Methane Making An Appearance In Pa Water Supplies

Methane Making An Appearance In Pa Water Supplies by Scott Detrow, August 28, 2012, NPR State Impact
Audio, from Morning Edition
Mike and Nancy Leighton’s problems began on May 19, just as Mike was settling in to watch the Preakness Stakes. A neighbor in Leroy Township, Pa., called Mike and told him to check the water well located just outside his front door. “And I said I’ll be down in 15 minutes. I wanted to see the race,” Leighton said. But as the horses were racing, Leighton’s well was overflowing. Typically, there’s between 80 to 100 feet of headspace between the top of the well and its water supply. But when Leighton went outside, the water was bubbling over the top. Down the road, Ted and Gale Franklin’s water well had gone dry. When water started coming out later that week, the liquid was “black as coal,” according to Gale. Since then, both families have been dealing with methane-contaminated water supplies, as well as dozens of mysterious, flammable gas puddles bubbling up on their properties.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection blames a nearby fracking operation. They say methane gas has leaked out of the well, which is operated by Chesapeake Energy, and into the Leightons’ and Franklins’ water supplies. The danger goes beyond contaminated water. In a letter to both families detailing test results and preliminary findings, state regulators wrote “there is a physical danger of fire or explosion due to the migration of natural gas water wells.” Chesapeake has installed ventilation systems at the two water wells, but the letter warns, “it is not possible to completely eliminate the hazards of having natural gas in your water supply by simply venting your well.” Nancy Leighton said the letter made her “a little nervous,” pointing out both families heat their homes with wood stoves and plan to do so this winter, regardless of whether or not the gas leaks have gone away. “What are we going to do? We don’t have any other options,” Gail Franklin says.

Penn State University geologist David Yoxtheimer has been studying this, issue, which is called methane migration. He explained when a well is leaky, it becomes a methane gas express elevator. “Gas wants to migrate up,” he said. “It’s lighter. It’s less dense. It finds itself trapped in these shallower, more porous formations. And during the drilling process, you can go down through these shallow formations, and as you’re drilling through, suddenly you’ve created a conduit for those gasses to escape.” A shoddy cement job is usually what’s to blame. Gas wells are lined by a series of steel pipes surrounded by cement. And if the cement pour is rushed or poorly-done, methane is going to get out of the well and into the ground. That’s what state regulators say happened in 2009 in the same northeast Pennsylvania county where the Leightons and Franklins are currently dealing with stray gas. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for contaminating 16 families’ water supplies. The company disputed the state’s conclusion, but agreed to the fine — the largest environmental penalty in Pennsylvania history. … Chesapeake is paying for water filtration devices at both families’ homes, and in a statement said the malfunction that created the leak “has been identified and corrected. The surface expressions of methane have dramatically abated and are almost gone.” But Mike Leighton, who still has bubbling puddles in his yard, said he’s fed up. “The newspapers keep minimizing the damage here, but it’s here,” said Leighton, pointing out bubbling gas puddles on his property. “And people think we’re radicals, but we’re not. We’re just upset about the condition of our property, and we want things fixed. “I want my real estate back to where it was before,” he says. “And right now, it ain’t worth dirt.” [Emphasis added]

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