Thursday, October 8, 2009

Citizens can use technology to monitor contamination from Marcellus shale activity

WYSOX TOWNSHIP - Citizens and municipalities can get involved in detecting if there have been leakages and illegal dumping of waste water from hydraulic fracturing of wells in the Marcellus Shale, federal and Penn State officials said Wednesday at an all-day workshop on natural gas issues held in Wysox.

However, citizens are strongly urged not to go onto a well site itself, because they can get seriously injured, said Jennifer Means, the regional manager of the DEP's Northcentral Office for Oil and Gas Management.

Instead, there are portable, inexpensive devices that citizens can use to detect the presence of waste water from hydraulic fracturing in streams or other bodies of water in the area of a well site, said Bryan Swistock, a water resource extension specialist with Penn State University.

Approximately 170 people attended the workshop, which featured a keynote speech by Terry Engelder, a Penn State University professor of geosciences who was introduced by Northern Tier Regional Planning & Development Commission Executive Director Kevin Abrams as the "leading authority on the Marcellus Shale play."

The workshop, which was titled Northern Tier Gas Summit for Municipal Officials, also featured three panels of experts, who spoke on water issues, road maintenance issues, and planning issues for municipalities.

In addition, there was a panel of representatives from three gas drilling companies who spoke to the municipal officials. The panels also took questions from the audience.

The workshop was sponsored by the Northern Tier Regional Planning & Development Commission.

Water issues

Means said she does not see the process of hydraulic fracturing itself as a "major concern" in terms of contaminating drinking water supplies, since the fracturing takes place a mile or more underground, while well water comes from the first few hundred feet underground.

However, there are spills that have occurred at the well pad sites in the Marcellus Shale, she said.

"There is a lot of action on site, and spills happen," she said. "We spend a lot of time chasing spills" and making sure they are cleaned up, she said.

In an interview, she said there have been spills at well sites of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, as well as leaks of waste water from the hydraulic fracturing that has been stored in containment vessels at well sites.

However, she said that most of the spills have not affected an area other than the well site itself, and few of the spills have migrated off site into streams.

Means also said that citizens are advised not to go onto well drilling sites if they want to monitor them.

"They are very dangerous places," she said. "We've had at least three very serious injuries."

Instead, Swistock recommended that concerned citizens purchase a meter for $50 to $100 over the Internet, which can measure the TDS (total dissolved solids) in streams and other locations.

The meters can detect the presence of waste water from hydraulic fracturing, which has a high amount of total dissolved solids, such as salts, minerals and metals, he said.

"If there is going to be a problem, it is very likely (to be detected), because the TDS level is so high in the (waste) fluid" from hydraulic fracturing, he said.

Mike Brownell, who is the chief of the Water Resources Management Division of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, said the commission is proposing to set up a network of water quality monitoring stations that could detect spills of "fraccing fluid" and illegal disposal of waste water from hydraulic fracturing.

The monitoring stations would be set up along streams and small rivers, and would automatically report their data via satellite so that it could be monitored in real time over the Internet, he said.

A municipality could choose to purchase one of the stations for $20,000, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission would pay the operating and maintenance costs of the station, he said.

"We think it's a good idea," he said.

The issue of how to dispose of the waste water from hydraulic fracturing was also discussed by several of the speakers.

At each Marcellus Shale well site, 30 to 40 percent of the several millions of gallons of water that are used to hydraulically fracture the shale comes back out of the well bore "pretty quickly," Swistock said, while small quantities come out of the well bore later as it producing gas. This "flow-back" water must been disposed of or recycled, officials said.

One option is to dispose of the water in an injection well underground, but, unlike a lot of other states, "Pennsylvania doesn't have good geology for it," Swistock said.

"The EPA estimated six months ago that Pennsylvania might get 20 new injection wells over the next two years," he said. "So there will be some put in, but it is not the answer."

Some companies are recycling the waste water from hydraulic fracturing by using it to refracture additional wells, officials said at the meeting.

In most cases, the companies have to dilute the flow-back water before it is used again to fracture another well, Swistock said.

Janice Lobdell, Fortuna Energy's supervisor for community relations, said Fortuna Energy is now recycling all of the flow-back water from its hydraulic fracturing. The flow-back water is diluted with fresh water and its pH is adjusted before it is re-used, she said.

Fortuna had thought that the flow-back water might get too salty to be re-used after repeated hydraulic fracturings, Lobdell said. However, so far, that has not occurred, she said.

Under new regulations proposed by the state of Pennsylvania, waste water treatment plants that treat water from hydraulic fracturing would no longer be able to discharge diluted salt water into steams, Swistock said. The regulation would apply to treatment plants constructed in 2011 or later, he said.

Such plants would need to remove the salt from the water before it can be discharged to a stream, in order to protect municipal water supplies downstream, he said.

One questioner wanted to know if radioactivity has been a problem with hydraulic fracturing.

Swistock said there is a lot of naturally occurring radioactivity in the environment, such as radon in drinking water. He also the amount of radioactivity found "has been relatively low, at least in the water flowback (from hydraulic fracturing). It does not appear to be a ... big concern."

New York

Brownell said that in probably a few months, drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale will begin in New York state. Drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale in New York had been put on hold until state regulations for drilling in the rock formation could be developed.

Those regulations were recently proposed by New York state, and must go through public hearings and a public comment period before they are finally adopted.

Brownell estimated that drilling in the Marcellus Shale in New York state will probably begin in January, "We expect to see a lot of activity there," he said.

Engelder said that a rough estimate by the Commonwealth is that a total of $3 billion has been spent so far on developing the Marcellus Shale in the Northern Tier area of Pennsylvania, including such expenses as lease payments to landowners and the cost of drilling wells.

That's "big news," he said.

The Marcellus Shale is estimated to contain enough natural gas to supply the United States' needs for over 20 years, Engelder said.

The United States ought to rely on natural gas more to supply its energy needs, especially considering that the country uses 7 billion barrels of oil per year, but only has 21 billion to 30 billion barrels of domestic oil left to produce, he said.

"Not only do we have a lot of gas, but this gas is American," he said.

In terms of its energy equivalent, the recoverable gas reserve in the Marcellus Shale is the equivalent of four times the U.S. domestic reserves of oil, he said.

He said the United States should, for example, use compressed natural gas to power more vehicles, and use natural gas to fuel power plants.

Seems they just have to work out a few significant environmental, health and safety issues first...


1 comment:

  1. So has the DEP closed its doors? Now it is OUR job to monitor water quality? Will citizen fire trucks and police cars be far behind? Is public safety in our hands from now on? We can try our best, but I thought there were people who have training and college educations, etc., to be able to do these jobs. I think this approach to throw it back on the ordinary citizens is absurd. When things go wrong, I suppose we will be sued?



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