Pennsylvania Fracking Water Contamination Much Higher Than Reported
The headline flew around the globe like wild fire. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published their long-awaited draft fracking drinking water study and concluded: fracking has had no widespread impact on drinking water. But if you've had your ear to the ground in fracking communities, something didn't sit right with the EPA's takeaway. Though the gas industry claims fracking is safe and doesn't harm drinking water, that story doesn't match what many landowners report from the fracking fields.
At least in Pennsylvania, the reason for this discrepancy comes down to a singular issue: mismanaged record-keeping and reporting by the Department of the Environment (DEP). Based on 2,309 previously unreported fracking complaints unearthed by the non-profit Public Herald, the public can now peek into 1,275 fracking water complaints from 17 of 40 fracking counties. However, Pennsylvania's official tally of water contamination is only 271 for all 40 counties.
Contrary to the EPA fracking study's conclusion, the prevalence of drinking water contamination appears to be much higher than previously reported. Accurate drinking water complaint data is vital to know as Maryland drafts new fracking regulations to potentially welcome the natural gas industry into Western Maryland in 2017.
What is a Contaminated Water Well?
Officially, Pennsylvania reports 271 confirmed cases of water degradation due to unconventional natural gas operations (a.k.a. fracking).
In Pennsylvania, water degradation is when a private water well located within 2,500 feet of a fracking well has been negatively impacted within six months of drilling. According to the DEP, water degradation falls into two camps—reduced water volume or the presence of “constituents" found in higher levels after drilling than before drilling. Constituents can be naturally-occurring, fracking-related chemicals or methane gas than seeps into aquifers and water wells.
Homeowners usually know right away if something's up with their well water. Their tap water's clarity or color changes, the water smells gross or the well runs dry. What's harder for homeowners to self-identify is natural gas (methane) migration because methane gas is odorless. Methane is highly flammable and if present at dissolved levels above 28 mg/L requires immediate remediation or the potential for explosions exists.
Pennsylvania's DEP regulates the oil and gas industry and is also the “911 dispatch center" for fracking complaints. DEP's role is to register citizen fracking complaints, research complaints and conduct water tests if needed. If water well damage is proved to be caused by nearby fracking, DEP notifies the gas driller that they are responsible for providing water replacement.
Buried in Folders: 1,275 Water Complaints
Prior to Public Herald's fracking complaints database (an open source project named #fileroom) which was launched in September 2015, the public had little access to Pennsylvania's fracking water complaints. What was known is that the DEP fracking complaint system was horrendous.
In May 2014, Pennsylvania's Auditor General reviewed DEP complaint files and reported eight areas of mishandling with “sloppy record keeping" topping the list.
When asked if the public's health was being threatened from fracking water contamination, Pennsylvania's Auditor General publicly commented, “we can't say one way or the other because their [DEP] record keeping is so poor."
After threatening legal action in 2013, Pennsylvania's DEP offices finally gave Public Herald volunteers access to all fracking complaints.
Over more than two years, Public Herald's team scanned 2,309 complaints from 17 of 40 counties. The complaints are stored online in the #fileroom database. The fracking complaints were stored in filing cabinets and most cases weren't entered into any formal central tracking system. The 17 counties account for about 80 percent of Pennsylvania's fracking wells drilled.
Seventeen (or 44 percent) Water Contamination Rate—Depending on How You Look at It
Not only are Pennsylvania's water complaints much higher than previously reported, but also the basis that complaints are compared to leads people to believe that contamination rates are lower than they really are.
Here's why: A key fracking selling point is that multiple gas wells can be drilled from one central location, also called a “well pad." A fracking well pad is a six-acre plus industrial zone that can host as many as 10 individual gas wells that spread out like a spider web underground. The number of fracking well pad locations interspersed near homes is actually smaller than realized because many fracking wells are concentrated from one location. Pennsylvania's DEP reports an average of 2.6 wells drilled per fracking well pad location. (As of Jan. 26, Pennsylvania has 3,687 unconventional well pads and 9,632 unconventional wells drilled since 2000).
If you're a homeowner or an elected official, assessing the scale of water complaints, comparing to the number of well pad locations is more relevant than comparing to the number of wells drilled. Using the higher figure of wells drilled, which most reporting does, minimizes the scale of impact to people living near concentrated fracking operations.
To understand how this changes the story, if DEP's official tally of 271 confirmed water contaminations is compared to 9,632 fracking wells drilled since 2000, that's a three percent water contamination rate. That figure seems pretty low and supports the EPA's conclusion that fracking water contamination isn't widespread.
