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Gas field drillers, activists seek statewide rules for wells

| Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Gene Cope Jr. of Darlington PA and worker for Dillan Well Drilling digs a water well at a house in Ambridge, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Gene Cope Jr. of Darlington, PA and worker for Dillan Well Drilling checks the cuttings while digging a water well at a house in Ambridge, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Kevin Barger of Bessemer, PA and worker for Dillan Well Drilling works while digging a water well at a house in Ambridge, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014.

There are more regulations for cutting hair than for drilling water wells in Pennsylvania.

To cut hair, you must hold a cosmetologist degree, pass an exam and get a license that outlines how you can practice.

To drill a well and install a water pump, you need only register drilling equipment with the state.

The absence of statewide rules governing how water wells are built and who can drill them have united some unlikely allies — environmental activists and gas drilling companies, who say rules are needed to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination in the middle of the gas drilling boom. More than 3 million rural and suburban residents in Pennsylvania rely on a private well for drinking water, and about 20,000 wells are drilled each year in the state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Gas companies, required by the state to test water wells in a 2,500-foot radius of a well pad and present reports to well owners, want rules to further minimize risk of contamination and fix improperly constructed wells, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Push for regulation

Environmental advocacy groups like Penn Future agree that regulations would better protect groundwater, which they say is at high risk of contamination from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations.

Pennsylvania is one of two holdouts, the other being Alaska, on statewide water well regulations.

State and federal studies echo each other on well water contamination in Pennsylvania, consistently pointing to improperly constructed wells as a culprit.

“That's been a consistent problem,” said Bryan Swistock, a researcher at Penn State Extension “We, in our water testing, continue to see relatively high levels of bacteria in water wells.” Swistock's own well was contaminated by mice who were living in it, he learned. The mice had an easy way in since the well was missing a sanitary cap, a lid required by most states.

Last year, the USGS reported that 8 percent of more than 5,000 wells tested from 1969 to 2007 statewide contained levels of arsenic at or above federal standards set for public drinking water and an additional 12 percent — though not exceeding standards — showed elevated levels.

Some boroughs in the state, including ones in Centre, Chester, and Montgomery counties, have adopted their own regulations. But a patchwork of local regulations isn't ideal, said Todd Giddings, a geologist consultant and board member of the Pennsylvania Groundwater Association. Giddings helped craft State College's regulations, which are now a part of its building codes.

“One size doesn't fit all the geology across the state,” he said.

Methane concerns

Methane emissions pose another concern. Methane is prevalent in the rocks of Pennsylvania. It is found at shallow depths where water wells are drilled and is released at deeper depths where the rocks are blown apart from hydraulic fracturing, Giddings said. That makes unprotected water wells more susceptible to natural methane than any from drilling because water wells are drilled at a more shallow depth than where methane from gas wells would be released, Giddings said.

The relationship between gas drilling and water well contamination remains disputed. In August, the Department of Environmental Protection determined that drilling affected water supplies in 243 cases, some involving gas in water wells.

Testing results can be influenced by temperature, rainfall and barometric pressure. But there are no published state or federal standards or methodology for how to manage those variables.

The state is participating in a gas industry funded study to establish benchmarks.

Uneven playing field

Water well drillers say the lack of regulations leads to an uneven playing field for drilling businesses and allows some in the industry to undercut costs by putting in wells that are not cemented or grouted.

“We run into probably on a weekly basis, where a well is improperly constructed, bacterial problems in a person's well that wouldn't happen if the well was constructed properly,” said Todd Dillan, owner of Dillan Water Drilling and Pump Service, based in Darlington. “More problems are definitely from improperly constructed wells than anything due to the oil and gas industry,” he said. “A lot of wells are just filled in with the drill cuttings that were drilled out of the well.”

Bill Reichart, president of the Pennsylvania Groundwater Association and owner of drilling company William W. Reichart, Inc. in Northeast Pennsylvania, said some drillers in the state have opposed regulations in the past because of fears it would increase business costs and open the gates to more industry regulation.

But a more expensive well up-front can save thousands later, he said.

“(A) $300 difference in construction could save $3,000 in (well) treatment costs on the back end,” he said.

Personal stake

Lawmakers in Harrisburg have tried to pass water well legislation for years. Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, has introduced several bills, each time, he said, trying to address concerns from the water well drilling industry.

His latest bill mandates casing and grouting for wells and specifically bans a well tax.

The state House passed Miller's bill this year, but the Senate failed to take it up before the Assembly adjourned, and it died in the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. Adam Pankake, executive director of the committee, said it ran out of time to move the bill before lawmakers left.

“It appears that people like drinking unfit water, because it's hard to get the momentum,” Miller said.

Rep. Bob Godshall (R-Montgomery) says he will reintroduce the bill next session and has a personal stake in seeing it through. Godshall has multiple myeloma, a form of bone and marrow cancer. He says he got severely ill from his well water when ground runoff seeped into the well, which had no protective casing or grouting.

“It was an improperly constructed well, and that caused me all kinds of problems,” he said.

Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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