Heavy metals: Study links water contamination to fracking

Heavy metals: Study links water contamination to fracking by Rachel Morgan, Shale reporter, November 3, 2012, The Times Online
In its analysis of residential drinking water, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is not reporting all the chemicals discovered in test results, claiming that the substances simply aren’t related to wastewater from commercial gas drilling. But a 3-year-old study, in which the state DEP participated, links those unreported chemicals with flowback water from the practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. State Rep. Jesse White, D-47, Cecil Township, first brought the issue to light Thursday. Citing a deposition given in a lawsuit by Washington County residents against a drilling company, White issued a press release calling out the DEP for reporting incomplete results of water contamination tests.

Using a computer code called Suite Code 942, the DEP in one case tested for 24 contaminants but listed only eight of those in the report given back to a resident who requested the analysis: barium, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium and strontium. “These are a Marcellus shale specific list of parameters that are most indicative to that contamination,” DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said Thursday. Using the same suite code, the report would not include results for silver, aluminum, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, nickel, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, tin, titanium, vandium, zinc and boron. In that same interview on Thursday, Sunday would not confirm that these metals were unrelated to Marcellus drilling.

But a 2009 study, “Sampling and Analysis of Water Streams Associated with the Development of Marcellus Shale Gas,” links these unreported metals and fracking.

The study, prepared for the industry-funded Marcellus Shale Coalition by Thomas Hayes of the Gas Technology Institute with input by the state DEP, did a sampling of water at 19 locations, before and after fracking. The study found aluminum, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, lithium, molybdenum, nickel, tin, titanium, thallium and zinc in the flowback water after fracking. These heavy metals can be toxic and some have been identified as carcinogens.

Concerning the DEP’s delineation of which metals are related to Marcellus drilling and which are not, others point out that the “trade secret” of the gas industry — namely, gas drilling companies do not have to make public any proprietary mix of chemicals used in fracking — should also prevent the DEP from making that call.

“You don’t know the chemicals they are using, you don’t know what they are adding to their frack water, you don’t know the outcome of their geological research,” said Maya K. van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “This is a critical question. The drillers are allowed by the agency to keep their secret formulas secret. Everybody’s operating at an incredible information disadvantage.”

The omissions in water contamination reports were revealed in the deposition of a high-ranking DEP employee in a Washington County case of residents against Range Resources. The Sept. 26 deposition of DEP Bureau of Laboratories technical director Taru Upadhyay revealed the DEP’s use of the suite codes that intentionally left out a portion of test results for residents concerned their water had been contaminated by nearby drilling. One of the homeowners is Loren Kiskadden of Amwell. Kiskadden claims that the DEP’s report regarding his water contamination complaint was inaccurate and incomplete. According to Upadhyay’s deposition from the Environmental Hearing Board case, Kiskadden’s water was found to contain zinc, nickel, cobalt, molybdenum, titanium and boron. These results were not included in his water contamination report. Upadhyay also said the lab also found acetone, chloroform and T-butyl alcohol in Kiskadden’s water, the latter of which is known to be used in fracking fluid. The DEP said these findings were from lab error and ruled that Kiskadden’s water was not contaminated as a result of nearby fracking, which was occurring 3,000 feet from his home. Upadhyay also said the lab only released the results asked for by the client. The client, it turns out, isn’t a homeowner like Kiskadden concerned about water contamination. The client is the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, which obtains lab results, then passes them on to the DEP field office, which then gives the results to the homeowner.

In the deposition, also in the Washington County case, of a DEP water quality specialist, John Carson said he was not aware that using the suite codes allowed the lab to only report back to him a portion of the water contamination results. Sunday, the DEP’s spokesman, said that those living in proximity to drilling should have the gas companies do a pre-drill sample for a baseline measure to determine if there is existing contamination before drilling begins. “If a homeowner refuses to allow the driller to do this sample, the DEP may not be able to invoke the presumption of liability to hold drillers (responsible,)” Sunday said.

The DEP Bureau of Laboratories is accredited by the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program. According to a letter from attorney Kendra Smith of Smith Butz, LLC, a lawyer in the Washington County case, in order to maintain that accreditation, the DEP lab must follow certain testing methods and guidelines when reporting test results. Smith said the EPA testing method used was 200.7, which was used by the DEP lab to test drinking water for 24 specific metals.

In short, the DEP, under its accreditation requirements, did test for all 24 substances. It just didn’t report them all.

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