Gas Field Drillers, Activists Seek Statewide Rules for Wells

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By Katelyn Ferral

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.

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