RETROSPECTIVE (2008 to mid 2011)
Ponderings from Pandora's Box
Chloe Kelly's Journal of Living with Unconventional Gas Drilling
Chesapeake takes more water samples as construction of my neighbor’s well pad gets underway
In September of 2010, the gas company in our area, Chesapeake Energy, started contacting our neighborhood to ask to take water samples again. This coincided with the building of a pad in the neighboring field 2000 feet away from our house.
Once again I agreed to let the water be tested. On September 24th, two young men took the water samples and left. Even this little bit of “reality” was hard for me to deal with because by this time I was becoming increasingly more concerned based on what I was reading was happening in Bradford County. I had read about a well cap that had been blasted off a water well in Bradford County due to methane build up. There had been other incidents reported in the local papers: methane bubbling in the Susquehanna River and contamination of several residential wells in the Wyalusing area. I was also hearing rumors that Bradford County residents were signing non-disclosure agreements with the gas companies in order to have water trucked in to them because their wells were polluted. Given the implications, watching the men take our well water samples was a surreal moment.
An initial “field” test reveals the presence of a high concentration of methane in my water
So when they returned an hour later, saying they had done a “field test” of the water and wanted to retest a sample to be sure they didn’t misread the amount of methane, I was speechless. When they tested a second time, which they did right there in our kitchen, they got the same results. They told me our water had more than 1% gas. They further said that they would have to call the Chesapeake hot line on this, and that this was the first time they had run into this situation, and they didn’t know what would happen next. It seemed so very odd to me to watch them talk and banter as if this were just another day, because for me the world had just turned upside down.
After they left, my legs collapsed under me and I fell to the ground – not figuratively either -- and I laid there numb and disoriented for some time. Finally I returned to the house, put some tap water in a 12 oz. plastic bottle and tried lighting it, just to see what would happen… To my horror, the air above the water lit briefly. I think in this moment, what had been free-floating anxiety settled into my very bones. This sense of impending doom continues to be a part of my life now. I don’t know how it feels anymore to live without it. This is one of the collateral damages that the gas industry doesn’t tell you about.
I start using "length of burn" tests to monitor methane levels in my water
This activity, lighting the methane in our water, was to become a daily ritual for me as this was the only way I had to keep tabs on the amount in our well. I read, “There is a physical danger of fire or explosion due to the migration of natural gas into water wells or through soils into dwellings where it could be ignited by sources that are present in most homes/buildings.” We heat our home with a wood stove and cook with a propane stove with pilot lights so we certainly met that criterion.
Since I wasn’t about to sit still while waiting for my home to explode, I contacted DEP to ask what to do. They sent an agent out on November 15th who also took a water sample and promised to get the results back to us in two weeks.
While I waited for the water test results, I noticed that the burn time of the methane in an upright bottle of tap water was increasing until there was a flame that lasted a few seconds when lit. I could see the methane in the water as well, it had an effervescence that looked like soda bubbles. I could watch it escaping. I began to wonder about the risks of breathing the gas. I later read in a DEP publication that “Drinking water standard limitations have not been established for methane gas, and the Department is not aware of any associated health risks.”
This is a gas that is being extensively released into the water table through drilling, and the Department of Environmental Protection is "not aware" of health risks! This isn’t the same as saying there are no health risks. Why aren’t they aware? Why have no limits been established for methane in our drinking water? Why?
Official test results from Chesapeake confirm the high levels of methane, but DEP blames “background conditions”
The test results from Chesapeake came in nine weeks later and only after I contacted them asking for the results. The report indicated that our well water now had 20,500 µg/L methane - a massive change from the 0.050 µg/L methane that was in our water in 2009. A USGS report titled “Methane in West Virginia Ground Water” stated: “Concentrations of methane greater than 10 mg/L but less than 28 mg/L are a possible indication that methane concentrations may be increasing to dangerous levels in ground water.” Our level from Sept. 24th translated to 20.5 mg/L.