But if you dig into Public Herald's #fileroom database, as the chart above illustrates, 1,275 water complaints were filed in 17 counties with only 2,923* fracking well pads. Those well pads hosted 7,627 gas wells. That means that for about every two fracking well pads, one homeowner called in a water complaint, instead of one for every seven wells drilled. That's a 44 percent fracking water complaint rate suggesting that water well issues are pervasive. Even if the water complaints are compared to the number of wells drilled in these 17 counties, it's a 17 percent water complaint rate.
Not only is the sky-high complaint rate concerning, but why did the DEP dismiss and not report more than 1,000 water well complaints? Did 1,000+ homeowners call in bogus water well claims?
Why Were Three-Quarters of Citizen Water Well Complaints Dismissed?
It is clear that as Pennsylvania rapidly began drilling fracking wells around 2006, the DEP was overwhelmed and unprepared to process the volume of citizen complaints. As explained above, both the Scranton Times-Tribune and Pennsylvania's Auditor General found many points-of-failure in the DEP's fracking complaint process.
A Harvard Law School study analyzed 450 Pennsylvania fracking complaints and produced a what-not-to-do-report suggesting four recommendations: require baseline water well testing, seriously improve the complaint administrative function, improve communication with landowners and allow for appeals. The Scranton Times-Tribune, Pennsylvania Auditor General, Harvard School analysis plus Public Herald's#fileroom complaint database call into serious question if the 1,000+ water complaints should have been dismissed.
Public Herald's own in-depth analysis of 200 complaints found nine ways DEP's decision on water contamination could be challenged and possibly reversed.
Most concerning is that the state's Auditor General found that the DEP encouraged gas drillers and homeowners to reach voluntary restitution agreements on the side. Yet, the DEP did not register and track many of those agreements.
How Does a Lack of Data Lead to “No Widespread Damage" Claim?
Because fracking is regulated at the state level, all 30+ fracking states have different and separate complaint processes. There is no accurate and centralized database in the U.S. reporting drinking water damage resulting from bad well casings, hydraulic fracturing, above ground spills, waste pond spills or drilling mishaps and failures.
That point is printed throughout the EPA's draft Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources. The study relied on “available data and reporting." The EPA essentially used Pennsylvania DEP's official tally of 271 determined cases. It's unclear if the thousands of unreported fracking complaints were even analyzed.
The U.S. EPA's executive summary spells this out plainly in the Key Data Limitations and Uncertainties section: “This assessment used available data and literature to examine the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing from oil and gas on drinking water resources nationally. As part of this effort, we identified data limitations and uncertainties associated with current information on hydraulic fracturing and its potential to affect drinking water resources. In particular, data limitations preclude a determination of the frequency of impacts with any certainty. These limitations and uncertainties are discussed in brief below."
It is unclear how the EPA concluded there is no widespread water contamination due to fracking when there is little to no data.
That's exactly the same conclusion the EPA's own 31-member Science Advisory Panel announced recently in a statement on Jan. 8. The panel announced that the EPA's draft Fracking Drinking Water Study's findings, “are inconsistent with the observations, data and levels of uncertainty."
But the fracking-is-safe train has already left the station.
What's clear is that fracking causes damage to private drinking water wells. Sadly, many Pennsylvania landowners whose drinking water wells were compromised because of nearby fracking operations received no restitution because the DEP did not properly assess their complaints.
Even with the large volume of incoming drinking water complaints, Pennsylvania's DEP did not assume a presumption of liability for the gas drilling industry; the onus of proof was on the homeowner to prove contamination for their water wells that were within half a mile from a fracking well pad. And many landowners, especially in the early phases of fracking, didn't have pre-drilling water tests to compare post-drilling results.
Looking Ahead for Maryland
To ensure that Western Maryland landowners don't face the same situation, Maryland's Department of the Environment and elected officials should consider closely analyzing Pennsylvania's thousands of fracking complaints. Public Herald is still scanning the Southwest region's files.
Joshua Pribanic, Public Herald's editor-in-chief adds, “At this point, there is no way to find out what happened with thousands of fracking water complaints except to go door-to-door and ask what happened with a complainant's drinking water. In many cases you'll find rooms stuffed with bottled water. Or, you'll find in the basement an industry-supplied reverse osmosis system or a methane mitigation system. The true extent of water contamination has been concealed." And that doesn't help Maryland as we look to study and analyze our sister state's actual results.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Baltimore Fishbowl.
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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