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Many PA Gas Wells Go Unreported for Months

With Pennsylvania not enforcing reporting rules, regulators may lack details on some wells until months after they are drilled.

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A drilling rig in Dimock, Pa. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

On Sept. 14, 2009, natural gas operators finished drilling the 3H well on the Lbros farm in southwest Pennsylvania. Just over four months later, they "fracked" it by injecting more than 6 million gallons of chemical-laced water into the 2-mile-plus-deep well.

It wasn't until nearly a month after that, on Feb. 22, 2010, according to public records, that Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection received paperwork showing that drilling and fracking on the Range Resources well were completed. Before that, it's not clear what the department knew about the well's evolution, other than that drilling had begun the previous June.

That reporting delay appears to violate a Pennsylvania law that requires drilling companies to submit a "well record" to the DEP no more than 30 days after drilling is completed. Those records report the depth of the well and the geological formations the drillers encountered. They also contain details of the cement and casing that surround the well and prevent gas and fluids from leaking and polluting aquifers.

DEP spokeswoman Jamie Legenos said some of the department's regional offices haven't enforced the law. But she said the reporting delay doesn't present a danger because in most cases the department relies on inspections, rather than the reports, to ensure that wells are drilled to code. When inspectors can't make it to a site, she said, they keep in touch with drillers by phone and e-mail.

The 3H well on the Lbros farm has never been inspected, according to the DEP's online reporting system, which was last updated in August. Neither have three other wells drilled on the farm.

Legenos said the reporting discrepancy stems from the fact that the well record is on the same piece of paper as a form that companies must file after wells are hydraulically fractured, the process that injects them with millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to release gas from the earth. The two processes are often separated by several months, and some DEP offices have allowed companies to submit both records at once.

Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, one of the state's largest drillers, said Range has followed that procedure with all its well records and was unaware it may have been violating state law. Pitzarella said the company will be "fine with either format, but it probably warrants further discussion with the incoming administration." Pennsylvania's new governor, Tom Corbett, appointed a new DEP secretary in January.

In an e-mail, Legenos said the DEP plans to address the reporting discrepancy, but she didn't say when. "With our increasing enforcement personnel reporting compliance will be more rigorously enforced."

The DEP's enforcement staff has increased nearly four-fold in the past two years, to about 130 people, 65 of whom are inspectors, Legenos said. But the state is still struggling to keep up with the natural gas boom in the Marcellus Shale, the gas-bearing rock formation that stretches under large parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

More than 21,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since 2005, including some 2,700 last year. The DEP inspected about 9,000 wells in 2010, but Legenos could not say how many of those were newly drilled and how many were older wells still in operation.

Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, said Pennsylvania needs to keep increasing its inspection staff.

"I just don't think they have anywhere near the number of inspectors they need so they can be doing timely inspections of all the wells they've been permitting," she said. The department issued more than 6,100 well permits last year.

Other states have also had trouble keeping pace with the rapid growth of gas drilling, as ProPublica reported in 2009. Colorado and Wyoming both updated their regulations in recent years, and each state requires drillers to submit some type of report within 30 days of drilling. But in Colorado, too, there aren't enough inspectors to cover the state's wells, said David Neslin, director of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Legenos said most of Pennsylvania's wells are inspected during drilling operations. But that leaves unanswered what happens when they aren't. State law says the department's "intent" is to have inspectors present at each of a number of points in a well's lifespan, including drilling and fracking. Legenos did not say how often that intent is met.

ProPublica submitted a public records request for a small selection of Well Record and Completion reports for Range Resources. The request covered about six months of drilling and initially produced reports for 42 wells, including Lbros 3H. When we told the DEP in December that some reports seemed to be missing from our request, the department produced six more. This week the department said it was still looking to see if more requests may be missing.

Using those records, along with the DEP's online reporting system, we determined that most of the wells were inspected at least once during drilling. However, none were inspected during fracking. And six had not been inspected at all as of August 2010. Those numbers do not necessarily represent the inspection rates of gas wells across Pennsylvania.

