the stories methane tells (and our water future)

January 27, 2014

garrett falls

Falls along the Youghiogheny River in unfractured Garrett County.
//photo by Mike Bagdes-Canning of Marcellus Outreach Butler

Turns out Garrett and Allegany county residents can’t light their tap water on fire. Yet.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in Maryland’s westernmost counties, methane concentrations in the area’s well water are very low, according to a study presented this month to the state’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. David W. Bolton, who is chief of the hydrogeology and hydrology program at the Maryland Geological Survey, has been studying well water samples in Garrett and the western part of Allegany for two years. In Maryland, these counties lie atop the Marcellus Shale that would be drilled for gas if the state were to proceed with fracking. (Counties in the eastern part of the state are on top of other shale formations.)

gasland photo of faucet

This image, from Josh Fox’s 2010 Gasland, showed a resident lighting his tap water on fire.

Methane levels are not regulated in drinking water, so little testing had been done, Bolton said. Methane mostly poses a problem if it builds up in a confined space, because it can burn, explode or displace oxygen, causing asphyxiation. The sputtering or spurting water can also interfere with well water pumps. But methane became a literal flash point when some residents near fracking wells in other states showed Josh Fox, in his movies Gasland 1 and 2, how they could ignite water from their kitchen faucets and streams — a chemistry experiment they said they had not been able to do before drilling began.

One counterintuitive argument fracking proponents have used in Maryland is that if methane migrates to the water, that’s not really a big deal or at least not news — because methane from coal extraction, the story goes, has already contaminated well water. So, Bolton embarked on a study of background levels of methane in Western Maryland, comparing well water from valleys and hills and areas in and outside of coal basins. He found that the concentration of dissolved methane in the water ranged from less than 1.5 to 8,550 micrograms per liter, all below the level at which the federal government recommends action to avoid explosions or asphyxiation — and most were far below. Of the 78 wells tested:

  • 44 (56 percent) had no detected methane (levels below 1.5 micrograms/liter).
  • 34 wells (44 percent) had levels above 1.5 microgram/liter.
  • Of those wells above 1.5 micrograms/liter, only four had levels exceeding 1,000 micrograms/liter.
  • No well exceeded 10,000 micrograms/liter (or 10 milligrams/liter), the level at which action should be taken. 

Although higher concentrations were in valleys and coal bed areas, he said, all levels were low.

In his search for samples with high levels, Bolton asked local Health Department officials if they knew of wells with methane problems and was directed to a home where pipes shook badly and a cap had blown off the well. That homeowner had fixed the problem, so Bolton went next door. That water had the highest concentration of methane: 8,550 micrograms/liter, still below the 10,000 micrograms where action is recommended.

Although he tried, Bolton said, he “never had anything light on fire.” A spokeswoman at the Garrett Health Department also said no one has ever reported being able to light tap water on fire.

Scientists at Duke University have run similar experiments in areas where fracking is under way. A team led by Drs. Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh, in studies published in 2011 and 2013, compared methane levels in 141 water wells, mostly in northeast Pennsylvania but a few in New York. The scientists found that water wells within 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) of one or more fracking sites had methane concentrations six times higher than those farther from drilling sites and that methane levels increased with proximity to a drill site. Ethane concentrations also were 23 times higher, and propane was detected in 10 wells within a kilometer of drilling operations. The highest level recorded was just under 70,000 micrograms/liter. Concentrations outside the 1-kilometer radius averaged 1,100 micrograms/liter.

Of Duke’s higher readings, Bolton said, “We didn’t get anywhere near that.”

So where does this methane come from?

  • Methane from decaying plants and animals, or biogenic methane, can get into ground and surface water. Bolton said, for example, that decaying leaves or a dead deer in the forest can send methane traces into streams or well water.
  • Methane deep underground comes from the long-decayed plant material (coal) or from the pressurized remains of animals that walked the Earth eons ago (oil and gas). And scientists can date this thermogenic methane, determining whether, for example, it’s from coal, the Devonian layers or deeper Marcellus Shale.

The Duke scientists found that all of the water wells with methane concentrations greater than 10,000 micrograms/liter had “signatures consistent with thermogenic natural gas.” Because of the isotopic fingerprint, they concluded that the methane and ethane migrated to the water through “faulty or inadequate steel casings” or “imperfections in the cement sealings,” which are designed to keep the gas and fracking fluid from leaking into the environment. (They note that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 90 notices of violations for faulty casings and cementings on 64 Marcellus Shale wells in 2010, and 119 similar notices in 2011.) Other research on casings has determined that “cement failure is ubiquitous, chronic and well-known” and that unconventional fracked wells (those that drill vertically and then turn at an angle — the sort that has created all this controversy) are more likely to fail and leak over time than conventional wells.

Bolton said his findings indicate that “thermal maturity of methane we tested [in Maryland] was less than Marcellus in Pennsylvania” and that background levels of methane are relatively low.

In other words, if Maryland decides to proceed with fracking and residents are then able to light their tap water on fire, we will all know why. And coal won’t be to blame. Bolton phrases it this way: “People would ask legitimately if newly drilled wells were the source.”

