Chemicals Reach Groundwater in Sweden Twp. Drilling Incident

Posted in: Crisis Response, Drinking Water News, Global Water News, Ground Water News, Water Contamination
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Article courtesy of Amanda Nichols| September 25, 2015 |The Bradford Era |Shared as Educational Material

Cole Memorial Hospital, Coudersport Borough and at least six residences have switched water sources after a chemical spill contaminated groundwater during drilling operations by JKLM Energy LLC this week.

On Thursday, JKLM Energy LLC released information on the company’s ongoing efforts to respond to an incident from Friday in which a surfactant solution used in the drilling and completion of natural gas wells is believed to have migrated into shallow subsurface and groundwater at the Reese Hollow 118 Pad located off Burrows Road in Sweden Township.

Surfactants are also referred to as “foaming agents” or “soap.”

The migration was discovered following the use of the surfactant to free a broken drill bit piece in the well at 570 feet below ground, according to JKLM representatives.

JKLM personnel and the state Department of Environmental Protection are conducting an intensive investigation, which includes taking duplicative water samples, to mitigate the effect of the release on local public and private water supplies.

While no one involved believes their water sources to have been contaminated, Cole Memorial Hospital and Coudersport Borough have switched to alternate water sources as a precautionary measure, according to Neil Shader, DEP press secretary.

Shader said there have been six homeowners that have raised issues about contaminated water. “Some of them have identified foam-type substance in their water, while others are just within the expected impact zone and are being supplied with other water,” Shader explained.

JKLM has provided replacement water sources to those property owners, along with offers for reimbursement for incurred services to address inconvenience or disruption of normal household activities. This includes hotel accommodations, if requested.

JKLM is currently determining the potential for impacts to additional private water wells to the south and west of the Reese Hollow 118 Pad (along Burrows and North Hollow roads), and is advising property owners with wells in that area to be alerted to the potential presence of traces of this surfactant in their drinking water, which would present a soapy odor and taste and may cause water to foam.

The company has asked any residents that detect such an odor, taste, or foaming in their well water to stop using their well water for drinking water and other household uses, and to contact the company immediately. If it is determined that a property owner’s water supply is affected, JKLM will promptly provide the resident with a replacement water source and other reimbursement, as provided to the properties currently being monitored.

If direct contact occurs in undiluted form, the surfactant involved may cause illness. In high undiluted doses, it can irritate the skin and cause damage to the eyes. However, it is known that the surfactant involved in this incident was diluted with large quantities of fresh water during its application, and the company states that additional dilution occurs as the material travels through ground water. JKLM does not expect that any significant medical events will occur as a result of the incident.

The potentially harmful substance in the surfactant involved is isopropanol (otherwise known as isopropyl alcohol, available at the local pharmacy over the counter). Isopropanol is a clear, colorless liquid with a fruity odor and a mild bitter taste.

Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel said it is important to stress that the chemical comprises only a trace amount of the total amount of surfactant that was released. JKLM explained at a briefing with emergency officials Thursday that the isopropyl component of the surfactant was roughly 5.5 gallons, while the total surfactant amounted to about 53 gallons, and when taken as a whole with water numbered in the tens of thousands of gallons.

While the surfactant involved is used in certain stages of drilling natural gas wells, it is not on the list of materials approved by the DEP for use at this point in the drilling process. JKLM is reviewing the procedures that resulted in the use of the material and will provide that information to the DEP.

An individual close to the situation said the company should not have been using that substance at that depth when there was not sufficient casing that would have prevented its migration if there was a fracture in the rock — which there was.

“There are a lot of people that will want to jump on this and say this is why the industry needs more regulations,” Heimel said. “More regulations would not have made one difference. The reason there is a mistake is because regulations were violated. This is an example of a willful and acknowledged violation, and the company is taking full responsibility.”

JKLM representatives, local officials and response agencies came together to activate the Potter County Emergency Operations Center Thursday in order to keep everyone apprised of the situation and be prepared to act if necessary, according to Heimel.

At a meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday, JKLM representatives briefed Sweden Township supervisors and emergency response agencies. In the meeting, representatives acknowledged the company’s culpability and related they had been fanning over the affected area day and night to rectify the situation.

“The company has been very responsive and forthcoming with information,” Heimel said.

At the meeting, DEP spokesperson Jennifer Means said JKLM will be fined and sanctions are imminent.

“DEP is taking water samples and checking to see what the extent of the contamination is and, of course, this will play into any possible violations that we would issue against JKLM,” Shader said.

Emergency services in Sweden Township remain on standby and continue to monitor the situation and communicate with DEP and the drilling company, according to Heimel.

The DEP and JKLM have or will be testing a pond along U.S. Route 6 in Coudersport Borough, quite a distance from the drilling site, checking up on unverified reports of a white, foamy substance on the pond. They will both also test Mill Creek, a high-quality trout stream and tributary to the Allegheny River, even though it, too, is located pretty far from the pollution source to ensure that it has not been affected.

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