CSI’s New York State-certified lab, NYSDOH-ELAP #11790, offers baseline testing of private drinking water wells for “signature chemicals” associated with contamination from gas well operations (see Anatomy of a Gas Well). CSI has completed over 300 sets of baseline tests on private wells, springs, ponds and lakes since 2009. Baseline testing is a form of insurance for homeowners against the possibility that their well, pond or stream might be contaminated by waste from a nearby gas well operation. Baseline testing does not protect against contamination; however, it can provide a basis for efforts to hold gas companies accountable to New York State regulatory authorities and in the courts.
Baseline testing measures the levels of “signature chemicals” in a private drinking water well before a gas well is drilled and hydraulically fractured. “Signature chemicals” recommended by CSI are a set of 21 chemicals and chemical characteristics that are typically present at low concentrations in drinking water but at high concentrations in gas well waste, as documented in the 2011 draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS) prepared by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Post-drilling increases in the levels of “signature chemicals” in water provide evidence of contamination by gas well waste.
“Signature chemicals” are a relatively small group out of the hundreds of chemicals that can potentially be associated with a hydraulically fractured gas well. However, because their levels are likely to be high, “signature chemicals” can be used to screen for post-drilling contamination of water. If contamination occurs, not all “signature chemicals” will necessarily change, and changes that do occur may be small or large, depending on the degree of contamination and the specific composition of the waste from a particular gas well.
A group of “signature chemicals” that includes representatives of all of the major classes of potential contaminants is advisable for detecting contamination. Some redundancy within each class of chemicals is also good, because results of different tests can reinforce each other. Too much redundancy, however, adds unnecessary expense. If post-drilling tests show a change in the water quality baseline and a convincing “signature” of gas well contamination, more extensive tests should be performed with the goal of identifying as many toxic and radioactive chemicals as possible and assessing the health risks of continuing to drink the water.
The total cost for the group of baseline tests recommended by CSI is $724 per sample plus travel. This includes a $45 fee for chain of custody sample collection. Travel is charged at $35/hour plus $.55/mile based on Mapquest travel times and distances. It’s our policy to split travel costs among all the households we sample in the same area on the same day. Prices are listed in the table below or you can download CSI’s List of recommended Tests & Fees for easy reference.
CSI recommends baseline tests for eight broad classes of chemicals and chemical characteristics associated with gas well waste: Brine, particulates, surfactants, organic compounds, metals, naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), acid and methane (natural gas). Except for surfactants and methane, classes include at least two certified tests designed to complement one another. CSI’s recommendations of chemicals to test for and their sources as well as test fees are summarized in the table below.
“Signature chemical” test used to screen for gas well waste
Source of “signature chemical”
|Total dissolved solids
|Salt deposits from ancient seas that turned into shale formations over a period of hundreds of millions of years|
|Total suspended solids
|Faulty drilling or cementing practices can result in soil particles entering aquifer|
|Surfactants (MBAS)||$ 45||Help make water “slick” so it flows better down the narrow bore hole|
|Chemical oxygen demand
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) (total of 52 VOCs, including BTEX)
|Thickeners to make water viscous and able to hold proppant; biocides to kill bacteria; petroleum distillates to help make water “slick;” organic compounds from shale|
|Metals: Total hardness, calcium, barium, strontium, arsenic, manganese, iron||$126||Metals can leach out of shale and other rock formations encountered by the bore hole|
|Gross alpha and gross beta radioactivity||$65||Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) may be present in shale|
|Methane, ethane, propane & butane (natural gas)||$110||Deposits of organic matter from ancient seas that turned into gas as shale was formed over hundreds of millions of years|
|Acid is used to dissolve rock as a gas well is drilled and hydraulically fractured|
|Sample Collection Fee||$ 45||Travel is charged at $35/hr and $0.55/mile. Our policy is to split travel costs among clients sampling on the same day.|
|Sample processing and shipping||$ 35|
Conductivity, total dissolved solids, chloride, bromide: Shale formed from ancient seas that covered parts of North America 350 million years ago. Plants and animals that died and sank to the bottom decomposed and eventually morphed into fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil as well as other organic chemicals. Salt was deposited with the fossils as the ancient seas evaporated. The brine in flowback and in “produced water” from gas wells comes from the salt water of those pre-historic seas.
Total suspended solids, turbidity: Soil and other particles can contaminate aquifers, usually as a result of faulty drilling and cementing practices.
Methylene Blue Active Substances (MBAS): Surfactants (detergent-like chemicals) are used in hydraulic fracturing fluid to make the water “slick” so it can flow better across long distances and through narrow spaces like the bore hole of the gas well while maintaining high pressure. Fracturing fluid is sent down the well hole and transports sand particles into cracks in the shale.
