By AUDREY PATTERSON – Sun-Gazette Correspondent-November 2nd, 2009
WELLSBORO – Water quality issues associated with gas well drilling and its environmental impacts were at the forefront of an Oct. 21 Tiadaghton Audubon Society meeting at the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center. More than 30 people attended and also learned how they can undergo training to help ensure the health of local streams.
Permits have been issued for 172 gas well drilling locations in Tioga County, and that number is expected to increase, said speakers Jim Weaver, Tioga County planner, and Ron Comstock, president of the Pine Creek Headwaters Protect Group.
“Water quality is one of our biggest concerns right now,” Weaver said. “Surface water withdrawal from local streams for ‘fracking,’ especially from sensitive wild trout streams, could have significant impacts.”
Fracking is the term given to the process of mixing water and sand to unlock gas sealed within the Marcellus Shale rock formation.
Drilling waste or “brine” – a mixture of water, salt, chemicals and natural materials – either is taken to water treatment facilities or trickled back into waterways through dilution.
Tioga County does not have brine water treatment facilities, making proper disposal another concern, Weaver said.
Attendees appeared shocked to learn that discharging brine back into waterways is legal.
Fracking materials or brine can break into aquifers, polluting underground drinking water supplies.
Such pollution affects local streams and may cause increases in water temperature, which decreases dissolved oxygen levels trout need for survival.
Water withdrawal and disposal activities also can cause a loss of habitat due to destruction of spawning areas. Surface water withdrawal is occurring at five locations in Tioga County.
Weaver encouraged citizens to speak with local representatives and encourage their support of legislation that brine water meets drinking water standards.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is responsible for issuing permits, inspections and responding to complaints about water quality.
Weaver advised participants who live near drilling sites that it “behooves all of us to get our water tested now.”
Materials that can appear at high levels in contaminated water include benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene, xylene, heavy metals, salt and radioactive materials.
He also mentioned health and safety issues associated with “free gas,” which is a natural gas that escapes from bedrock and can leak into drinking water aquifers and homes. It is odorless, colorless and highly flammable.
Homeowners wouldn’t even know if it was in their home or drinking water until it caught on fire, Weaver said.
Weaver told the county home- and landowners that they can call the Tioga County Cooperative Extension office at 724-9120 for information about water testing.
DEP will respond to concerns, he added, but without baseline data from water tests conducted before drilling, there will be no sure way to assess impacts cause by gas drilling.
Pine Creek Headwaters Protect Group is working to educate local citizens about waterways monitoring, specifically Pine Creek and its tributaries, Comstock said.
The program, called Waterdogs, trains citizens to recognize health and safety issues and environmental problems associated with gas well drilling.
Waterdogs are given a logbook and resource information that can be used if they observe a potential hazard. Training also includes proper reporting of hazards.
Gas well representatives are aware of the Waterdogs program, Comstock said, adding that the protect group hopes to train as many Waterdogs as possible.
The next training session is 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 8 at Pennsylvania College of Technology’s North Campus in Wellsboro. Advance registration is required, and a $10 fee applies.
For more information, or to register, call Eric Tomlinson at 724-1801, ext 118.
Patterson, a naturalist and author, lives in the town of Wellsboro. She may be contacted through her Web site, www.pagrandcanyon.webs.com.
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