Notes from the Informational Meeting
“Gas Well Drilling and Your Water Supply”
as conducted by the Penn State Extension


(These notes were taken by Wendy Saxe, for the benefit of those who were unable to attend the meeting. They are not comprehensive, are not in any way meant to represent Penn State, and have not been reviewed by Penn State. They are meant solely to inform and it is recommended that the reader visit Penn State’s website at http://water.cas.psu.edu)

Water System Basics

There are three basic water systems:
  • Wells
  • Springs
  • Cisterns

Private Water Systems in Pennsylvania
  • There are 1 million homes, 3.5 million residents
  • There are about 20,000 new wells created each year
  • There is no “ownership” of water (the guy with the biggest pump wins)
  • All management is voluntary -- there are no state regulations that require private well owners to maintain their well or test their drinking water
  • There are no statewide requirements on location or construction -- improperly constructed or poorly maintained wells can create a pathway for pollutants into your home’s drinking water
  • Most wells have inadequate construction
  • Very few homeowners have a copy of their well completion report


*** Very Important ***

  • You should have a sanitary well cap that is airtight on each well. You can’t get them at Lowes or Home Depot. To get one, you can ask your well driller or go online. They normally cost around $50. Typically, for a well driller to install a sanitary well cap it will cost about $100 and take approximately 15-20 minutes.
  • Also, you want the land to slope away from your well casing.
  • When having a well drilled, it is important to get the well log from your well driller.

Gas well drilling is regulated by the Oil and Gas Act of 1984, with §208 specific to water supply. This Act regulates the permitting, construction, and abandonment of gas wells drilled throughout the state.

Marcellus Shale drilling disturbs a lot more than traditional gas drilling. Concerns are: water, fracking, and waste. Look at protecting your own water supply first.

One noteworthy item was that the vast majority of the time when there was a disturbance with the water supply it was not a result of any drilling activity. It was more likely an issue with the well. For instance, in one case (where the owners did not have a sanitary well cap) a mouse got into the well and built a nest. It wreaked havoc on the well and contaminated the water supply. So, any time you have an issue with your water, look at what could be causing it at home first. That will usually be where the problem is.

Regulations to Protect Water Supplies

  • Permits before drilling a gas well in Pennsylvania
    • The operator must obtain a permit showing the location of the well, proximity of the well to coal seams, and distances to nearby surface water and water supplies.
    • A bond of $2,500 for a single well or $25,000 for a number of wells must be posted with the permit (this is used to take care of problems if the company up and leaves; it also covers water supply replacement).
    • The permit requires notification of surface land owners and coal mineral right owners at the well site along with all drinking water supply owners within 1,000 feet of the well.
    • This notification is done by certified mail.
    • The permit is valid for one year to “spud” the well.
  • Setback Distances
    • Gas wells must be at least 200 feet from any water supplies (private or public).
    • This setback may be waived by the water supply owner in a lease agreement.
    • Gas wells must be 100 feet from any stream, spring, or body of water.
    • A 100 foot setback is also required from any wetland greater than one acre in size.
  • Protection of Drinking Water Quality
    • Section 208 of the Act includes a requirement that gas well drilling operators restore or replace any water supply determined by the DEP to be polluted as a result of nearby gas well drilling.
    • The gas well operator is presumed to be responsible for pollution of any water supply within 1,000 feet of the gas well IF it occurs with six months of the completion of the gas well. (If it’s more than 1,000 feet away, or longer than six months, homeowner has to prove it.)
    • The gas well driller can use any one of five defenses to prove they are not responsible for water contamination, including:
      • The pollution existed prior to the drilling
      • The land owner refused to allow the operator access to conduct a pre-drilling water test
      • The water supply is not within 1,000 feet of the well
      • The pollution occurred more than six months after completion of drilling
      • The pollution occurred as the result of some cause other than the drilling
