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October 26, 2016
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Private well survey and database planned in PA

In preparation for natural gas extraction and its potential impacts and opportunities, a session on methane migration was hosted by the Wayne County Oil and Gas Task Force on October 18 in Honesdale.

During his presentation, licensed professional geologist Brian Oram announced that a private well owner and watershed survey would be conducted to obtain information on regional concerns related to development of the Marcellus Shale.

Oram is the owner of BF Environmental Consultants, Inc. of Dallas, PA and former director of the Center for Environmental Quality at Wilkes University, where he oversaw production of a free publication on private well water testing (www.bfenvironmental.com/pdfs/Waterbooklet070610.pdf).

Oram opened his presentation with a plea to move beyond the division created by supporters and opponents of gas drilling and to focus on “understanding the risks” and testing private wells now. “It’s the match of the century,” Oram said. “Which side are we on? That’s the mindset that’s causing us problems.”

The primary risk Oram points to is the fact that nearly half of the private wells tested in Pennsylvania don’t meet the drinking water standards established by the EPA. Typical problems include corrosion, copper, lead, iron, manganese and methane, according to Oram.

“For 23 years, I’ve been encouraging private owners to test their water,” he said. “Maybe five percent do. It took an industry to come to town to get people to think about the quality of their own drinking water and to get it tested.”
Oram also discussed the Citizen Groundwater Database established at Wilkes University

The regional database provides a central location to store baseline pre-drilling and/or post-drilling water quality data in order to document quality by geological formation, identify existing regional issues or concerns and provide an unbiased community resource as well as a mechanism to track temporal,
spatial and other geospatial variations in water quality.

Data from 320 private wells in Luzerne County, secured with a full chain of custody and third party testing, is already stored. “Forty-nine percent of the wells tested in Luzerne County violated the drinking water standard for total coliform bacteria,” he said. “Twenty-five percent had elevated lead; 10% of the population is drinking water contaminated with e coli. Some private wells contain pthalates (plasticizers), which can cause gastrointestinal problems and are suspected endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.”

Oram is a passionate advocate for the establishment of well construction standards, and an active critic of “what PA has allowed to happen to the private well program” by not implementing such standards. Pennsylvania is one of two states without construction standards, according to Oram. The other is Alaska.

Wells with problems such as bacterial or viral contamination are conduits for contamination of aquifers, Oram added. “We need to fix those. These are the vulnerable points in our communities.” Water can also move along casings and contaminate the groundwater aquifer, he said.

Oram urged audience members to get baseline testing done now. “Spend what you can afford,” he said. “There’s a list of recommended DEP parameters which runs about $400.” If doing baseline testing, he recommends adding tests for methane, ethane and propane.

BF Environmental’s Private Well Owner Survey seeks information on regional concerns related to Marcellus Shale and other non-point sources of pollution. The survey also aims to gauge support for a construction standard for new private wells, and to find out if citizens would test their water once a year if it only cost about $50.

The company is also absorbing the costs for free radon testing for 200 private wells to explore “how a migration event could occur if it may be related to a Marcellus Shale activity.” The web-based survey (www.surveymonkey.com/s/NMG6RQ3can) can be filled out online or mailed in. The company also offers baseline testing related to Marcellus Shale development and has recommended testing packages that are region specific.

Oram urged local leadership to use the results of such testing to inform decision-making, support solutions that fix problematic private wells and develop a community support program where citizens can call and get answers.

The event also featured Burt Waite, senior geologist and program director for Moody and Associates, Inc. who spoke on “Understanding Stray Gas in Pennsylvania.” Wayne County commissioners Brian Smith and Wendell Kay offered concluding remarks.

“Understand the risks,” said Smith. “Make good decisions based on what the risks really are and do that by talking to the people who have the skill sets that can help address those risks and solve the problems. That’s what we’re doing by having these forums.”

Kay added, “The goal of this organization is to educate as many of us as possible to all the aspects. This commission is looking at a whole variety of issues, both positive and negative, that will come about as part of this economic opportunity that we all hope we will enjoy.”

For more information visit www.bfen vironmental.com, www.water-research.net, www.wilkes.edu/water or www.epa.gov/safewater.