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Professors: Monitor well water quality

March 2, 2012
By WARREN SCOTT - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

BETHANY - Three professors advised Bethany residents to monitor regularly the quality of their well water and encourage state and county officials to take steps to ensure water and air aren't polluted by natural gas drillers using a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing.

About 65 Bethany residents, local college students and guests gathered at Bethany Town Hall Thursday to hear what the three had to say about the procedure known to many as "fracking."

Yuri Gorby, a Bethany native now working as a microbiology professor at the University of Southern California, was joined by John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, and Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, in presenting their concerns about the impact on water and air quality.

Stolz presented an overview of the process, which involves drilling into the Marcellus shale formation underground and blasting it with 3 million gallons of water, sand and various chemcials, some of them toxic, to release the natural gas within.

Some natural gas drillers tend to minimize the amount of chemicals used, referring to the percentage instead of the amount,"but 0.5 percent of 1 million (gallons) is still a lot of gallons of chemicals," Stolz said.

Some also have stated the wells are drilled thousands of feet below the ground, far from underground water sources and encased with several layers of steel and concrete. But Stolz said not all drilling is done as deep, depending on the geological terrain, and if the casing is improperly installed, damaged during drilling or deteriorates over time, the fluid or gas could reach ground water.

He said this can be more likely in areas populated with abandoned gas and oil wells, many of which had their metal casings removed during World War II, when scrap metal was highly sought for the war effort.

Stolz noted natural gas drillers often state hydraulic fracturing has been practiced since 1947, but the equipment and chemicals and target areas differed. For example, diesel fuel once was used for the blasting, he said.

Stout urged residents served by wells to test their water daily using a device called a conductivity pen. Available online, the device won't tell residents what's in their water but it will tell them if the level of dissolved material in it has changed from the previous day, he said.

Stout said that's important because contaminated water may not look, taste or smell different. Residents who find a higher level of dissolved material or any change in their water should report it immediately to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and immediately arrange for their wells to be tested by a professional, he said.

Patricia Jacobson, a member of a grassroots group called Faith Communities Together - Ohio Valley, noted gas drilling companies may conduct water quality tests before and after drilling, but property owners will feel more confident in having it done on their own, though it may be costly.

Sherry Becker-Gorby of Mount Pleasant, Gorby's sister-in-law, said she paid close to $2,000 to have six water sources on her farm be tested before drilling and that was at a discounted rate. But she said she will need that information if contamination is suspected.

Gorby said he hopes to convince public officials to allocate funds for such tests to reduce the burden of property owners, particularly those who haven't signed leases but may be affected by drilling near their home.

He announced Bethany biology professor William Hicks and his students plan to conduct a study of the area's water, air and wildlife before, during and after drilling.

The visiting professors were asked if they believed hydraulic fracturing could be done safely.

"I think the jury's still out," said Stolz.

"Not always, and the track record is there to prove that," Stout said.

Following the meeting, Stolz said it's not practical to think natural gas drillers will be made to halt while more study is done, as they probably would go bankrupt. But he said there's not as much urgency to drill as some believe, as there's currently a national glut of natural gas and the Marcellus shale itself ensures the supply beneath it won't go anywhere.

"This is the town where I learned about science and nature, and it would be a shame to lose that here because of a hasty extraction of materials," Gorby said.

He said a representative of Chesapeake Energy, the principal gas driller in Brooke County, was invited to participate in the program and another held Monday at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Chesapeake spokeswoman Stacey Brodak said, "Hydraulic fracturing has been safely performed for more than 60 years. The advantage of today's technology combined with best management practices have made the process progressively more sophisticated to ensure the integrity of the wellbore and protection of freshwater resources through installation of successive layers of steel casing and cement."

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