“My Marcellus tale: Would the gas companies steal our stream?”

SOURCE: Patriot-News Op-Ed by Ann Whitner Pinca, Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clean water was something we took for granted whenever we traveled to Sullivan County. Whether it was swimming in the clear waters at Worlds End State Park, splashing in the Loyalsock Creek among the giant sandstone boulders of the Haystacks or just poking around for frogs in Bear Wallow Pond, water was always a big draw.
When the kids were younger, every trip to Sullivan County included a pilgrimage to a certain bridge across a mountain stream, the Hoagland Branch. There, the kids would muster their courage and, after a moment or two of careful consideration, joyously plunge 10 feet down into the clear cold water of the stream’s deep place between the rocks.

It was water that drew us to our property in Sullivan County in 2008. We wanted a stream. The waterfall next door was a bonus that clinched the sale.

In spring 2010 when the Marcellus Shale gas rush arrived in our neighborhood, we soon realized how many million gallons of water each drilled well consumed. Our stream, swollen and raging during spring thaws, shrinks to a trickle over mossy rocks in the dog days of summer.

Would the drillers steal our stream?

The answer came in August, in a letter we received for the planned well pad on a neighbor’s property. Chesapeake Energy notified us that it filed with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission for approval for the consumptive use of water to drill its natural gas wells. Allowable peak consumption was 7,500,000 gallons per day.

The letter directed us to SRBC’s website for approved water sources, which I immediately checked and was relieved to see that our small stream was not on the list. The stream and waterfall were safe.

Or were they?

My thoughts quickly turned from water quantity to water quality to the many chemicals Marcellus Shale wells use in slick water hydraulic-fracturing, the process used to release the gas from the shale. I knew gas companies tested well water but what about the stream?

Calls to two Penn State Extension Office water specialists and the SRBC confirmed my fears. No one would be monitoring a small stream such as ours, but I could if I purchased a TDS (total dissolved solids) testing device. While it couldn’t analyze any chemicals in the stream, the device could detect a jump in TDS, indicating salinity, which could warrant additional testing by professionals.

I began testing our stream in January, carefully dipping water from the unfrozen spot near a small set of falls. The TDS was lower than our tap water at home. It’s stayed that way, a good sign. But then again, Chesapeake is still drilling the wells; it hasn’t fracked them yet.

Because gas companies are generally held responsible for water well contamination that occurs within 1,000 feet of a gas well, they protect themselves from pre-existing water problems by performing baseline testing of private water wells within that area and even farther out.

In November 2010, we found a business card at our cabin offering us water testing because we were within 3,500 feet of the neighboring well pad. We didn’t have a water well so I put the card aside, realizing the consequences. Without that baseline test, we would have no recourse, no guarantee of good water for our property if something went wrong with a water well drilled after the gas wells.

Late in February, we discovered an online Marcellus gas activity map created by the Sullivan County planning and economic development office.

To our dismay, we saw that besides the two well pads already in our neighborhood, a third well pad now appeared on the map across the stream from us, perhaps only 1,000 feet away. I dug out the card from the water testing place. Were we still eligible for testing in view of this new well pad?

Yes, if we could get a water well in before Chesapeake began drilling.

Our water well was completed in mid-April and a test water sample was collected. The well was an expensive project undertaken only to protect the future use and value of our property.

Now we wait and wonder. Once the neighboring gas wells are drilled and fracked, will our brand-new water well survive? With the recent Chesapeake well accident near Leroy in Bradford County — just 10 miles over the mountain from us — that spilled thousands of gallons of flowback frack fluid, how safe is our stream?

In 16 miles surrounding our property, there are already six developed well pads and two more planned, for a future total of 43 Marcellus gas wells. Thirty-seven of these wells are within one mile of our stream or the Hoagland Branch, which meets our stream just down from our land.

From there, the Hoagland Branch winds for a few miles through private land and state forests until it passes under that certain bridge where kids like to plunge into the deep spot between the rocks.

Can we still take for granted that the water there is clean and safe or is there now something more to carefully consider before jumping in?

Anna Whitner Pinca writes from Lebanon County.

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