About this time I also received a report from the DEP that stated that “the sample results showed methane is present at 21.2 mg/L in your water supply.” The report also said “This sample was collected prior to any drilling activities near your residence, and the presence of the dissolved methane in your water supply appears to be related to background conditions. The Department investigation does not indicate that gas well drilling has impacted your water supply.”
Why I believe drilling activity contaminated my well
This is where I have to scratch my head in wonder because though I’ve never studied the properties of water, it’s pretty obvious that water doesn’t move in circles, it often flows underground, pretty much like above ground, in rivers and streams. Our water well, which was drilled when I moved here in 1991, is unusually deep at 490 feet. The water tested fine in 2009 but one year later, AFTER the gas drilling had begun in Sullivan County, it had unusually high concentrations of methane. Why? To me, the fact that they hadn’t started drilling within 2000 feet of my well didn’t matter. This clearly indicated that the deeper water table was already impacted by the drilling activity in the county but there’s no way to prove that and, apparently, no agency that cares to pursue that line of reasoning.
How do I know our water had been fine for almost 20 years? All I can give you is my own biological response to it because I’m a big water drinker, and I drank my tap water daily since moving here in 1991 without any biological repercussions. However in the summer of 2010, I began to wake up with headaches. I am not headache prone so this, in itself, caught my attention, but what really was odd though, was that the headache would occur at the top of my head rather than around my eyes or temples. I had begun to suspect that it had to do with our water because when I went away for a weekend, the headaches would stop, when I returned home, they returned. I was just starting to experiment with not drinking our well water when the field testers told me that we had high levels of methane. I immediately stopped drinking it, and the strange headaches stopped as well. I know this isn’t scientific evidence, but my personal experience indicates that the increase in methane began in the summer of 2010 and is related to the drilling activity that was going on in the county that summer. I believe the ‘background conditions” that the DEP feels is the cause IS the gas well drilling which was releasing methane into the water table, but since we can’t prove it, we must deal with the repercussions ourselves. We began to purchase our own drinking and cooking water. I started to let our pets’ water stand in a bottle before giving it to them, so the methane could dissipate. This filled up our kitchen counters and shelves with bottles full of water, one of those little impacts that they don’t tell you about either. Not to mention the added costs.
Drilling begins on my neighbors land, with non-stop noise for two months
The drilling of my neighbor’s well began in October of 2010. I can’t give you the exact date because it’s not announced anywhere that they are starting to drill. We live on the other side of a wooded lot, so I couldn’t see what was going on at the pad unless I walked there or drove by. However, I could hear the drilling once it got started. At first it was a soft hum that came across to us in the wind, but it wasn’t long before the sound was unmistakable, and shortly after that it was so strong that it hummed right through our house. It was a background droning sound that never stopped for two months. When the wind blew in our direction, it was louder, but it was always there. I can’t tell you how grateful I was that this was happening in the colder months so that most of the time I was inside, and the windows were shut. To me, this 24/7 droning was similar to a form of torture. Think of being locked into a space with a droning sound that goes on and on and on and on, with no way to escape it. I read some reports of people’s hearts being negatively affected from certain decibels of non-stop sound and could really understand that potential. Our biological systems are not made for this.
Nor are animals, apparently. A man who raises parrots and large birds told me that his were stressed to the point of pecking off their feathers when the drilling was going on near his home. A hunter told me that he and his friends noticed there were absolutely no signs of wildlife in the woods near the wells that were being drilled during the hunting season. They made these observations in areas where they had hunted for years and where the wildlife had always been plentiful.
Oh it was a great winter, that year of 2010 – methane burning in our water, the looming possibility of our house exploding and the non-stop drilling sounds permeating the house. When the drilling was finally over in late December – the day when I woke up and could no longer hear the droning through the walls and walked outside to the sounds of nature only, I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the earth. in fact I did.
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