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Marcellus: Methane and water do not mix

According to state environmental regulators, three natural gas drilling companies have found out the hard way as to what happens when methane and drinking water mix together.

Regulators shared that the three companies together contaminated 17 different drinking water wells in Bradford, Lycoming and Tioga Counties in north central Pennsylvania.  Combined, the companies so far have paid nearly $375,000 in fines for the water contamination.  The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has pointed the finger of blame to poor well construction which allowed methane to migrate into the water wells. The incidents date back to 2011 and 2012.

If methane is allowed to build up in an enclosed space, such as a house, the gas, which is odorless, can explode.  The DEP’s Director of District Oil and Gas Operations John Ryder commented on the investigation that took place regarding the drinking water well contamination:

These were complex and lengthy investigations that took a considerable amount of time to resolve … But the department was able to conclusively determine that methane gas from natural gas wells had migrated off-site and impacted private wells serving homes and hunting clubs.

However, Ryder was unable to explain why the investigation regarding the wells took over three years to conduct.

As reported by State Impact Pennsylvania, “On May 17, 2011 a citizen complaint led to an investigation of XTO Energy operations in Lycoming County. DEP says ‘casing and cement issues’ led to methane contamination in seven private water wells, as well as leaks in Little Muncy Creek and German Run. XTO paid a $95,753 fine.  A year later, on May 19, 2012, Chesapeake Appalachia reported to DEP that methane migrated from a well in Leroy Township, Bradford County. At the time, nearby resident Michael Leighton told State Impact that the water in his well was ‘bubbling up.’”

According to a statement made by Leighton, he has 80 to 100 feet of headspace between the water and the top of the well, and the water had boiled to the top.  After surveying the rest of his property, Leighton discovered an estimated 20 miniature geysers that were spouting water and had gas looming several inches into the air.

The DEP reported that “the four wells were contaminated due to poor well casing at the Chesapeake well, and methane was found leaking from 14 locations within the Towanda Creek watershed.”  The department has sited the company for the same well for the exact same reasoning two years prior.  Chesapeake is currently the top violator in the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania.  The company has paid over $1.5 million in fines due to violations, and for the stated incident the DEP fined Chesapeake $193,135.

“The third incident involved an abandoned gas well. SWEPI LP notified DEP in June 2012 that one of their wells was having problems. A water well located inside the nearby Ralston Hunting Club’s cabin was flooding the building. Soon, someone discovered a bigger problem: a geyser shooting methane-infused water more than 40 feet in the air,” reports State Impact Pennsylvania.

With the SWEPI incident, the company’s well had managed to come in contact with a well that was dug during the 1930’s, “which led to contamination of drinking water supplies at two hunting clubs,” and methane was discovered at French Lick Run.  The DEP fined SWEPI $84,593.

Today, the DEP says all of the wells have been restored, treated or replaced and are back to acceptable and original conditions.  In all of the drinking water well contamination cases, the companies violated the 2012 Oil and Gas Act, the Clean Streams Law and DEP’s Chapter 78 regulations.

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