassium, selenium, strontium, sulfates, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, methane/ethane, and VOCs with MTBE.

Why pH - it is cheap and in our area we tend to have low pH water and the water is corrosive.
Why Acidity - our water may have a low pH, but it does not have a very high acidity - frac water, mine drainage, and other water associated with pyrite oxidation can.
Why Alkalinity - this relates to corrosion and possible chemistry of shale deposits with inter-bedded limestones
Ammonia Nitrogen - based on review of frac water chemistry
Arsenic - baseline levels are just below or above drinking water standard NOW
Barium - not typical in freshwater, but typical of drilling mud, flowback water.
Bromide-This is commonly used as a biocide.
Chemical oxygen demand - normally this should be low, but a low cost means of evaluating water chemical changes.
Chlorides - brine water has a high chloride content - also relates to road salt, urban runoff, sewage, etc.
Total Hardness - normally are water is typically soft, i.e., low hardness- frac and flowback water has significantly higher hardness.  Locally - we may have elevated levels of iron and manganese.
MBAS - surfactants - freshwater pretty much absent - may be present in sewage and in frac water and flow back water.
Nitrate+Nitrite - freshwater flow - can be caused by fertilizers, sewage,  urban runoff, frac water
Oil and Grease - we are talking about drilling, lubricants - also gas stations, service stations, and improper disposal locally, urban runoff, and spill
Sodium - freshwater low - sources may be road salt, urban runoff,  brine water, flowback water, water softeners
Specific Conductance - cheap - indicator test.
Potassium - freshwater low - source salting, sewage, urban runoff, brine water, flow backwater, water softeners
Selenium - connate water has elevated levels of selenium and reportedly flow back water has concentrations ranging from - 2 to 100 pbb
Strontium- reportedly flow back water strontium concentrations ranged from 400 ppb to over 4600 mg/L
Sulfates- we have a drinking water limit - 250 mg/L - elevated levels can be a diuretic.
Total Dissolved Solids - this is a gross measure of the sum of the inorganic material (iron, chloride, sulfate, etc) dissolved in the water - there is a standard - 500 mg/L
Total Suspended Solids- This is suspended materials - groundwater typically has a very low suspended solids, but this can increase because of the presence of metal oxides, corrosion of casing, poor well construction, damage to a well and more.
Methane / Ethane- Time to be honest - we have areas where the freshwater aquifer contains methane and we have areas that prior to drilling - we could light the gas at the "tap" and we have had problems.
VOCs with MTBE-  We use other petrochemicals that may be already present at trace levels and we have a lot of existing gasoline stations, underground unregistered private fuel tanks, oil tanks and more.  Guess wait - 1 gallon of gasoline can contaminate 1,000,000 gallons of water.

More to Come
1. Working on a list of organic chemicals|- this is not the final word.
2. Looking into lead (this may already be a problem for some wells with corrosive water).
3. Looking into lithium

Understanding your drinking water new - Free Publication

I hope you find this useful

Mr Brian Oram, PG
This is a living document and subject to change with more information.  Independent water testing, certified testing laboratories.


  1. In general - this test is pretty expensive for Ra226 + Ra228 - As suggested in the Third Package - testing is recommended for alpha/beta and uranium - if this are high then it might be advisable to test more. A change in the radium level would show up as a change in the test results for alpha emmitters.

    We Reference

  2. I have added a recommendation to include glycols, because this chemical is used in geothermal or groundsource heating and cooling systems in PA and these wells are typically only installed to a depth of 400 to 600 feet with minimal protective casing and set in a bentonite sand mixture.

  3. For some flowback water data, go to

  4. Really interesting article. I have found this company that provide the type of equipment you are looking for.