line on the land

April 6, 2014

anadarko protest tom jefferson

Student activists form a line in the road, blocking trucks headed for a frack site in a Pennsylvania state forest. So far, Western Marylanders are trying to negotiate a different line on fracking. //photo by Tom Jefferson

In Pennsylvania, activists draw the line by dragging tree branches into the road and then sitting, slipping their arms inside a massive concrete pipe, holding tight and waiting for the police. For nearly six hours last month, no trucks could pass. Far up the road was a fracking well pad in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

In Maryland, a much more modest line is being negotiated. If fracking were allowed, a large enough setback might help make the difference between relative safety and danger. It’s a circle on a map around a water well or house, school, park or other place within which fracking is not allowed. For skeptics, agnostics or nonbelievers on whether fracking’s risks can be made low enough, the setback is their line on the land.

Based on a draft set of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and existing regulations on conventional gas drilling, recommendations from the Maryland Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Environment (MDE) include 1,000-foot setbacks from private water wells and occupied buildings and 2,000 feet from water intakes for municipal water sources. Of the more than 4,000 public comments on the BMPs, hundreds were critical of these and other setbacks.

Concerned Garrett and Allegany residents who formed Citizen Shale have been pressing for greater protection. At first, all they asked was to protect private wells as much as public wells — with 2,000-foot setbacks.

But when a Duke University study made a case for 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) based on research in active drilling areas in Pennsylvania, Citizen Shale and Paul Roberts, a co-founder of the group and the citizen representative on the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, started insisting on that as the minimum setback. So far, the state departments have not budged. In fact, MDE told the House Environmental Matters Committee in a letter that “available scientific data” doesn’t support a 1-kilometer setback.

That rebuff came despite revelations about a long-forgotten Poolesville incident and a number of new health studies, leaving patience wearing thin for the agnostics, skeptics and nonbelievers alike.

“I don’t see the evidence that this industry can be effectively regulated. But, since we must try, the most important step is to move human activity a protective distance away from the drilling,” Roberts said. “There are public health and safety concerns, and worries about water contamination. It has turned into another full-time job for me — trying to get the state to adopt regulations based on real experiences from other states since, so far, our regulators dispute the available science.”

Here’s what’s on the table:

the case of the communicating wells

From Poolesville came a cautionary tale about the fragility of water sources. The Montgomery County town supplied water to about 5,000 residents with eight municipal water wells. As development started to outpace the water supply, town officials asked state regulators for permission to drill two more wells. Caroline Taylor, who lives in Sugarland Forest outside Poolesville’s border, was concerned enough about the effect on her private well, particularly during droughts, to demand a public hearing. She insisted on baseline testing and wrangled out of the state an agreement: Private wells would be monitored and, if necessary, replaced. Taylor had no interest in being hooked up to the municipal wells in Poolesville. She did not want to buy water by the gallon; she wanted a water well on her land. And the state’s project hydrogeologist, Patrick Hammond — who had studied water sources in the fractured-rock geological region that underlies Maryland west of about Interstate 95 — thought a “zone of interference” could extend even a mile from the town’s well and would need long-term monitoring. In other words, what happened in one well could affect what happened in another a mile away.

And so the municipal wells were drilled in Poolesville. They weren’t pumped at full capacity, however, until the middle of 2007. And two months later, one hot summer day, Taylor’s children turned on the outside faucet and heard a sputtering sound. Air came out but no water. Taylor called Hammond, who analyzed the monitoring data and determined that the town’s pumping activity, as well as that of a nearby golf course, had sucked dry her private well (and interfered with others) 5,000 feet to the south. In the rock formations under Poolesville, the water sources were connected. Poolesville and the golf course paid to drill new wells for the residents who had lost water.

At 300 feet, Taylor’s new well is deeper than her original one, which she described wistfully as “a great well.” The new one has more sediment, she said. “I preferred my 90-foot well. But I prefer water to no water.”

At a February shale advisory commission meeting, Hammond, now retired from MDE but a former consultant for the state’s study of water resources in the fractured-rock regions, stepped forward during the public comment period. The Poolesville case was on his mind, along with his research showing large-capacity water wells (and dewatering for coal mining) could affect private wells 5,000 feet away. He also pointed to a December 2013 report — not peer-reviewed but appearing in the industry trade journal American Oil and Gas Reporter — showing that contamination of water wells was probable within 1,000 feet, possible within 5,000 feet and possible as far as 10,000 feet, once a contaminant is in the aquifer and given certain geological conditions.

What was the rationale for the proposed smaller setbacks, he asked the commissioners. “They seem to be somewhat arbitrary,” he said.

