Friday, June 22, 2012

Chesapeake Pays $1.6 Million for Methane Contamination in PA

From State Impact Pennsylvania:
The fam­i­lies, liv­ing along Par­adise Road, all signed leases with Chesa­peake Appalachia to drill beneath their land. But in July, 2010, the res­i­dents began to notice muddy water com­ing from their water wells. Chesa­peake sup­plied a fil­tra­tion sys­tem, which res­i­dents say did not work. 
O’Malley says his inves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that a poor cement job resulted in methane migrat­ing from the Mar­cel­lus Shale for­ma­tion into the water sup­ply of nearby residents. 
Scott and Cassie Spencer, Heather and Jared McMicken, and Michael and Jonna Phillips filed suit in the Mid­dle U.S. Dis­trict Court of Penn­syl­va­nia, which was sent to arbi­tra­tion. Three days of tes­ti­mony took place before an arbi­tra­tion panel in Philadel­phia this week, pre­cip­i­tat­ing the two par­ties reach­ing an agree­ment on Thursday.

O’Malley says all three fam­i­lies signed leases that forced any dis­pute into arbi­tra­tion, which typ­i­cally leads to smaller finan­cial set­tle­ments than jury trials. 
“They deserved much more money,” said O’Malley. “With what they went through, you couldn’t pay them enough. But this is enough to get them out and into new homes.” 
Chesa­peake also agreed to buy the homes from the fam­i­lies, which is included in the $1.6 mil­lion. But the com­pany says their drilling prac­tices did not cause methane migra­tion. In a writ­ten state­ment, Chesa­peake says no pre-drill water tests were con­ducted at these homes, which leaves open the ques­tion of whether the methane was present before drilling occurred.

“The PA Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion cur­rently rec­om­mends pre-drill test­ing within a 2,500-foot radius of any oil or gas drilling oper­a­tion, and Chesa­peake meets or exceeds that rec­om­men­da­tion with its testing. 
All of these water sources are beyond that test­ing radius, and thus Chesa­peake had not col­lected pre-drill data for the water sources.” 
The state­ment goes on to say that the pre-drill test­ing done in other area homes showed methane con­t­a­m­i­na­tion before any drilling activ­ity took place.
Read the rest of the article here.

To summarize, this demonstrates something already known: methane migration can occur if cementing mistakes are made.  This is not the same thing as the idea that many activists are trying to promote: that fracking chemicals can migrate upwards into aquifers.

It's also important to note that methane in water does not typically pose a significant health threat.  There is the risk that comes from methane being flammable, and there is a risk if it builds up heavily in a poorly ventilated or confined area that it can cause health problems.  But methane evaporates out of water, so drinking water from a well contaminated with methane is not typically considered a health risk.

That being said, Chesapeake agreed to pay the money and they also did not make the families sign a non-disclosure agreement, despite the reality that with no pre-drilling tests to prove that the methane contamination didn't already exist the company could have continued to fight the suit.

It'll be interesting watching the anti-fracking community spin this, and it'll be interesting to watch the drilling industry spin back.  The bottom line is that the same questions that hang around all of the fracking debate are hovering around this story too: was the methane naturally occurring or was it caused by drilling?  The families and attorney who stand to benefit financially from proving that it's Chesapeake's fault say it's Chesapeake's fault.  The industry giant that doesn't want the notion that drilling is dangerous perpetuated says it's not their fault.  Who do you believe?  Probably whomever you want to.

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