Water

Unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD, or “fracking”) has the potential to impact water quality at many stages of the process. If your water comes from a private well, you should be particularly aware of water quality issues. Private well water quality is not regulated in the United States, and well owners are responsible for performing their own monitoring. Regular monitoring is particularly important if you live within three miles of UOGD activities.

Drilling operations near homes. Photo courtesy of Bob Donnan.

Oil and gas well drilling activity, if properly conducted, does not necessarily contaminate groundwater. While properly drilled gas wells should keep contaminants from seeping into underground aquifers, some wells fail to do so, allowing methane and other chemicals to reach drinking water supplies. Unpredictable chemical releases from poorly managed drill sites, leaky wastewater pits, accidental spills, and truck accidents that occur above ground can also affect the quality of your well water.

Additionally, some of the fluids pumped into the ground during the gas extraction process flow back to the surface. This wastewater is called "flowback" and can be contaminated with industrial and naturally occurring toxic substances. Some of the contaminants can alter the taste, odor, or clarity of well water while others are difficult to detect.

Municipal water supplies may also be at risk from UOGD due to surface water discharges, insufficient treatment of contaminated wastewater, and byproducts formed at drinking water treatment facilities by the reaction between hydraulic fracturing contaminants and disinfectants. More study into this issue is needed, and the EPA is currently investigating the impacts of UOGD on public water supplies.

How Water Quality Affects You

Exposure to chemicals used in unconventional oil and gas drilling or “fracking” can occur in several ways: ingesting chemicals that have spilled and entered drinking water sources, absorbing chemicals through direct skin contact, or breathing in vapors from flowback wastes stored in pits or tanks.

According to The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, an examination of the toxicity of 353 chemicals used in fracking found that many are dangerous to human health:

  • 25% can cause cancer and mutations.
  • 37% affect the endocrine system.
  • 40 – 50% affect the brain, kidneys, and nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems.
  • More than 75% affect the skin, eyes or other sensory organs, and the respiratory and/or gastrointestinal systems.

Specific chemicals and their potential health risks are detailed in the tables below:

Water Monitoring

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) recommends that all residents using private wells test their water once per year for the presence of total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, testing for other naturally occurring contaminants such as methane, radon, and arsenic may also be advisable. (If you live outside of Pennsylvania, please click here to find your local environmental regulatory body and check the guidelines in your area.)

The video below provides general information and recommendations about water monitoring, though your particular situation may call for more extensive testing:

 

Source: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

Water Monitoring Near UOGD (“fracking”) Sites

If your private water well is within 3 miles of an unconventional gas and oil development (“fracking”) site, EHP recommends additional testing and monitoring:

1) If possible, obtain a baseline test before drilling activity starts for the following contaminants. Although these tests are expensive, we encourage you to test for as many as possible.

  • arsenic
  • barium
  • calcium
  • conductivity
  • chloride
  • ethane/methane
  • fluorides
  • glycols
  • iron
  • oil and grease
  • potassium
  • sodium
  • strontium
  • surfactants
  • VOCs

2) Perform targeted water tests every 6 months during UOGD activities for the contaminants listed below. Comparing these results to the baseline results can alert you to dangerous changes in your water quality.

  • arsenic
  • barium
  • calcium
  • ethane/methane
  • fluorides
  • glycols
  • iron
  • oil and grease
  • potassium
  • sodium
  • strontium
  • surfactants
  • VOCs

3) Monitor your water on a weekly basis for pH and conductivity in between targeted tests. The pH test measures the acidity level in water; conductivity is a measure of the ability of water to conduct electrical current. Both of these inexpensive tests are sensitive to changes in water quality and can alert you to the presence of water contaminants. Further testing should be done if either test reports abnormal readings.

(Please note that pH and conductivity tests may not be effective for all possible contaminants and will not identify which chemicals caused the change. This is why we recommend performing the targeted tests listed in #2 every six months.)

Even if you are not testing your water using the recommendations above, the following signs may point to contamination:

  • Changes in the taste, smell, or appearance of your water.
  • Foaming, bubbling, or spurting faucets.
  • Gritty, sandy material in your water.
  • Salty or metallic-tasting water.
  • Skin burns or rashes after bathing.

EHP recommends that you keep a record of monitoring results and keep copies of all tests performed. Any notes on perceived changes in water quality (e.g., taste, smell, clarity) and any health issues should also be recorded.

How Are WATER Tests Performed?

While homeowners can perform some water testing themselves, many tests require the use of a state-certified laboratory. For example, you can use inexpensive test strips to easily monitor pH levels on your own, and conductivity testing can be done at home using an inexpensive monitoring device.

On the other hand, testing for contaminants like chloride, VOCs, and others mentioned above, must be performed by a lab. Keep in mind that testing water through a lab can be expensive. Baseline tests alone can cost anywhere from $300 to over $1,000 for a larger range of tests. A list of state-certified water testing labs for Pennsylvania can be found here

Free Service: CATTfish Water Quality Monitor! Another option for water monitoring in your home is the CATTfish Water Quality Monitor, an easy to use device that fits in your toilet tank and provides ongoing water quality measurements from private wells or public water sources. CATTfish measures the conductivity of your water and can alert you to the presence of contaminants.

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CATTfish Water Monitor. Source: cattfish.com

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