EARTHWORKS

Enviros vexed by what’s missing in water contamination reports

E&E News | Ellen Gilmer

November 20, 2012
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Pennsylvania's environmental protection chief is defending his agency's controversial system for testing water wells near Marcellus Shale operations by saying other states work the same way. But regulators in those states say that's not true.

The flap began in the Keystone State, where it recently came to light that the state Department of Environmental Protection routinely withholds water quality data it deems irrelevant to oil and gas contamination. Critics are pressuring regulators to overhaul that practice because they say the untold contaminants could make people sick.

In the two weeks since a state legislator publicized the issue by calling for an investigation, DEP officials have repeatedly defended their process as standard operating procedure that has simply been "misapprehended" by drilling critics.

The contention boils down to this: When the state checks water wells that homeowners suspect might be tainted by drilling operations in the Marcellus Shale, samples are sent to an agency lab that uses a U.S. EPA testing method to screen for dozens of metals. DEP has determined that eight of those are strong indicators of oil and gas contamination, so it instructs the lab to return results on only those eight metals. Those are the results given to homeowners.

Protocol or not, environmentalists don't like it. The unreported metals include, for example, titanium, aluminum, silicon, lithium and molybdenum. DEP has said there's no way those metals, without the presence of the eight target metals, would indicate oil and gas contamination. But Nadia Steinzor, a coordinator for Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said it's not the role of a regulatory agency to decide which metals are of public concern.

"That is a tremendous lack of transparency on the part of a public agency," she said. "It's not really their call to say you're not going to be affected by X metal."

Earthworks signed a letter with other environmental groups last week urging Gov. Tom Corbett (R) to make changes to DEP's system and immediately release comprehensive results of previous tests.

The metals that are reported by the labs are barium, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium and strontium, which are common contamination markers used by agencies in other states and recommended by the Marcellus Shale Coalition for water quality testing around oil and gas operations.

Do other states filter?

DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said in a letter defending his agency's practices that the parameters used in Pennsylvania are "substantially similar" to those used in New York, Ohio, Colorado and Wyoming.

But regulators in at least three of those states said they do not withhold any data from homeowners.

In an email, staff from Colorado's Department of Natural Resources said technicians in third-party labs there use the same testing technique -- EPA Method 200.7 -- that Pennsylvania uses to test for metals like calcium, arsenic, boron and more.

But unlike Pennsylvania, the labs and the agency do not filter the data. The environmental staff provides a summary table to concerned residents, along with a copy of the entire lab package. The data are also publicly available online and include metals like aluminum and lithium, which go unreported in Pennsylvania.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials said they, too, use Method 200.7 and report all parameters tested by the lab. They screen using an oil and gas analysis suite that includes the eight markers used in Pennsylvania, plus a few other contaminants, including aluminum and bromide -- unreported in Pennsylvania. Residents who file water complaints receive water investigation reports along with copies of the unfiltered lab results.

Officials from New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, which also uses that EPA testing method, said any testing would have to be released "in its entirety to the landowner."

A review of the state's draft environmental impact statement for fracking, which is currently on hold there, shows the state plans to test for contamination with lab parameters that focus on a smaller group of metals, including barium, chloride, iron, manganese and sodium, along with other materials.

Pennsylvania DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday wrote in an email that Krancer's assertion that Pennsylvania's practices are similar to others is based on a "good working relationship" among states.

He clarified that the secretary's statements are not in defense of "filtered" data because the agency maintains it has not filtered anything; rather, it has zeroed in on target metals for further analysis. The results for the whole suite of metals are preliminary, he said, and final results are pursued for those contamination markers only.

Are all results final?

Indeed, hydrogeology researcher David Yoxtheimer says the results of metals testing that go unreported in Pennsylvania are not as readily available as environmentalists think.

Although the lab uses the EPA method that screens for 24 or more metals, technicians have to take an extra step to get final results on the eight markers. The initial analysis produces a chart of peaks and valleys that indicate levels of the various metals. That must be analyzed to identify the levels of target metals, which are then compared with a reference standard to ensure the results are accurate.

In other words, the eight target metals are subject to further analysis -- and cost -- to ensure quality. So the lab may have preliminary results for all the metals but final results for only the eight. Krancer said during a conference last week that he has no intention of releasing data points that have not undergone the quality-control analysis, especially because he said they do not signal oil and gas contamination.

"You're going to use this method and in theory you could report all 24," said Yoxtheimer, who is on staff at Pennsylvania State University's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. "But we're really not interested in two-thirds of them because they're not related to drilling impacts, at least commonly."

That shadow of condition, "at least commonly," is enough to keep many environmentalists on edge.

"[T]he reporting procedure reflects an anachronistic approach to water testing that is gravely insufficient in light of the new and specific impacts of high-volume drilling and hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formation," the groups wrote in their letter to the governor last week.

Because industry technology and practices evolve to enhance production, they wrote, additional metals could enter water supplies, and DEP's focus on the eight markers could result in other problematic materials being overlooked. Plus, they say, there is scant research on the effect of exposure to even low doses of multiple contaminants at the same time -- making full disclosure critical for understanding those unknowns.

"In a time in which drilling practices are changing so rapidly, it is something to look at and revisit," Steinzor said. "If nothing else, if we can succeed in getting states that do this to take another look ... that'll be a step in the right direction."

Spats vs. substance

For now, the battle is relegated to an exchange of heated remarks in letters, blog posts and statements made to local newspapers. Rep. Jesse White, the state legislator who sparked the dust-up by calling for an investigation into DEP lab procedures, has been seared by industry representatives who say he's just bitter about a falling-out he had with driller Range Resources Corp.

Range released a series of 2010 emails between White and company officials that illustrate a once-friendly relationship that turned sour when Range hosted a fundraiser for the legislator that came up short on cash. White has dismissed the emails as an attempt by the industry to discredit him as he pushes for increased accountability among Marcellus operators.

Environmentalists who have taken up the cause have sidestepped the spat and instead focused on the lab procedures in question. But Krancer and other state officials have brushed off the groups' requests as a misinformed product of wild accusations from White.

"The letter was just echoing unsubstantiated and outrageous allegations," said Corbett administration spokesman Eric Shirk, adding that although DEP is always reviewing and improving policies, it has no plans to change the lab protocol.

Former DEP Secretary John Hanger offered his take two weeks ago, telling EnergyWire that he believed the agency's policies were not an attempt to shroud any data, but that they should be changed immediately in order to give residents all available information (EnergyWire, Nov. 5). Even if the other metals are unrelated to drilling, he said, residents should know what's there.

Tagged with: water, toxics, public health, pennsylvania, fracking

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