Saturday, October 22, 2011

Methane migration, other water problems explored at Oil & Gas Force Meeting By Josh Wengler Honesdale, Pa. — Obviously, methane migration is a problem in Pennsylvania.

"Methane migration, other water problems explored at Oil & Gas Force Meeting By Josh Wengler Honesdale, Pa. — Obviously, methane migration is a problem in Pennsylvania.
The question, says former Wilkes University professor and professional geologist Brian Oram, is whether that problem is a result of Marcellus Shale gas extraction or has always been with us and is only coming to light now due to the increased scrutiny gas drilling has brought about.

One of two speakers brought out to help residents understand this issue, Oram spoke Tuesday at a forum on methane migration held by the Wayne County Oil and Gas Task Force at the Stourbridge Plaza.With news in recent years of such high profile cases as the Dimock residents whose water wells exploded due to methane concentrations, it’s easy to understand peoples’ fears.

It’s also easy to understand how people associate such cases with Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction, Oram says. However, he says methane has always surfaced in Pennsylvania wells and in some cases has brought about deaths when concentrations were high enough to explode whole houses long before the Marcellus Shale was even on the radar.

The longtime laboratory manager for Wilkes’ Center for Environmental Quality before leaving this year to pursue his own projects, Oram said, “I have spent the last 23 years testing water in Pennsylvania and all around the world, and I can tell you that although our water is very pristine, about half of our private wells do not meet drinking water standards...”

The reasons for this are many. Chief among them are bacterial infestations, Oram said, along with high pH values, iron and manganese, which causes discoloration and possible health risks, lead, which is also toxic to humans and plasticizers known as phthalates.

These noxious — and unregulated in terms of their use in water wells — petrochemicals are often used to soften the plastic piping used to pump water from wells and have been known to cause cancers and endocrine disruptions.

These things are the real problem, Oram said, calling each water well a “pinprick” in the aquifer below. He pointed out that unlike gas wells, private water wells are not required to have a cement “grout” to fill the space between the perfectly round casing and the never-perfectly round well bore. This, he said, makes each water well a potential pathway for contamination of myriad types.
Then there is the methane.
“I lit my first private well in 1989,” Oram said, “In my first year when I started working at Wilkes. Not a year ago or two years ago. Methane has been with us a very long time.”
To illustrate this point, Oram showed slides of houses blown apart by methane concentrated in the well or in other enclosed areas that naturally bubbled up from the well where no drilling had ever been present. He also pointed out that in places like Salt Springs National Park in Susquehanna County, naturally occurring methane has been used since the 1700s for heat and light and can still be seen today bubbling up from the ground.

Methane gas in the water is highly changeable, both Oram and fellow speaker and geologist Burt Waite explained, able to saturate groundwater at increasing densities as pressure increases deeper into the well.

Since the bottom of the well is where we draw our water from, it then stands to reason that as water is drawn up and that pressure is released at the pump or spigot, the methane can no longer be held by the water molecules and explodes outward, sometimes with enough force to kill.
Since the average water well is hundreds of feet deep but the depth of its casing is only measured in tens of feet, methane — whether naturally occurring or released by much deeper hydrofracking — has no barrier to finding its way into water wells.

It is a problem that must be addressed, to be sure, but how to address it?

According to Oram, the only way is to gather as much data as possible from as many varied sources as possible, then overlay those data sets with what we know about the structural formations in the earth under our feet. Armed with these analyses, we can then gain a much clearer understanding of where the risks are, how severe they may be and hopefully how to mitigate them.
To that end, Oram — using his own money, he is quick to add, without funding from any other group — is compiling a database of water testing information from as many private wells as possible in the state.
The database, known as the Citizens’ Ground Water and Surface Water Database, solicits private citizens’ professional baseline water test results — whether tested by a gas company or at the property owner’s expense — for inclusion in hopes of developing a clearer understanding of the hydrogeology of the state, which Oram says can only help in protecting the most valuable resource we have, our water.

That resource is one we have not done a great job of safeguarding thus far, he says.

Even if only because of the fear Marcellus Shale gas extraction has raised, it’s time we all got serious about protecting it."

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