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Pennsylvania Gas Driller Ordered to Inspect Wells After Methane Leak

Sep 20, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

The gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is causing more water issues in Pennsylvania. Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, ordered Chesapeake Energy Corp. to inspect the well casings of 171 natural-gas wells in the state. The order followed the discovery of methane leaking from six wells in Bradford County.

Bradford County is located in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, an area rich in natural gas deposits. According to a statement from the DEP, it received reports of bubbling water on the Susquehanna River on September 2. Both the agency and Chesapeake believe the culprit is gas migrating from six wells that are located on three well pads on the “Welles property,” which is approximately two to three miles northwest of the river, the statement said.

The six wells in question were not yet being fracked, though they had been drilled. The drilling occurred between December 2009 and March 2010.

The DEP sampled six private water wells affected by the migration for compounds associated with natural gas drilling. Their analysis found methane levels in the water wells that fluctuated between non-detect and 4.4 percent, possibly as a result of barometric pressure in the atmosphere. No stray gas has been detected in the homes served by the water wells. The DEP also found:

• Methane concentrations ranging from 2.16 milligrams per liter and 55.8 mg/L.
• The water met the drinking water standards established for barium, chloride and total dissolved solids.
• Three wells exceeded the iron limit of 0.3 mg/L and all six wells exceeded the 0.05 mg/L limit for manganese.

The iron and manganese limits are secondary limits, which mean that the limits are established to prevent taste and odor issues, the DEP said.

“Ventilation systems have been installed at six private water wells. Water has been provided to the three affected homes, and Chesapeake is evaluating and remediating each of its well bores within a four-and-a-half-mile radius of the gas migration, which is essential,” said DEP Secretary John Hanger.

To help prevent against future migration issues, Hanger said DEP directed Chesapeake to evaluate each of its 171 wells in Pennsylvania that used the well casing procedures used in the six Wilmot Township wells—a procedure that was used exclusively in northeast Pennsylvania. To do so, the company is using equipment sensitive to sound and temperature. When the equipment finds an anomaly, Chesapeake is to correct it immediately by injecting cement behind the casing that seals off the formation, eliminating the route for gas to migrate.

Once the remediation work is performed, it will take up to two weeks to determine if it was successful, although it may take longer for the stray gas to dissipate.

On September 9, the DEP also issued Chesapeake a notice of violation for failing to prevent gas migration to fresh ground water and for allowing an unpermitted natural gas discharge into the state’s waters. The DEP statement said the agency will determine future enforcement actions based in part on the speed with which Chesapeake eliminates the migrating gas.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. The chemicals that make up that fracking fluid are cause for concern. They may include, among other things, barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

For the past two years, gas drillers have been descending upon Pennsylvania, anxious to tap the vast natural gas resources in the state’s Marcellus shale. Since 2008, the DEP has issued 3,800 Marcellus shale well permits. In the same time period, drillers have been cited for over 1,400 violations. Several well-documented cases of water contamination in the state have been linked to fracking.

Earlier this month, for example, 13 families in Susquehanna County, located just east of Bradford County, filed suit against another driller, Houston, Texas-based Southwest Energy Production Company, for allegedly allowing a fracking operation to contaminate their water wells. At least one person, an infant, has become physically ill, and exhibits neurological symptoms consistent with toxic exposure to heavy metals. The other families live in constant fear of future physical illness, particularly with respect to the health of their minor children and grandchildren, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Southwest Energy Production Company was negligent in the drilling, construction and operation of a gas well located near where the families live, and allowed pollutants, including fracking fluid, to be discharged into the ground or into the waters near Plaintiffs’ homes and water wells. The lawsuit further alleges that the composition of fracking fluid includes hazardous chemicals that are carcinogenic and toxic. As a result, the families have been and continue to be exposed to hazardous chemicals, including barium, manganese and strontium.

“The fracking fluid leaked into the aquifer and contaminated wells within several thousand feet, if not more,” Peter Cambs, an attorney with Parker Waichman LLP, one of the firms representing the families, recently told the Associated Press.

Susquehanna County is also home to Dimock, a town that has been devastated by fracking. There, problems with the cement casing on 20 wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas have caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. Levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps.

In October 2009, state regulators finally acknowledged that a major contamination of the aquifer had occurred. In addition to methane, dangerously high levels of iron and aluminum were found in some wells. Fifteen Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing Cabot.

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