Big Water Big Land
By Van Wagner
May 20, 2011

A few weeks ago I watched my 2 sons leave their Sunday Class and run down the hall to get a drink from the water fountain.  This water comes from the Susquehanna a few miles upstream of Danville.  Just 5 days before this, millions of gallons of chemicals and water spewed into Towanda Creek and then into the Susquehanna after an accident at a gas well.  I’ve canoed from Towanda to Danville.  The trip took 3 days.  What did my sons drink?  Thousands of us drink this water.  Major changes are on our horizon and I have major reservations about the wisdom of these changes.

These are not your “grandfathers” gas wells.  Forget Jed Clampett’s oil well.  This is not simply drilling down to the gas and pumping it out.  This process, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is an entirely different monster.   This process involves using vast amounts of water and potentially dangerous chemicals to extract deep deposits of natural gas.  Right now 700,000 acres or 1/3rd of our entire State Forest system has been leased for gas drilling.  That is your land and my land.  Public land.  As many as 6,000 wells could be drilled here.  This is just the State Forest and does not include private lands (Linda Seiner writing for the PA Game News August 2010). Some estimates suggest another 100,000 wells will be drilled on private lands in Pennsylvania.  Each drill pad will range up to around 5 acres (University of Pittsburgh Marcellus Gas Fact sheet 2010).  5.6 million gallons of water are needed to drill and fracture a Marcellus deep shale gas well (Chesapeake Energy Marcellus fact sheet 2010).  If these 6,000 wells become reality, that equates to 30,000 acres or an area equal to about 27,225 football fields that must be cleared of any trees.  In addition, it would require 33,600,000,000 gallons of water.  I teach high school at Lewisburg PA.  I was curious how big this volume of water is so I compared it to the flow of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Lewisburg.  The amount of water to drill and fracture the wells just on State Forest lands would equal about 5 days of flow.  This doesn’t even begin to account for all the other wells on private lands.  The amount of water needed to frack 100,000 wells would be equal to the flow of water in the North Branch of the Susquehanna River by Danville for about 8 straight weeks. (based on USGS hydrograph data)

Part of the fracking process involves around 20% of the frack water flowing back to the surface. This water now includes extremely high levels of salts (something like 2-6 times saltier than seawater), high levels of bromide, which can result in trihalomethane formation (a known carcinogen).  This “produced” water is temporarily held in surface pits.  Tanker trucks then haul this toxic brew to sewage treatment plants, many of which are on the Susquehanna.  Recent restrictions outlawed the use of older treatment plants, however some local plants are still used to dispose of the water.   These plants treat the water and release it directly into the river.  Some produced water is hauled to Ohio and injected into underground wells. 

Among those known to be used are several carcinogens such as benzene.  Recent concerns have also been raised about the radioactive elements radon and uranium being forced to the surface in this drilling and fracturing process.   A study by Cornell University shows that producing and using natural gas actually releases up to 20% more greenhouse gases than using coal. (Howarth et al 2011)  A recent study by Duke University showed elevated levels of methane in Pennsylvania well water directly caused by hydraulic fracking of gas wells.   (Osborn et al 2011)

As if fracking wasn’t concerning enough, recent suggestions that fracking may begin in Montour and Northumberland counties has me truly alarmed.  Geologically, these counties are quite unique.  Northern and Western Pennsylvania geology consists of fairly flat, horizontal layers of sedimentary rock.  However, in our area of the ridge and valley province these formally flat layers of rocks have been wrinkled and fractured millions of years ago due to plate tectonic collision.  Imagine a rug pushed together causing a series of ridges and valleys.  Very little scientific study has been conducted on the challenges and potential hazards of fracking in this type of geology.  I do not want Montour and Northumberland Counties to be the guinea pig in this experiment. 

Our nation is addicted and our drug is fossil fuel.  There is not a short-cut answer to solving our energy needs.   When I question the wisdom of fracking people occasionally tell me they “don’t want their kids to have to risk their lives in Iraq.”  I assume their point is that American energy is more ideal than foreign energy.  While I agree, nor do I want my kids risking their lives simply by living in rural Pennsylvania.  

We are a great nation.  I firmly believe we can do anything if we put our minds to it.  I take inspiration from the generation of my grandparents.  A month after the December 7th, 1941 bombing of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt announced the need for 60,000 planes and 45,000 tanks.  People said it couldn’t be done and that the needs seemed impossible to meet.  In the end, we didn’t produce 60,000 planes, we produced 229,000 planes.  We didn’t produce 45,000 tanks, we produced 100,000 (many in Berwick PA).  We made these changes not in years but rather in months.  Safer sources of energy are available.  We must break our addiction on fossil fuels as soon as possible.  At a minimum we must abandon hydraulic fracking immediately.  To my fellow citizens I ask you to stand with me.  Do not lease your land to a gas company.  We are ahead of the curve in Montour, Snyder, Central Columbia, and Northumberland Counties.  Lets stay that way!


*Van Wagner lives in Danville and is a Lewisburg Area High School Science teacher currently completing his graduate research in Earth Science from The Pennsylvania State University.