March 5, 2013 – Fire and Water: Sherry Vargson, of Granville Summit, PA., can light a match at her kitchen tap and see an orange flame flare out of the faucet. State regulators attribute the methane contamination to natural-gas drilling. Consequently, she cooks with water from a five-gallon jug.
Many water supplies in northern Pennsylvania have long contained detectable levels of methane, because of poorly constructed water wells and the unusual geologic features here. But the contamination in Ms. Vargson’s existing well is among the first cases that state regulators have attributed to natural-gas drilling.
Cases like Ms. Vargson’s are gaining more attention amid a boom in U.S. natural gas production, however, methane-leakage problems in water wells are distinct from problems that some environmentalists attribute to hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling technique that involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to break up gas-bearing rock. Because the drilling may be a prelude to gas extraction through fracking, many people consider any problem to be fracking-related. However, while gas-drilling operations can lead to methane leaks, the commencement of fracking comes later in the process and has nothing to do with methane leaks.
The outcome of industry efforts to clear away methane concerns will affect decisions in other states that sit atop underground gas reserves. New York and Maryland have effectively halted new drilling as they review safety issues.
Battles over natural-gas exploration have gained importance with the rise of hydraulic fracturing. Antifracking groups contend that the drilling chemicals in fracking could reach groundwater.
Methane is not a toxin, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, but it can pose a hazard by building up inside structures and causing explosions.
In May, Pennsylvania regulators fined Chesapeake Energy Corp. $900,000 for contaminating the water supplies of 16 homes in Bradford County, Pa., with methane, including the water well at the Vargson home. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. settled a similar case affecting 19 homes in Dimock, PA, for $4.1 million in February.
In response to problem wells, operators have added an extra layer of steel casing and devised new cement mixtures to create a more effective seal.
Chesapeake and Royal Dutch Shell PLC have both met with the U.S. Geological Survey to discuss efforts to better map the depth of Pennsylvania groundwater in order to protect it during the drilling process.
Ms. Vargson and her husband used to maintain a herd of 70 dairy cattle but got out of that business because of methane problems with their well water. The couple now work at other jobs and worry their son won’t be able to farm here either. Ms. Vargson once allowed Chesapeake to drill a gas well in the pasture behind her home, but the experience has raised doubts. Drilling “can be done safely,” she said. “I believe that the technology is there.” But she added: “I believe that for the most part the industry takes a lot of shortcuts.”
The Master of Disaster