A Look at Drill Waste Pits and Groundwater
by Melissa Troutman, Laurel Dammann, and Joshua Pribanic
“It was 2007, and my water well was fine. I mean, I didn’t have any problem with it. I was cooking, drinking, bathing with it and everything else. Well, then after they drilled I thought it was kind of…it didn’t taste like it did before.” – Judy
During the filming of Triple Divide, journalists, filmmakers, and Public Herald founders Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic met Judy, a Pennsylvania resident and neighbor to a Marcellus shale natural gas well pad.
In 2007, Guardian Exploration, LLC drilled for natural gas 450 feet from Judy’s home.
The process of drilling for natural gas produces waste materials brought up from the subsurface mixed with drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes these wastes as “radioactive”:
Radioactive wastes from oil and gas drilling take the form of produced water, drilling mud, sludge, slimes, or evaporation ponds and pits. It can also concentrate in the mineral scales that form in pipes (pipe scale), storage tanks, or other extraction equipment. Radionuclides in these wastes are primarily radium-226, radium-228, and radon gas. The radon is released to the atmosphere, while the produced water and mud containing radium are placed in ponds or pits for evaporation, re-use, or recovery.
Some drilling companies, like Guardian Exploration, have collected and stored its waste in what’s known as a waste pit or drill pit, constructed with a liner meant to create an impermeable barrier between the waste and soil or groundwater.
In Pennsylvania, companies can obtain permission to bury their waste onsite from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which governs oil and gas operations while charged with preserving the natural environment. In August 2007, Guardian applied to bury their waste pit about 450 feet from Judy’s home, but DEP denied the application that same month because the pit would be “too close to water supply” — a.k.a. Judy’s.
Guardian buried the waste anyway.
A DEP inspector noticed the buried waste pit during an April 2010 inspection of the site following a “purported well fire” three days prior and issued four violations of state law to Guardian. Guardian in turn asked for permission to reapply for DEP alternative waste approval since the bottom of the pit was at least 20” above the seasonal high water table (SHWT) and agreed to remove the pit if it wasn’t.
According to a June 2010 DEP inspection file, the pit “appear[ed] to meet regulatory requirements” and was allowed to remain.
The seasonal high groundwater table is formed as precipitation collects underground. Generally speaking, water seeps down into the ground until it reaches an impermeable layer. Here, it collects above the layer in a “zone of saturation” or “aquifer.” This zone is where most of the United States gets its drinking water from.
The level of this water table rises and falls due to seasonal fluctuations in a variety of site-specific factors such as soil permeability, drainage patterns, and geological formations. A water table is at its lowest from the late summer to fall and its highest during the late winter and spring.
To bury a waste pit in Pennsylvania, gas and oil companies must ensure that the bottom of the pit is at least 20” above the SHWT as a precaution against leaching of waste contaminants into the groundwater system.
Guardian dug soil probes and determined the waste pit fulfilled its SHWT requirements. DEP inspected the site the following week, and 9 days later approved the resubmitted alternative waste application. The records show that no legal enforcement was issued to Guardian for burying their waste pit onsite, and no reference is made to the potential impact of the buried waste pit on Judy’s water supply.
In 2010, Judy and her neighbors noticed a change in her water. According to post-drill testing performed by two natural gas companies and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), radon, arsenic and other contaminants were registered at toxic levels.
According to Judy, DEP told her Guardian wasn’t responsible for the changes or contaminants in her water supply. However, after Judy’s doctor told her she could no longer drink, cook, launder or bath with the water from her well, Guardian Exploration paid to get Judy hooked up to a nearby municipal water supply anyway, as a “good neighborly deed.” The company then refused Judy’s request to pay the new monthly bill.
Neither Guardian nor DEP informed Judy before, during, or after her water issues were being investigated about the buried waste pit near her water well. She was unaware the pit existed until Public Herald pointed it out in public files from DEP. Judy is currently unaware of the full extent of her water well contamination, since neither DEP or Guardian tested for a complete list of chemicals associated with shale gas extraction.