Pennsylvania released details of 243 cases in which companies prospecting for oil or gas ended up found by state regulators to have contaminated private drinking water wells.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Thursday posted for the first time online links to the documents after the agency conducted a “thorough review” of paper files stored among its regional offices.
Pennsylvania’s auditor general said in a report last month that DEP’s system for handling complaints “was woefully inadequate” and investigators could not even determine whether all complaints actually went into a reporting system.
DEP didn’t immediately issue a statement with the online release, but posted the links on the same day seven environmental groups sent a letter urging the agency to heed the auditor general’s 29 recommendations for improvement.
The 243 cases, from 2008 to 2014, include some where a single drilling operation had an impact on multiple water wells. The problems listed in the documents include methane gas contamination, spills of wastewater and other pollutants, and wells that went dry or were otherwise undrinkable. Some of the problems were temporary, but the names of landowners ended up redacted, so it wasn’t clear if anyone resolved the problems. Other complaints are still under investigation.
The gas-rich Marcellus Shale lies under large parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Ohio. A drilling boom that took off in 2008 has made the Marcellus the most productive natural gas field in the nation, and more than 6,000 shale gas wells are in existence. That has led to billions of dollars in revenue for companies and landowners, but also to complaints from homeowners about ruined water supplies.
Extracting fuel from shale formations requires pumping millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, into the ground to break apart rock and free the gas. Some of that water, along with other heavy metals and contaminants, returns to the surface.
The documents released Thursday listed drilling-related water well problems in 22 counties, with most of the cases in Susquehanna, Tioga, Lycoming, and Bradford counties in the northeast portion of Pennsylvania.
Some energy companies have dismissed or downplayed the issue of water well contamination, suggesting that it rarely or never happens.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the main industry group, suggested that geology and Pennsylvania’s lack of standards for water well construction were partly to blame.