COOPERSTOWN — Supporters of allowing horizontal hydraulic fracturing for shale gas are basking in a “we told you so” moment after a study by Pennsylvania state officials found gas drilling was not to blame for high methane levels in three families’ well water.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection concluded that the samples taken from private water wells in Franklin Forks, Pa., “ contained gas of similar isotopic makeup to the gas in the water samples taken from Salt Springs State Park.”
Some residents of the town had linked the fouling of their well water to gas wells in the area. But the Pennsylvania officials said there had been no baseline testing at those homes — samples taken before drilling began — and the samples showed the gas in the private wells “was not of the same origin” as the natural gas in nearby gas wells.
Tom Shepstone, of the pro-drilling group Energy In Depth, said the claims linking the well pollution to drilling were trumped up to bolster litigation against a gas company.
“We feel this is an important vindication, but we’re not surprised that this occurred,” said Shepstone, saying local residents have known for years that the methane level was high in the water in that area. “You could go up to Salt Spring State Park and light the spring on fire. I’ve done it myself.”
Ronald Bishop, a State University College at Oneonta geology professor who has called for the continuation of New York’s moratorium on hydrofracking, said the conclusions reached in Pennsylvania underscore the fact that “it’s never a good time to assume.”
Bishop also said the turn of events puts the spotlight on the importance of homeowners in areas where gas drilling could commence to obtain baseline tests of their water quality, so in the event the water is contaminated there’s evidence that the problem occurred after drilling took place.
The study conducted by the Pennsylvania officials, he added, was likely limited in scope due to what called the near impossibility of determining whether the problem could have been caused by “an orphan crack” from the crack that had been created in order to excavate the gas. The fact that the drilling site was approximately 4,000 feet from the wells that were contaminated, he said, made it unlikely that the pollution was caused by an orphan crack.
The water problems in Frankin Forks had been cited by some anti-drilling activists as evidence of the environmental dangers that could result from fracking. The magazine Rolling Stone published a photo essay that described one Franklin Forks family as “Fracking’s Real-Life Victims.”
Walter Hang, the founder of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca environmental data company and a prominent anti-drilling activist, said the new Pennsylvania finding has no relevance to the ongoing debate over horizontal hydrofracking in New York.
“The bottom line is that in New York we already have vast documentation of fracking and drilling impacts on water wells, on people’s homes on the environment, on public health,” Hang said. “That is why there is no horizontal shale gas fracking in New York, because the DEC (state Department of Environmental Conservation can’t explain away all the problem that they themselves documented (with conventional drilling) going back decades.”