Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dialogue and Working as a Community – The Marcellus Shale Factor

Dialogue and Working as a Community – The Marcellus Shale Factor

In Pennsylvania, Commercial Oil and Natural Gas Development dates back to 1859 and Colonel Edwin Drake work in Northwestern Pennsylvania, but in 1795 settlers in the Montrose area talked about water that would “bubble and catch fire like black powder”. Later it was determined that the salt spring contained methane gas and in late 19th and early 20th century a commercial salt and oil operation was attempted. This site is now known as Salt Spring State Park in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania and it is a great historic site.

Unlike the attempts at Salt Spring that failed, it appears that the commercial development of the methane gas in the Marcellus Shale will be commercially viable. It is clear that methane gas is not uniformly distributed in the Marcellus Shale, but methane gas if virtually everywhere in our environment. Remember, methane gas has no color and no odor. Methane gas can be found in saturated soils, lake sediments, glacial materials, wetlands, landfills, buried floodplains, Catskill Formation (primary source of drinking water for NEPA), coal deposits, and the unconventional gas reservoirs like the Marcellus Shale. There is no primary or secondary drinking water standard for methane gas, but there are some guidance levels because of concerns related to the potential for accumulation of the gas and the creation of an explosive environment. The new guidance level in Pennsylvania is 7 mg/L methane in water (For the record, the old action level was 10 mg/L) and we have action levels with the airborne concentrations reach 10 percent of the lower explosive limit. This means that if the explosive value was 1, we take corrective action and provide venting, passive or active, when the airborne level is at 0.1. The level of methane in water and the level in a confined headspace do not correlate well. If gas is building up in the headspace of a well or other confined area, the problem is that the space is NOT properly vented and this needs to be corrected.
Regarding the level of methane gas in our region prior to Marcellus Shale Development, it has been my professional experience that the level of methane gas can range from not detectable to greater than 28 mg/L and in fact I lit my first tap in 1989. The concentration of methane gas in water is highly variable from well to well, region to region, and with time at the same well. It has been my experience that methane levels can change from < 10 mg/L to over 15 mg/L in the same well in the matter of a few days and concentrations may vary from < 2 mg/L to over 7 mg/L in just under a 100 feet. This was one reason, in 2009, I had proposed lowering the recommended action level in Pennsylvania to 7 mg/L. The level of methane in water is control by many factors that include barometric pressure, rainfall amounts, ice cover on soil, groundwater levels, water well operation, depth of pump setting, depth of well, and the geological setting. All of these factors can cause the headspace and dissolved methane to fluctuate and if the headspace is not properly vented, methane gas can accumulate. Private Wells need to be vented and vented properly.

Because of the interest in natural gas development, the baseline testing being done by the industry and fellow citizens is demonstrating very clearly the fact that PA Groundwater is not PURE. In fact, the groundwater contains measurable to explosive levels of methane gas, plus other trace elements, but of specific concern is that up to 50% of private wells may not meet a primary drinking water standard because of bacterial contamination, arsenic, barium, or lead. Primary drinking water standards are set because of specific health concerns. When speaking about this issue, I use the phrase the “Marcellus Shale Factor”. The development of this natural resource is just another reason we need to work together as a “Community” to “Get The Waters Tested”. We have problems now and the only way we can solve them in the future is to recognize the weakness and make a change.
Throughout my career, I have conducted extensive groundwater and private well testing in Pennsylvania and the world. We created the web-portal as a free information resource for the community and we are continuing our work on the Citizens Groundwater and Surfacewater Database for NEPA. In addition to this effort, we are conducting a private well owner watershed survey and planning to offer free radon in water screening. With the help of our fellow citizens, this data warehouse will allow us to better understand our resources, our current issues, and track future change. This database is not a regulatory tool, but an informational tool that could be used to make decisions that ensures the health, safety, and welfare of our community and environment. With respect to the PADEP decision that the methane gas levels meet the requirements of the consent document for Cabot, it is my hope that the continued monitoring, that should be done, will confirm this conclusion and that as a community we could work together to move forward. We are a community of citizens, we may not all agree but we must work together – this is our home. It is critical that local stakeholders come together for form local task forces and create community-based resources to educate, assist, and inform the citizens so fact/ science and not fear rule the day. My hope is that the first order of business would be the development and implementation of private well construction standards and a program to fix and upgrade existing private wells, a program to test alternative practices to mitigate methane gas, and the development of a best-management practice manual for the Marcellus Shale in our region. It is critical we work together to ensure the health, safety, and economic welfare of our citizens and environment.

Original = Full draft of the article submit for consideration to the Scranton Times
The actual article that was approved.

Recent presentations related to Methane Gas Migration
Training Workshop Scheduled for November 4, 2011

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