Township supervisors from Elk County had concerns about the state’s new oil and gas drilling law versus local ordinances at a recent meeting of the Elk County Gas Task Force.
Fox Township Supervisor and Roadmaster Randy Gradizzi and Jay Township Supervisor Murray Lilley questioned representatives from the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about protections in the new law (Act 13 of 2012) and whether they were sufficient to adequately shield area residents and water sources from the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling.
Gradizzi asked about the new 1,000-foot limit from public water supplies. Provisions in the law increase the well setback distance to 1,000 feet for public water system; increase setback distance for streams, ponds, and other bodies of water from 100 to 300 feet; and increase setback distance from buildings and private water wells from 200 to 500 feet.
"I’m talking a surface water system, the stream that feeds directly into the reservoir. Previously they were going 1,000 feet from the intake, which doesn’t do any good," Gradizzi said.
DEP Oil and Gas Manager Craig Lobins attempted to clarify boundaries set according to the new law.
"It’s 1,000 feet from the reservoir; it’s not from the intake, but it would be 1,000 feet from the reservoir, but it would not be from the stream that’s feeding the reservoir,” Lobins said. "With this new provision, it would have to be 1,000 feet from the reservoir, even though the intake might be a mile away from here. But if there’s a little stream now that’s feeding that reservoir, you’d have that 300-foot [setback] from stream to water bodies, because that stream is not considered part of that water system.”
Gradizzi said such streams were a part of the water system in Fox Township and the protections may not be adequate if something happens due to Marcellus Shale drilling activities.
"It’s a lot more than you had before, though,” Lobins said.
“Not in Fox Township, it wasn’t,” Gradizzi said. “We adopted a zoning ordinance that would have kept them back 1,000 feet from any streams that supply a public water system, and there’s three of them in our township, and now we don’t have that anymore, and now it’s down to the 300 feet, so that’s why we didn’t like that [new provision].”
Lobins explained that drilling even shallow wells can cause some sediment to appear in water systems because the force of the drill bit knocks it loose and smashes it up.
“Anytime you’re drilling a well, even a water well, your drill bit is in direct contact with the aquifer,” Lobins said. “You’re making things muddy. And that mud is going some distance away from that borehole," Lobins said.
He said when oil and gas regulations were first written, 200 feet was considered a good average setback from a drilling site to prevent impacting the groundwater. In Marcellus drilling, most of the companies use rotary drills, he said, which force air down the well bore and can also cause sediment to appear in local water sources.
"They’re forcing air down in there, and then they’re bringing the cuttings back up again. A lot of times when they’re drawing back up, they’re using the water that’s there. So you’re riling things up," Lobins said. "They kicked it (the setback) back to 500 feet because we’re seeing that sometimes it does happen that the water supply gets affected farther away. And usually it’s affected by turbidity. It’s just because you’re riling things up."
He said the majority of complaints DEP receives are about drilling operations affecting a water supply in this manner.
"And basically, it’s sediment. Basically, those folks are getting a little more sediment in that well and it’s for a very short period of time, because as soon as the drilling’s done, as soon as they get that piece of casing in there and cement it, that well bore has no more contact with the groundwater-- it’s isolated from it-- but it usually takes a few days, a week or so, for things to settle back down again,” Lobins said.
Gradizzi said the township has a source water protection plan with DEP.
“It’s our DEP-approved source water protection plan, and within that plan it states our immediate danger area around our reservoir and our stream that feeds the reservoir,” Gradizzi said. "Does that come into play at all when the permitting process [is carried out]?”
Lobins said it does not and explained that DEP is required to use the guidelines in the new law regarding setbacks when making an evaluation about the possible impact on water sources.
"The law tells us what we can look at. And one of the main things we're evaluating now would be this 1,000-foot distance," Lobins said. "Is there a water supply within this 1,000 feet? And that's what we’re evaluating now, and if it’s a private water supply, 500 feet now.
“There is some science behind it. When you’re drilling a well, there is some effect to the water table. And there is some effect when somebody’s putting in a ground water well to use that well as a drinking water source. Things are muddy. It’s the nature of that drill bit in direct contact with the water and the rock and the sediments there. Things are going to be dirty. When I say 'dirty,' there’s going to be sediments in it. And then after things kind of settle down a little bit, then you get your good clear water again.”
“And that’s why the cementing they can treat your cement drawback, and that’s why the cement regulations too will treat your sediment runoff," added Erin Wells, DEP local government liaison.
Elk County Planning Department Community and Economic Development Coordinator Jodi Foster asked if DEP felt comfortable that a storm water management plan or a spill emergency response plan for a well drilling pad is adequate and what the regulations are if an incident should occur within 1,000 feet from a well or water supply. She asked about containment policies and response time if there was an emergency.
Lobins said drillers must have a pollution prevention control plan in place.
“And a lot of that (plan) is how they’re going to respond to an incident," Lobins said. “There could be some kind of catastrophic event, and if that does happen, I think everyone responds the best they possibly can. In every industry, accidents happen.”
Pick up a copy of the Thursday, April 12, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.