Bolton plans to publish his study for peer review in the Maryland Geological Survey by late spring. He hopes to test a few more wells, particularly near Accident, in Garrett, where conventional gas drilling took place and where gas is still stored. But Bolton said that “with the funds available,” the survey was representative of the area: “We tried to get a good geographic distribution … and different geologic settings.”

Commission Chairman David Vanko suggested that drillers be required to determine the isotopic fingerprint of any methane exceeding 10,000 micrograms/liter. The test costs about $200. The commission’s citizen representative, Paul Roberts, snowed in in Friendsville, gave a quick second on the conference call line. (Under the state’s proposed best management practices, companies would also have to collect two years of baseline data on underground drinking water, surface water and ecological resources. )

Bolton said the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has asked him to review the Jackson methane research. At this point, he is not “sure if that was enough to nail that down.” He wanted to see on a graph methane levels in relation to the distance from valleys as well as from wells. The Duke scientists said in their research that statistical analysis showed distance from valleys had an insignificant bearing on the methane levels, but Bolton said he wanted to see the data: “It could be the higher levels were closer to wells and closer to valleys.” (At Roberts’ urging, MDE policy director Brigid Kenney agreed to ask Drs. Jackson and Vingosh to make a presentation to the commission.)

In part because of the Duke study, Roberts and others have been urging MDE and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to increase the recommended buffer to 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) between drilling sites and private water wells and other structures. In his comments on the draft best practices, Roberts said, “In the face of credible scientific research supporting a minimum 3,300-foot setback, the administration should explain why it disagrees with that science. Until then, the setbacks as proposed are highly suspect.”

The draft report on best practices set a number of setbacks, including 1,000 feet from the borehole to private groundwater wells or occupied buildings, such as a school or church; 2,000 feet to public groundwater wells or water intakes; and a mere 300 feet from the edge of the drill disturbance area to streams, rivers, wetlands, trails and parkland.

Asked about the state’s recommended setbacks, Bolton said in a phone conversation that he was involved with science, not regulatory policy, and that more data are needed. Nevertheless, “if the state wants to be cautious, they should have a larger setback,” he said.

Unless Maryland officials are just going through the motions, with health, economic and other studies, a decision on fracking here is still a ways off. (And pressure to frack would increase exponentially if Dominion gets permission to export liquefied fracked gas from expanded facilities at Cove Point.) Western Maryland, though, is still mopping up from the coal industry’s incursion. By the 1960s, 120,000 pounds — that’s 60 tons — of acidic water drained every day from abandoned coal mines into the North Branch Potomac River, leaving the water “biologically dead for many decades,” according to the Maryland DNR. Adding lime from “dosers” to the river’s tributaries in Garrett and Allegany counties, which costs $321,000 a year, is neutralizing the acid, making it healthy for brook trout and other aquatic life as well as recreational businesses that bring in an estimated $3 million in economic benefits a year to the area. Clean water is good for business.


Water bottles filled a store aisle in West Virginia at the height of the crisis.
//photo by Foo Conner @iwasaround

Another fossil-fueled water crisis is ongoing in West Virginia, where a toxic chemical for cleaning coal oozed into the Elk River and then the tap water of 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities. The intake pipe for privately owned American Water was a mile downstream from Freedom Chemical’s huge tanks of unregulated and, it turns out, leaking toxic chemicals. Already, the chemical company has declared bankruptcy and moved to shift blame to the water company for not closing the intake valve. Days into the crisis, Freedom Chemical disclosed that a second chemical compound had leaked. It kept the identity of that chemical secret, for proprietary reasons, a loophole familiar to fracking companies and people with mysterious ailments. The state declared the water safe, but then said pregnant women and perhaps children should not drink it. And then the governor told residents they would just have to decide for themselves whether the water is safe to drink.

This time will be different, the fracking industry insists. Maryland will have the toughest regulations. And, if mistakes are made, Jeffrey Kupfer, the Chevron representative on the state’s advisory commission, has said that “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing contaminated well water. Which seems like a dishonest and cavalier way to talk about other people’s water. And as the West Virginia tragedy points out, the line between public (or privatized) and private water can be thin. Both are vulnerable to wandering toxic chemicals.

Over the weekend, the WVWaterCrisis Solidarity group was to deliver its second truckload of water and other supplies donated from the DC and Maryland area. Other groups have made similar runs. Perhaps 10, 20, 30 years from now, fracked states will be pleading for clean water. About 75 percent of the fracking fluid remains underground for the ages, mixing with the radium, benzene, brine and all the rest below. When the toxic and proprietary soup blasted into the well hole eventually reaches aquifers through crumbling concrete and new fissures, we could be West Virginians, searching for clean water. If any remains. And the drilling companies, like their coal brethren before them, will be long gone.

–elisabeth hoffman



One Response to “the stories methane tells (and our water future)”

  1. Suzette said

    Magnificent website. Lots of helpful information here.
    I’m sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious.
    And of course, thank you on your sweat!

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