Drilling’s impact on water in spotlight

Expert advises landowners to have groundwater tested before gas drilling begins.

In the rush to sign leases to drill for natural gas, some fear that dollar signs might blur landowners’ considerations of other important issues, like protecting groundwater.

But landowners are unlikely to notice most major threats to water quality, and the problems they do notice, according to Bryan Swistock, a water specialist with Penn State University, have more to do with landowner oversights than driller mistakes.

“Most of the real health concerns in water you wouldn’t even notice,” he said. “The vast majority of the complaints turn out to be something else (other than contamination from drilling), so it’s really important that people take a look at their water supply and make sure they’re not causing their own problems.”

He noted that problems often occur from faulty residential wells or other outside factors, but landowners attribute it to the drilling. Natural gas drilling sites are cropping up in the region as companies rush to tap the Marcellus shale, a layer of rock about a mile below the surface that industry experts believe is trapping billions of dollars in natural gas.

Swistock, who has done most of his research with shallow wells in western Pennsylvania instead of the deep shale wells, stressed the importance of getting water tested for a baseline before giving drillers the green light. “It’s very difficult to show that anything’s been done to your water unless you can show it was good before,” he said.

He suggested watching for sedimentation, particularly due to construction and ground disturbance, as well as metals like barium and iron showing up in groundwater.

“It’s not common, but it can happen from time to time,” he said. “If it’s going to happen, most likely it’s going to happen right around the gas well.”

Just as important are concerns over the quantity of water used, where it comes from and where it goes. The innovative horizontal drilling method used to tap the shale requires millions of gallons of water, and industry watchers like Swistock are concerned that the region lacks the treatment facilities necessary to process the tainted water that results.

In an attempt to educate landowners about these water issues, Swistock has been holding seminars through the Penn State Cooperative Extension. One is scheduled for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 14 at Lake-Lehman High School.

“It’s funny. You can pretty much divide the people who attend these things into two groups,” Swistock said. Those who stand to profit off the drilling generally attend but don’t get too agitated, he said. Those who won’t profit but stand to be affected by any problems do get agitated. “It’s a natural reaction. If you’re going to make money from something you’re more willing to put up with it.”

Still, Swistock noted, with all the problems, the problems with natural gas drilling are a far cry from those associated with past energy extraction activities in this region. “It certainly pales in comparison to coal mining,” he said.

Rory Sweeney, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7418.

Copyright: Times Leader