DEP water tests faulted
BY LAURA LEGERE
FRANKLIN TWP. – The pages Tammy Hadlick pulled from an envelope marked certified mail on a recent afternoon held a wealth of information about her family’s drinking water, none of which she could decipher.
“Do you know how to read it?” she asked.
It is not an uncommon question.
As Marcellus Shale natural gas development prompts more water tests – by homeowners, regulators and companies – widespread public knowledge about how to interpret the data has not kept pace.
In a recent study by Penn State University researchers about Marcellus Shale drilling and rural water supplies, 75 percent of homeowners surveyed said their water test reports were either somewhat or very difficult to understand.
The tools provided by laboratories to help residents interpret their water tests range from very thorough to none at all.
Hadlick’s data came from the state, but the Department of Environmental Protection did not include any information in the cover letter to the test results – or any flags in the lab report – outlining the hazards detected in the water: methane at double the concentration when it begins to seep out of water into the air, creating an explosion risk, and barium at more than twice state and federal safe drinking water limits.
The water also contained elevated levels of aluminum, manganese, iron, turbidity, total dissolved solids and chloride – all of which have limits set for aesthetic, not health, reasons – but the department did not highlight those parameters in the lab report or outline them in the cover letter.
The DEP attached a generic pamphlet developed by Penn State on interpreting water test results, but the common water quality parameters described in the fact sheet did not include methane, barium or aluminum.
The water was sampled by the state in December as part of an ongoing investigation into elevated methane levels in three Franklin Forks water supplies. The agency is trying to determine if the gas is coming from natural sources, nearby Marcellus Shale drilling or some other cause.
DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said the water test results were explained to the residents on the phone and in person and the department has regularly been in touch with the families.
“DEP strives to keep informed the residents whose water supplies may have been impacted as it conducts its investigations,” he said. “DEP informs the residents of their test results in writing and explains their meaning. If a resident has a question about the results, we are more than happy to explain them, regardless of how far along DEP is in its investigation.”
Tammy Manning, another Franklin Forks homeowner whose water well is part of the investigation, has had frequent conversations with DEP inspectors, including during a phone call she made to ask for an explanation after she received her water test results in the mail.
Those tests, too, showed high levels of methane, barium, metals and salts, she learned. None of those parameters had been highlighted in the cover letter or the lab report.
“We didn’t even know what the normal levels were supposed to be,” she said.
The content of the cover letters sent to the Mannings and Hadlicks differs remarkably from the letters the DEP has sent to homeowners after regulators concluded that natural gas drilling did or did not impact their water supplies.
Those letters, dozens of which were reviewed by The Times-Tribune, regularly detail each elevated component detected in the water – regardless of the cause of the contaminants. They define the state’s primary and secondary drinking water standards, and describe at length the various levels of risk posed by methane dissolved in drinking water, its saturation level and recommendations for venting a well.
Those letters include the phrase, “When the Department is made aware of methane levels greater than 7 mg/l, we notify the water supply owner of the hazards associated with methane in their water supply.” (Dissolved methane was detected in the Hadlick and Manning water wells at 58 milligrams per liter and 39 milligrams per liter.)
Sunday said the state is not obligated to alert residents to contaminants it detects in a water supply when it sends out copies of its lab reports.
“There is not a statutory requirement to alert homeowners in a cover letter which, if any, of enclosed results are at hazardous levels,” he said.
Helping homeowners understand complex water test results has been a priority for Penn State Extension associate Bryan Swistock since long before Marcellus Shale drilling began in the state.
Penn State has developed a broad array of fact sheets and tools, public presentations, even an online form that allows users to plug in their test results and get back a detailed explanation of which components are at safe levels.
Swistock called lab reports without the drinking water standards “unfortunate.”
“It is important for homeowners to understand whether their water is safe or not and that’s the only way they can really determine that,” he said.
Swistock advocated the creation of a board of experts to define a standardized test report format, “with as much information as possible, but a simple format.”
He added that among the interpretation tools offered to well owners should be a simple resource – a telephone number.
“Some people just want to talk to somebody,” he said. “They really want to understand what the problem is and what they can do about it.”