    • To preserve their defense, most gas well operators will collect the necessary pre-drilling water quality information from all water supplies within 1,000 feet of their drilling operation.
    • As part of any pre-drilling survey water sample, the gas well company is required to hire an independent state-certified water testing laboratory to conduct the water testing. (A list of these labs is housed on the DEP web page).
    • An employee or subcontractor from the certified lab will visit homes within 1,000 feet of the proposed gas well site to collect the water samples.
      • This ensures the samples are collected correctly.
      • Documentation must be completed for each sample showing proper sample collection, preservation, handling procedures, and chain of custody (people who handled the sample). The chain of custody is critical if you want solid proof that would hold up in court.
      • There’s no standard set of test parameters—most do the 1st category, some do the 2nd category.
      • The homeowner has the right to a copy of these water test results at no charge (if you have difficulty obtaining them, you can get them from DEP).
  • Protection of Water Flows from Wells and Springs
    • Gas well drilling operators must restore or replace any water supply determined by the DEP to have diminished or lost flow as a result of nearby gas well drilling.
    • The gas well operator is again presumed to be responsible for reduced or lost water flow on any water supply within 1,000 feet of the gas well IF it occurs within six months of the completion of the gas well.
    • There are no regulations requiring measurement of water flow data from wells and springs as part of the gas well permitting process.
  • Land Disturbance
    • Gas well construction involves extensive disturbance including roads, drilling pads, and pipelines.
    • Drilling pads alone may be 4 – 6 acres in size for deeper gas wells.
    • Erosion and Sediment Plans will require the use of filter fence, sediment traps, vegetation, hay bales, culverts with energy dissipaters, and rocked road entrances to minimize erosion.
    • These plans also include a requirement to restore vegetation to the drill site within nine months of well completion by planting grass, trees, and food plots.
  • Groundwater Protection During Drilling
    • New protections were placed in the 1984 Oil and Gas Act to ensure that groundwater aquifers are not contaminated by drilling fluids, brines, and wastes.
    • A thick, steel casing is cemented into place from the ground surface to below the deepest freshwater aquifer.
    • This freshwater protection string segregates the fresh groundwater from the drilling process and prevents waste fluids from entering freshwater aquifers.
  • Disposal of Drilling Fluids
    • Disposal of the various fluids used and generated during and after the drilling process are also regulated to protect surface and groundwater resources.
    • All waste fluids produced during drilling are collected in a pit that must have an acceptable liner with at least two feet of freeboard to protect both groundwater and nearby surface water.
    • Final use or disposal of waste fluids depends on the source of the water.
    • Some of the remaining drilling fluids (brines, fracking wastes, etc.) may be reused during the drilling and hydrofracturing process, but most is eventually trucked to dedicated treatment sites where it is treated and discharged, usually to surface water.
    • Another rarely used method to dispose of waste fluids is through pumping into very deep disposal wells regulated by the Pennsylvania DEP and the U.S. EPA.
    • These wells access a confined, deep permeable formation where the wastes can be segregated from shallow, groundwater aquifers.
    • Some brine may also be trucked to other municipal or industrial treatment plants or applied to rural gravel and dirt roads for dust control (which is rare).
  • Water Withdrawals
    • A major concern with newer and deeper gas well drilling technologies has been the withdrawal of large volumes (millions of gallons) of water used mostly in the hydrofracturing process.
    • These large water withdrawals may come from many sources (streams, ponds, lakes, etc.) and can have significant effects if not done carefully.
    • Water withdrawals generally exceeding 10,000 gallons per day require permits or registration with DEP.
    • The Clean Streams Law also limits the amount of water that can be withdrawn from streams to maintain sufficient stream flows to protect aquatic life.
  • Well Plugging
    • Once a well is no longer in production (a period of a few years to several decades for most wells), it must be decommissioned and plugged.
    • Much of the production well casing (below the freshwater protection string) may be removed and reused at other sites.
    • The freshwater protection casing is left in place and the hole is filled with non-porous material.

