Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Far is "Safe" when Protecting Aquifers?

Like land use, making pro-gas political statements is within a town’s rights. And the Joint Land Owner’s Committee is encouraging towns to do so. But the impacts of drilling don’t stop at municipal borders. That means that neighbors in the next town – even a town with a moratorium or a drilling ban – may feel the impacts of industrialized drilling.

A couple weeks ago I asked Don Barber, supervisor for the Town of Caroline what it’s like sharing a border with a “pro-drilling” town. Last March the Caroline town board passed a moratorium, and tonight they’re considering a ban.

“We anticipate that drilling activity will take place around us,” says Barber. The moratorium and ban effort are to allow the town more time to “address a number of impacts that the SGEIS (Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) doesn’t address.” A big concern for Barber is road preservation. Most wells will be sited off a town road, he says. So those roads will see more traffic than ever before – traffic that the roads were not designed to handle.
Caroline also wants to look at site plan reviews, as drilling creates a lot of ancillary activities: transfer stations for drilling wastes and materials, gravel pits, staging areas and more. “These will be changes to agricultural land,” says Barber. “Our site plan review process needs to ensure that any development is done in a way that preserves the town’s character.”

Another big concern is groundwater protection. Whether there’s drilling in town or frack trucks passing through, there are many opportunities for spills and accidents, says Barber. So Caroline is developing an aquifer protection plan.

But part of Caroline shares an aquifer with Candor, a town that just last month passed a “pro-drilling” resolution. Drilling activity in Candor could potentially affect the water that Caroline residents drink, says Barber. “But there’s not anything we can do about it.”

As if to underscore this sort of quandary, some residents in Great Bend Township, PA found their water affected by drilling the next town over. The well is located in Liberty Township and feet from the township line. It is also about 2500 feet – a distance far enough that the affected residents were not notified about predrilling tests, nor did WPX, the drilling company, conduct any.

According to residents, their water turned black and stayed that way for at least three days. It eventually cleared up, but questions remain:
  • Is there any contamination that residents should be aware of?
  • If residents 2500 feet away are seeing effects, what about the protected aquifer areas along the Susquehanna River that is only 5200 feet away?
  • And how far away is “safe”?


  1. Excellent observations, Sue, particularly regarding the aquifers of New York.

    Toshia Hance brought it to our attention that New York's aquifers are 'unconsolidated' - consisting of gravel and sand deposits without firm boundaries. This means that practically every aquifer in the state is connected with each other: contamination of one aquifer, disastrous in itself, will lead to the eventual contamination of the whole state's aquifer water resource.

    For a graphic view of this fact, see the USGS maps prepared in 1988 by several investigators. These are available as five pdf files here:

    Plate 1: Finger Lakes area
    Plate 2: Lower Hudson area http:/
    Plate 3: Mohawk Hudson area http:/
    Plate 4: Adirondack area http:/
    Plate 5: Niagara area http:/

    Dwain Wilder, Librarian
    FrackFreeGenesee Library

  2. In Quebec, our provincial government announced in 2008 that a multi-university research group of groundwater called PACES (Programme d'Acquisition de Connaissances sur les Eaux Souterraines) would collate all information on aquifers and groundwater in the province. On page 105 (in the French version) of the report published by the provincial environmental public hearings body (BAPE) for shale gas (report # 273 published in February 2011), we find that this multi-university research group on groundwater considers that in the region where the industry wants to extract shale gas (roughly in the St.Lawrence lowlands between Montreal and Quebec City), our actual knowledge on groundwater is insufficient, and is some places, non-existent... (my translation). Link for the report:

    Knowing that we don't know anything about the aquifers under almost half of the region where the gas industry wants to drill (visual estimate when looking at the color coded map inserted right after page 105 of this report), is it any wonder that a lot of us here in Quebec don't want any hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling for gas or oil?

  3. Lets give some facts on this affected water well.
    1. It is about 4,100 ft from the rig that is drilling now.
    2. The rig is about 4,400 ft from the Susquehanna River.
    3. The affected water well is within Zone A for a source water assesment for the City of Binghamton and maybe Johnson City. Zone A is 1/4 mile each side of the river for the five hour time of travel.
    4. The rig is in Zone B for a source water assesment for the City of Binghamton and Johnson City. Zone B is two miles on each side of the river for the 25 hour time of travel.
    5. The water well is 127 ft deep and the river level is 110 feet lower, so 17 feet seperates the top of the water from the aquifer.

    Will this be listed as an incident on the City of Binghamtons source water assessment next year since the 2012 assessment was issued two months ago. For more information go to the PA League of Womens Voters water site.

    1. thank you for adding context to this incident.

  4. Thanks for a great post.

  5. I think it was Sandra Steingraber that wrote, "There is no 'away.'" We are all connected, especially through our water supply and, of course, the air we breathe. Thanks for your wonderful work, Sue.
    Peacegirl aka Carol

  6. New update on how far this issue of water going black has gone. One of the other members of the sewer authority in Great Bend had his water go bad also. He lives on the other side of the Susquehanna River and up stream a bit.

    He lives about 5200 ft from the Coyle well drilled by WPX energy a spin-off company of Williams.

    I was able to see the black filters with a tar like substance on them. This well is inline with the well above but a few hundered feet greater in distance.

    Now there is a question, if the water is affected and enough properties with water wells discharge in to the sewer system, how much will this system be able to take before it can no longer treat waste water effectively? Do we disconect the affected residents to protect the sewer plant?