Chemical oxygen demand, volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic chemicals including thickeners that are added to hydraulic fracturing fluid to make water viscous so it can hold sand particles; petroleum distillates such as diesel that may be added to help make water “slick;” biocides that must be added to kill bacteria and other microorganisms that can grow and clog pipes; and organic compounds that may be released from shale along with natural gas. The four BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) are included among the set of 54 recommended VOCs.
Total hardness, calcium, barium, strontium, arsenic, manganese, iron: These are the general and specific tests for metals that appear to have the best odds of being present in gas well waste.
Gross alpha radioactivity, gross beta radioactivity: Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) can leach out of shale into hydraulic fracturing fluid as it flows back out of the gas well. Chemicals that are dissolved in water and emit alpha or beta radiation are reflected by these tests, including radium-226 and radium-228.
pH, alkalinity, acidity: Acid is used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing processes to help dissolve rock.
Methane: Methane occurs naturally in groundwater throughout New York’s Southern Tier. Methane itself is non-toxic, according to EPA. However, methane poses a risk of explosion when present at concentrations above 10 mg/L, because it escapes from water and can build up to dangerous levels if the house or the well is not properly ventilated. In conjunction with gas wells, methane can be an indicator of faulty well casing, and it can raise the possibility that other chemicals may be present which are toxic, even though methane itself is not.
What is Baseline Testing?
A baseline water test documents water quality under current conditions. The shale gas industry and hydraulic fracturing technology present two general types of risk to water: Catastrophic contamination events caused by industrial accidents, and gradual contamination as gas wells proliferate and small impacts accumulate. Contamination can affect groundwater, surface water or both. A pre-drilling baseline test is a form of insurance in case contamination occurs. Without a baseline water test, there is no way of proving pre-drilling water quality.
The baseline test screens for “signature chemicals” that are typically associated with gas well activity, including waste fluids. If later water tests show significantly increased levels of these “signature chemicals” after drilling occurs, the changes would provide evidence that contamination had resulted from drilling activities.
What are the chances my drinking water will be contaminated?
Not enough scientific studies have been done to know for sure, but a reasonable estimate is probably in the 1% to 5% range. Possible sources of groundwater contamination are a failure of the cement casing surrounding the well bore, migration through unforeseen rock fractures, and accidental spills of chemicals or waste fluids during transport, drilling, or storage.
What should I test my drinking water for and what does it cost?
CSI recommends testing drinking water for a comprehensive baseline set of “signature chemicals” based on current shale gas extraction technology. The tests cover chemicals and conditions that have the greatest probability of being impacted by gas drilling operations or waste: pH, alkalinity, acidity, turbidity, total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, chloride, bromide, conductivity, MBAS (detergents), chemical oxygen demand, total hardness, calcium, barium, strontium, arsenic, iron, manganese, methane, ethane, volatile organic compounds(VOCs) including BTEX, and gross alpha & beta radioactivity.
These tests cover all the major classes of impacts from shale gas operations; more tests would add expense but not effectiveness. Significant increases in some, but not necessarily all, “signature chemicals” would indicate contamination and the need for extensive testing for harmful chemicals in order to assess health risks, paid for by the gas company or NY State.
CSI’s recommended baseline tests cost $724 plus travel fees. This includes a $45 fee for chain of custody sample collection. Our policy is to split travel costs among same-day clients in the same area.
CSI does not recommend “tiered” levels of baseline testing, however, clients are welcome to add or remove tests at their own choosing.
What should I test my pond, stream, or creek for and what does it cost?
CSI recommends a similar, but not identical set of tests for surface water. Methane, ethane and VOCs are omitted because the likelihood of detecting these volatile gases in surface water is low. We also recommend omitting arsenic, iron, manganese, calcium, MBAS and total suspended solids. The other tests are the same as for drinking water sources. The cost for surface water testing is $319 plus travel fees. This includes a $45 fee for chain of custody sample collection. Further tests can be added but do not necessarily increase the likelihood of detecting contamination in surface water.
When should I test my water?
Water can be tested any time up to five years prior to drilling. Notwithstanding slight seasonal fluctuations, groundwater quality is essentially constant, absent major events such as droughts or earthquakes. The federal and state governments routinely monitor water quality every five to six years.
Does it matter where I have my water tested?
Yes. Only test results from labs certified by New York State Department of Health are admissible in regulatory and legal actions involving gas wells in New York. Collecting samples and maintaining a valid chain of custody are relatively simple procedures, however, they must be performed by a third party, either staff from the lab or another water quality professional, for legal purposes.
Who owns baseline test results?
Whoever pays for the tests, owns the results. If a homeowner pays, the results belong to the homeowner. If a gas company pays, the results belong to the gas company. The owner of the test results does not have to share them and must give written permission before the lab can release the results to anyone else.
CSI staff are available to discuss baseline testing or to schedule an appointment to collect a baseline sample.