Details contained in the Well Record and Completion reports are critical to determining the integrity of a well, said Susan Harvey, a petroleum engineer who has consulted for environmental groups. The highly pressurized fracking fluids tend to follow the path of least resistance, she said, and a faulty cement job can provide an easy exit. Bad cementing can also contribute to a blowout, as is suspected in the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Cementing problems are believed to have led to the 2009 explosion of a water well and the contamination of drinking water near the town of Dimock, Pa. In that case, the DEP cited drillers for faulty cementing and casing and also for turning in late Well Record and Completion reports.

See Gasland on HBO.

The interview with John Hanger by Josh Fox, in his movie Gasland, reveals a similar disconnect between PADEP, the gas industry, and the reality on the ground, and that interview took place in early 2009 (?), almost two years ago. 

The statistics relating to the Dimock contamination that Hanger acknowledged (four households who’s water had been contaminated) was way off the mark, as we know from the subsequent consolidated lawsuit that was filed.  Beyond the lawsuit, the number generally acknowledged was about 19, and even that was a gross under reporting.

Here it is, February 4, 2011, more than two years after Norma Fiorentino’s well cover blew off, alerting everyone to the gas migration and water contamination, and most of those families are still without a permanent, trustworthy, potable water source.

Now we have a “let’s bend over backwards, roll out the red carpet” Corbett administration in PA.  What are the chances this feeble PADEP will be strengthened, and the disconnect closed? 

The fact is, the industry, and our state and federal governments, simply accept “collateral” damage to the health of its citizens, and the environment.  This will be the modus operandi for both, until citizens stand up and say, “no more”.  It is way past time to stand up.

MICHAEL MORAN

Feb. 5, 2011, 7:56 p.m.

After seeing Gasland for the first time I’m once again disapointed in our government. The govenment that is supposed to be for the people not against the people. We again see that the almighty dollar is more important than human life. What happened to protecting our clean water? The Clean Water Act was created exactly for its name….Clean Drinking Water for all of us not for just some of us but this is not about clean water this is about making money for the oil and gas insdustry. Yes, we do need to find alternative ways to supply our country with with oil and gas and not rely on foreign country’s but at what price? Could you imagine if all of water was undrinkable and we had to rely on importing water from other countries? Yes, it does sound rediculous but if we keep going like this we may come to that…it starts with one town and than one county and than the whole state and than one by one it starts to multiply. Why do we issue so many permits to drill if we don’t have the manpower to inspect properly and fully? Why are we just inspecting on the front end which is the drilling of the well and not on the back end when the fracking occurs and the damage happens. This is where we need inspecting and testing. We need tp put presure on our represenatives in congress and tell them, not ask them, to protect us and do the job they were elected to do…serve the people and protect them, do your job.

wild enthusiasm here in the NE region of PA when it looked like they’d be drilling in the local watershed, at least among a lot of the local landowners, not so much the local water drinkers.
The fact that the returns weren’t enough stopped local development, but it made people suitably aware of the danger.

Marjorie Lofland

Feb. 10, 2011, 1:53 p.m.

Talking about it will not get the job done - it only allows time for more damage. Blog, FB, tweet and yell the problem to everyone you know and encourage others to do the same. The gas producers have done their homework, bought out politicians, news media and key personel in key industries as well as government. ACT if you want to maintain what you have now. Log onto websites who have worked on this problem such as Sierra Club, http://www.PennEnvironment.org and others. Only grouping as protesters actively will stop the madness and the gas lobbyists. Too much is at stake.
Marj

Good job, Propublica!!! Keeping the public informed and educated is going to encourage the people to write letters and act against these gas drilling idiots! I belong to the Pocono Environmental Coalition and Wildlife Society of Monroe County, Pa. We are having a meeting on March 5, 2011 @ 1:30pm @ Hughes Library in Stroudsburg, Pa to educate and strengthen our stand against these careless Gas Drilling Companies! The information that is given to the general public is ALL to their advantage! NO information is given about all the risks!

Kelly,

I couldn’t find Hughes Library in Stroudsburg, PA in the ol yellow pages. Do you have an address. I will be coming from south of Allentown to make contact and from another meeting ‘til noon and will not have time to get lost. Contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with info.

Marj

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Fracking

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

More »

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