New technique shows shale-drilling additives in drinking-water taps near leak

New technique shows shale-drilling additives in drinking-water taps near leak
A bottle containing foam from a water source. Credit: Susan Brantley, Penn State

Substances commonly used for drilling or extracting Marcellus shale gas foamed from the drinking water taps of three Pennsylvania homes near a reported well-pad leak, according to new analysis from a team of scientists.

The researchers used a new analytical technique on samples from the homes and found a chemical compound, 2-BE, and an unidentified complex mixture of organic contaminants, both commonly seen in flowback from Marcellus shale activity. The scientists published their findings this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"These findings are important because we show that chemicals traveled from shale gas wells more than two kilometers in the subsurface to drinking water wells," said co-author Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of the Earth and Environmental Institute at Penn State. "The chemical that we identified either came from fracking fluids or from drilling additives and it moved with natural gas through natural fractures in the rock. In addition, for the first time, all of the data are released so that anyone can study the problem."

Such contamination from shale gas wells in shallow potable water sources has never been fully documented before, Brantley said. The new technique could be a valuable tool in evaluating alleged causes of unconventional gas drilling impacts to groundwater.

"More studies such as ours need to be disseminated to the general public to promote transparency and to help guide environmental policies for improving unconventional gas development," said Garth Llewellyn, principal hydrogeologist at Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting and the paper's lead author.

The affected homes are located near a reported pit leak at a Marcellus well pad. Scientists believe stray natural gas and wastewater were driven one to three kilometers (0.6 to 1.8 miles) laterally along shallow to intermediate depth fractures to the source of the homes' well water.

State environmental regulators previously found high levels of in the water, but did not discover flowback above regulatory limits and could not determine what was making the water foam, according to the researchers.

The team used highly sophisticated equipment and tested for a range of possible contaminants at low concentration levels, rather than testing for specific substances.

"This work demonstrates that these events are possible, but that more sophisticated analytical work may be necessary to uncover the details of the impact," said co-author Frank Dorman, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, Penn State. "In short, we were able to confirm water contamination because we are using non-conventional techniques. Specifically, GCxGC-TOFMS allowed for the characterization of this where routine testing was not able to determine what was causing the foaming." GC-GC-TOFMS is a form of gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry.

The homes were sold to the company as part of a legal settlement in 2012, but scientists received samples before the transfer.


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More information: Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident due to Marcellus Shale gas development, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1420279112
Citation: New technique shows shale-drilling additives in drinking-water taps near leak (2015, May 4) retrieved 17 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-05-technique-shale-drilling-additives-drinking-water-leak.html
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May 04, 2015
The smoking gun this time. Let the frackers try to explain this one away.

May 04, 2015
The smoking gun this time. Let the frackers try to explain this one away.

It certainly is empirically incriminating...

May 04, 2015
finally something that is 1: public and 2: harder to counter in court and will not be hidden by closing the details of the case to the public. The people of PA have been without resources to fight this for too long. I am so happy someone funded this analysis.

when you can set your tap water on fire and the gas company still says -- hey it ain't my fault, could have been caused by anything, or was there before I got here -- man you just have to admit the justice system is a little messed up.

thank you - environmental institute of Penn State

May 04, 2015
The head of the well probably wasn't properly cemented. That's probably how fracking fluid got in to a water supply. The drilling company needs to pay damages. That doesn't indict all fracking activities.

El_Nose, do note that in the Marcellus Shale formations it is commonplace to see natural gas in the water supply. This was noted in West Virginia at a place called "Burning Springs" by none other than George Washington's surveys over two centuries ago. Yes, I've been there, and it really does burn, just as it did hundreds of years ago.

Did it ever occur to you that the energy companies might be telling the truth? Maybe it is not the whole truth; but then again, you aren't exactly being completely honest here either.

May 04, 2015
"The head of the well probably wasn't properly cemented. That's probably how fracking fluid got in to a water supply. The drilling company needs to pay damages. That doesn't indict all fracking activities."

Yeah, they used that excuse at Fukushima and 3 mile island too. Did it ever occur to you that the truth is toxic to big business, as their products, supply chains, and byproducts are toxic to everyone(thing) else?

We're talking about something that, if done correctly, only probably scars the landscape for 3+ generations, and generates income for like 3 people. And when done wrong, scars the landscape for pretty much ever, and precludes anyone, human or beast, from ever living there safely again for hundreds of years? Sure, it's not radiation, but that's not the only hostile/toxic substance on the planet is it. In many ways, radiation is safer, as you can shake off a small dose, but some well chemicals have been found in embryos of 2nd or 3rd generation children.

May 05, 2015
The head of the well probably wasn't properly cemented. That's probably how fracking fluid got in to a water supply. The drilling company needs to pay damages. That doesn't indict all fracking activities.

Actually, most fracking activities violate property rights. Unless some form of carbon capture is employed, the waste products from these activities are encroaching upon other land owners properties. It amounts to the socialization of waste disposal. Damages or storage fees should be paid by these companies, for the disposal or storage of property that they rightfully own.

May 05, 2015
The smoking gun this time. Let the frackers try to explain this one away.


well casings crack. what is there is explain? corps of engineers or epa or contractor will track sink test wells and track the plume. this kinda stuff has been going on since the first hydrocarbon wells were sunk in the 19th century.

too bad, so sad.

May 05, 2015
I wonder how long this will keep showing up even after fracking stops at the site.

this kinda stuff has been going on since the first hydrocarbon wells were sunk in the 19th century.

Doesn't make it any better (actually it makes it a lot worse if in all that time no one cared)

May 05, 2015
@ab3a

my point was that the people in the communities built houses there and could drink the water before fracking... at least they claim they could drink the water... maybe they were lying, its possible ... it is also possible to ask Wal-mart for bottled water sales over the last 15 years. but a lot of things take a court order.

May 06, 2015
my point was that the people in the communities built houses there and could drink the water before fracking... at least they claim they could drink the water...

We're not talking about something that is immediately lethal (or even noticeable). But you can drink water laced with something low-level poisonous for quite some time. Just ask the Romans.
Doesn't mean you should not be able to complain, just because it kills you slowly.
it is also possible to ask Wal-mart for bottled water sales over the last 15 years.

And where do you think Walmart gets their bottled water? Magical crystal-clear-spring land?

May 06, 2015
I did point out that the drilling company should expect to be held liable for the damage they did.

However many of you are making a leap from this one instance toward a stance that all drilling and fracking is evil.

That's like condemning all travel by rail because of a single bad accident. That's not not good engineering, nor is it good public policy (in either case).

May 08, 2015
@ab3a

I am personally against fracking and it's not a very scientific stance... its a bias. So I am happy to see papers come out showing it's hazards.

I am mainly against fracking because I don;t understand drilling.

-- MY issue: I don't understand how you can drill through the water table place a pipe going straight down and in my humble opinion ASSUME that you can create a perfect seal on the outside walls. I don't understand how to do it. I can't think of a way that makes the water table safe from something else that might bubble up from below. because once you create pressure below the pipe over time the soil / dirt / detritus next to said sealed pipe can sink / slip down. you had to punch through shale to get there and shale is brittle.

send me a link explaining drill hole sealing and maybe i might start to think of it as safe ... but you got a hard sale here.

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