Homeowner Strategies to Protect Water Supplies

  • Maintain Your Water Supply
    • Most homeowner complaints related to gas well drilling and drinking water supplies are determined to be problems that existed before gas drilling or were caused by other activities.
    • Periodic maintenance and testing of private water supplies can help to identify and avoid these problems.
    • Penn State Cooperative Extension has many resources and publications dedicated to proper management of private water systems. They are available at your local county Extension office or online at http://water.cas.psu.edu.
  • Learn When and Where Drilling Will Occur
    • Some homeowners will learn of nearby gas well drilling plans through lease agreements or through required notification (within 1,000 feet).
    • Others can be kept abreast of gas well drilling plans through several online features available through Pennsylvania DEP, including:
  • Control Seismic Testing
    • Prior to drilling wells in an area, gas companies will seek permission from land owners to do seismic testing to determine the thickness of gas bearing rocks and other geologic information.
    • Seismic testing uses two to three-inch diameter holes that are usually twenty feet deep or less.
    • Explosive charges (approximately ¼ stick of dynamite) are detonated in each hole and the resulting shock waves recorded by instruments.
    • There are no regulations to protect water supplies from seismic testing, so be sure to stipulate setback distances from your water supply.
    • If seismic testing is to occur on your property, make sure to stipulate that each shot hole is immediately filled to prevent groundwater contamination by surface water.
    • If testing is to be done close to your water supply, you may want to stipulate that water quantity conditions be documented in your well or spring by a professional water well contractor or hydrogeologist before allowing the seismic exploration.
  • Collect Water Quality Data Prior to Drilling
    • Prior to gas well drilling occurring, drinking water supplies within 1,000 feet of the proposed gas well will likely be tested at no charge to the homeowner by a certified testing laboratory hired by the gas company. You should:
      • Allow access for the water sample
      • Ask for proper identification
      • Provide as much information as possible
      • Ask what parameters will be tested
    • Be sure to arrange to receive results from this testing in a timely manner from the commercial laboratory.
    • If your water is more than 1,000 feet from a proposed gas well site OR if you simply want to confirm the results collected during the pre-drill survey, you would need to arrange to have your water tested at your own expense.
    • This test should also be arranged through a state-certified testing laboratory from the listing on the DEP website.
    • It is important that water samples be collected by an unbiased professional—this adds significantly to the cost of the water testing but will be vital to the admissibility of the results in any legal action related to pollution of a private water supply.
    • You can expect to pay more than $300 to have a pre-drilling water sample collected and analyzed by a certified water testing laboratory.
    • Listed below are three general categories of pollutants that are increasingly comprehensive of all possible pollutants, but also increasingly costly:
      • Tier 1—are basic parameters that are likely to change if gas well waste fluids contaminate groundwater
      • Tier 2—are good additions to the Tier 1 pollutants that are frequently found in private water supplies, but may increase as a result of gas well activities
      • Tier 3—are pollutants that either occur rarely or are costly to analyze
  • Document Well and Spring Flow Before Drilling
    • Diminished or lost water supplies resulting from gas well drilling have occurred but are rare.
    • When this does occur, it is usually an obvious, complete loss of water rather than a subtle decrease in water yield.
    • Well and spring owners that wish to document water supply conditions before and after gas well activities would need to hire a professional water well contractor or hydrogeologist to independently measure and document these conditions.
  • Test Water After Drilling
    • There are no requirements for gas well companies to test private water supplies, even those within 1,000 feet of an active gas well, after the gas well drilling has concluded.
    • Any post-drilling water sampling is a voluntary decision that must be arranged by the homeowner unless the testing is previously stipulated in a lease agreement or part of a complaint to DEP.
    • Obvious changes to your water supply that would warrant a complaint to DEP can include:
      • Occurrence of increased severity of sediment in local surface water (streams, ponds, etc.)
      • Changes in the appearance of drinking water from a well or spring such as sediment, foaming, bubbling or spurting faucets
      • Changes in drinking water taste including salty or metallic tastes
      • Changes in water odor such as a rotten egg odor, fuel, or oily smell
      • Reduction or loss of water quantity (quantity effects in water are less likely than quality effects)
    • While many of the pollutants associated with gas well drilling will have obvious stains, odors, or tastes in your water, others have no obvious symptoms.
    • For this reason, some homeowners may wish to hire an independent water laboratory to collect a post-drilling water sample.
    • It is important to realize that results from samples collected by the homeowner are generally not recognized in legal proceedings because they are not independent.
    • Still, samples collected and submitted by homeowners can be useful for educational purposes and to help in making further testing decisions, including:
      • General water system education and awareness
      • Comparison to pre-drilling test results (significant differences between your sample and that of the gas company warrant a chain of custody test)
      • Post-drilling decisions (within six months)
    • If you choose to sample your water supply yourself, make sure to obtain proper sample containers from the laboratory and follow their sample collection instructions very carefully, paying special attention to the labels on the bottles.
      • You will typically collect water from the kitchen faucet, unless you have water treatment equipment
      • Make sure to test raw, untreated water. You can also typically get it from the base of the tank in the basement or the outside faucets
      • Do not touch the inside of the bottles, especially the small bottle with the blue pill
      • Collect your water sample after you’ve used the water—for instance, after you’ve showered, so that it’s coming from the well and not that which was sitting in the pump
      • Keep it cold or on ice until you get it to the testing lab
    • For more details on how to collect water samples, consult the Penn State Cooperative Extension publication entitled Water Facts #10—Testing Your Drinking Water, available from your Extension office or online at: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/XH0023.pdf.
  • Include Water Resource Protection in Your Lease
    • Many of the aforementioned ideas for protecting a water supply can be stipulated in a gas leasing agreement.
    • The lease agreement provides an opportunity for the homeowner to set rules for the gas company to follow in order to access private property.
    • Some items include:
      • Setback distances—don’t allow gas well drilling or seismic testing within 200 feet of any water resources.
      • Water testing—require pre- and post-drilling testing of all drinking water supplies. Stipulate a complete list of test parameters. Also, require receipt of pre-drilling water quality results before gas drilling can commence. Consider requiring testing of surface water supplies on the property, too.
      • Water flow—require measurement of water flow from wells and springs prior to gas well drilling by a water well contractor certified by the National Ground Water Association.
For more information about potential water quality impacts and groundwater pollutants, please see Penn State’s Water Facts #28—Gas Well Drilling and Your Private Water Supply, from which much of the above was taken.

The Penn State Handouts provided at the Water Testing Meeting were: Best Management Practices for Private Water Systems—A Guide to Proper Maintenance of Private Water Wells; Drinking Water Testing Program; A Quick Guide to Groundwater in Pennsylvania; Environmental Extension Programs—Helping People Protect and Manage the Land and Water Resources of Pennsylvania; Water Facts #24—Methane Gas and Its Removal from Wells in Pennsylvania; Water Facts #10—Testing Your Drinking Water; and, Water Facts #28—Gas Well Drilling and Your Private Water Supply. You can find them listed under Publications online at http://water.cas.psu.edu or call Penn State at 814-863-0194 to ask that they mail you copies.