At the March advisory commission meeting, Hammond returned. He said his research, presented at the 2012 Maryland Ground Water Symposium, backs up the findings from the Duke methane study and finds errors in the industry-funded Molofsky study that dismisses fracking’s role in water wells contaminated in Dimock, Pa. Leaky well casings are the most likely culprit for methane contamination in Dimock, he said. Based on his knowledge of the water and rock formations in Western Maryland, he said, 1,000-foot setbacks are insufficient. He has seen water wells affecting each other as far as 5,000 feet and contaminant plumes described in scientific journals extending to about that distance. And whether gas, water or chemicals: “If you can show a hydrological connection, it doesn’t matter what the fluid is.”

no help in annapolis

So far, state officials who work with the advisory commission haven’t commented on the Poolesville case. In a letter to the House Environmental Matters Committee, MDE opposed the bill that would have increased setbacks to 3,280 feet (1 kilometer), saying the larger setback “cannot be supported by the available scientific data and because codifying the setback distance now would preempt and undermine the work of the Departments and the Advisory Commission.”

The letter cited a study published in the bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists that was noncommittal about fracking’s link to methane contamination, which could be from “preexisting, and previously undiagnosed, methane,” or gas well operations, or “other anthropogenic activity.” Worth nothing is that AAPG is also noncommittal on human contribution to global warming. In 1999, it maintained that “[h]uman-induced global temperature influence is a supposition that can be neither proved nor disproved.” In 2007, it updated its position, acknowledging the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere but saying the “membership is divided on the degree of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has on recent and potential global temperature increases.” In 2010, AAPG disbanded its Global Climate Change Committee because it wasn’t advancing the organization’s goals, namely: helping to find oil and gas, creating and saving jobs in petroleum geology, and because “neither side [has] a politically winnable argument.”

Taylor, in the minute allotted for testimony in support of the 1-kilometer setback bill, quickly explained the case of the Poolesville wells. “Our water resources are irreplaceable, so we ask that you do due diligence and get it right.”

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, though, emphasized that fracking had nothing to do with the Poolesville case. “My point is this: The problems you had occurred naturally, right? It didn’t occur from hydraulic fracturing. It was a natural occurrence.”

Taylor replied: “Well, unless one would term the pump-down on wells that were drilled in proximity a natural occurrence, it was a man-made occurrence.”

O’Donnell: “But it wasn’t caused by hydraulic fracturing. … These things occur in nature is my point, not necessarily caused by hydraulic fracturing.”

Roberts, also testifying for the bill, persisted: “The only purpose of her testimony is to show that these wells are connected. … The aquifer is connected.”

But O’Donnell was having none of it: “We may blame hydraulic fracturing for some things that occur naturally in nature or are caused by other things. That’s the whole point.”

The bill didn’t even get out of committee.

a point of agreement

Those on the shale advisory commission found something to agree on at their most recent meeting in March: the placement of monitoring wells, which would detect contamination before it reached drinking wells. The closer, the better, several suggested. Otherwise, the drinking water supply becomes the test well.

No word, though, on larger setbacks. “Groundwater flow is much more complicated than any one setback,” John Grace, an MDE groundwater expert, told the shale commissioners. And that’s a huge understatement. After much talk of zones of influence, zones of transport and zones of contribution, Grace explained that the departments have been looking almost exclusively at how to contain surface spills. A sufficient setback, he said, could buy time and keep a surface spill from reaching public water intakes. In Garrett County, though, nearly 75 percent of residents have private water wells. Regarding methane contamination, Richard Ortt Jr., director of the Maryland Geological Survey, told the commission that he has not seen conclusive evidence of methane contamination from fracking, and 3-D mapping of faults and fractures would be very expensive. Grace said, “I don’t know how you can establish a setback for [methane].”

That assessment fits more closely with Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea’s presentation to the commission in February about leaky wells. The question for Ingraffea — who has a PhD in rock fracture mechanics and was previously a consultant to and researcher for the oil and gas industry — is not so much if but when methane (and other substances) will leak and contaminate wells and surface water. It also fits with Zacariah Hildenbrand’s presentation to the commission about his findings of high levels of arsenic and selenium in wells within 3 kilometers (9,842 feet) of natural gas wells in the Barnett Shale in Texas.

“We’re still evaluating this whole issue of methane contamination and the causes of that,” said Christine Conn, director of strategic land planning at DNR.

And these setbacks don’t begin to address health problems showing up in studies near fracking sites, including a “sudden rise in the number of fetal anomalies detected among pregnant women.” (A state epidemiologist in Colorado is investigating that). Or endocrine-disrupting chemicals appearing in surface and groundwater in fracking areas in Colorado. Or a safe distance from gas well explosions, such as the Chevron accident in February in Greene County, Pa., that burned for days, killed an employee and required police to set up a half-mile perimeter (2,640 feet).  “Basically it was like a sonic boom. You could feel a little bit of vibration in the ground, and the loud hissing sound. I knew exactly what it was,” one witness told a Pittsburgh television reporter. “We were probably anywhere from 600-800 yards away down over the hill. You could just literally, it felt like warm air, spring air, coming down over the hillside. It’s very, very hot.”

So far, the only protection in place in Maryland is a liability law passed last year that says the driller is presumed responsible if water is contaminated within 2,500 feet of a frack well — during the first year.

–elisabeth hoffman

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One Response to “line on the land”

  1. V Appalachia said

    You’d think the Maryland Department of the Environment would be in the business of protecting Maryland’s Environment and the humans and other living things who live in it and depend upon its health for our health.

    Why are they reluctant to establish a truly protective setback for our the citizens and resources of our state?

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