DEP: Drilling didn’t dirty Franklin water

BY LAURA LEGERE
Times-Shamrock Writer

Poor water quality at three Susquehanna County homes appears to reflect background conditions and cannot be attributed to nearby gas drilling, the Department of Environmental Protection said Monday.
The well water at the homes in Franklin Twp. contains potentially unsafe or unpleasant amounts of methane, metals and salts, but the water’s signature is similar to that of a nearby natural spring and a mobile home park that abandoned its water source over a decade ago because it contained too much methane and salt, DEP said in a statement and letters to the residents.

Distinguishing characteristics of the gas in the well water also do not match the gas in the closest Marcellus Shale wells, owned by WPX Energy, DEP said.

The findings cap a 16-month state investigation that began in December 2011 after residents of the rural corner known as Franklin Forks complained of gray or black water and one family noticed water spurting sporadically through the cap of its well. The case drew the attention of celebrities, activists and members of the national and international press.

Samples taken by the state found methane at double what regulators call the “level of concern” – the point when gas begins to seep out of water into the air, creating a potential explosion risk if it collects in enclosed spaces. The tests also found barium at more than twice federal safe drinking water limits, as well as high concentrations of iron, aluminum, manganese, total dissolved solids and chloride.

Regulators originally suggested to residents that the likely source of the gas was a natural methane seep documented for over a century in nearby Salt Springs State Park, but they also evaluated other potential pathways, including Marcellus Shale wells drilled in the township.

Because the water wells are several thousand feet from the nearest natural gas wells they were not tested before gas exploration began, making comparisons between past and current water quality difficult.

The state cited WPX for defective cemented casing in two of the closest natural gas wells in 2011, but the department’s assessment of the wells’ construction during the investigation did not find problems that could link them to the water quality at the homes.

WPX voluntarily vented the families’ water wells to disperse the methane and began providing the homes with replacement water supplies in March 2012 after DEP requested help for the residents. WPX has not yet determined if or when it will halt water deliveries to the homes, spokeswoman Susan Oliver said.
She praised the DEP’s investigation in a statement, calling it a “science-based, fact-finding effort” that “definitively” cleared the company of blame.

WPX conducted its own investigation and prepared an extensive report that also concluded that its operations had no impact on the families’ water supplies. As part of the process, the company did more than 80 water quality tests at residential wells in the area and more than 55 integrity tests on the two gas wells that were a focus of the state’s study. The report suggested that floods that swamped Franklin Forks in 2011 might have pushed existing methane in the aquifer into water supplies.

DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said the agency reviewed WPX’s findings but based its conclusions on its independent investigation.

“There’s just naturally occurring methane in that area,” she said. “Some areas of the county are more prone to methane than others.”

Franklin Twp. resident Tammy Manning, whose family sued WPX last year, said the state’s findings are both unsurprising and unconvincing.

Nothing in the state’s explanation clarifies why the water quality in her neighborhood changed “all at once,” she said.

“Why, all of a sudden, can’t we use our water?” she asked.