The state is not using its most stringent test to review for contaminants in residential drinking water near Marcellus shale drilling.
For more than four years, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has had the ability to test for 45 contaminants in its water-sample analysis.
But according to DEP data, the computer code that determines what substances will be tested has not been used in at least two years. It’s been shelved in favor of two codes that test for fewer than half the number of substances.
Shalereporter.com confirmed the existence of the third so-called suite code and how the codes were used only after it filed a Right to Know request in November. The information was released, as required by law, on Dec. 31.
The unused code is called Suite Code 944 or Marcellus Inorganic Survey in DEP data. It was developed in 2008, two years before the creation of Suite Code 946, which tests for only 23 contaminants, 22 fewer chemicals.
The other code used, Suite Code 942, was developed in 1991 and tests for 14 substances. According to DEP data, it actually has been the code most commonly used in the past two years.
The data states Suite Code 942 was used at least 300 times, and Suite Code 946 was used at least 210 times in 2011 and 2012. Suite Code 944 was not used once.
Experts name the absence of a few key metals from Suite Code 942 as a concern.
The following contaminants are tested with Suite Code 944 but not with the other two codes: ammonia, Kjeldahl nitrogen, nitrate and nitrite, phosphorus, carbon, cyanide (distilled and weak acid dissociable), sulfide, beryllium, boron, fluoride, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, thallium, molybdenum, silver, antimony, tin, titanium, phenols and mercury.
“In my opinion, the absence of metals (such as) selenium, arsenic, mercury and chromium from Suite Code 942 is problematic,” said Yuri Gorby, a microbial physiologist and bioprocess engineer who is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. “These metals are known environmental contaminants with established toxicological effects.”
He said selenium can cause nausea, vomiting, nail discoloration and brittleness and hair loss.
Arsenic, Gorby said, affects cellular energy pathways, DNA synthesis and repair, while mercury is a neurotoxin and can cause memory loss, inability to concentrate, exaggerated response to stimulation, numbness and tingling in hands and feet, muscle loss and tremors.
“These symptoms are common in gas field residents,” he said.
Gorby said Suite Code 946 “should be used as a bare minimum to ensure public safety. But they should also include mercury and chromium, which are covered by the unused code, (Suite Code) 944.”
DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday would not say why Suite Code 944 hasn’t been used in the past two years, or why it tests for so many more substances than the other two codes.
“DEP grants its inspectors the discretion to request various analyses from the laboratory,” he said. “These suites and standard analysis codes are one component used in our investigations and there are, of course, others.
“DEP personnel use these tools and others when conducting investigations into a water supply complaint from gas extraction activities. Such investigations are necessarily site and fact specific.”
Sunday also said that suite codes are used to test for “critical parameters relevant to making a particular determination” and water complaint investigations include other factors in addition to sampling data.
But state Rep. Jesse White, D-46, Cecil Township, who first broke the suite code reporting issue in November, doesn’t buy the DEP’s story.
“This is almost unbelievable,” he said. “The DEP developed a suite code to fully analyze for impacts of Marcellus shale, and not only did they never use it, they never even told anyone it existed. This is a slap in the face to Pennsylvanians and a clear sign that the Corbett administration simply cannot be trusted to have an honest conversation about this critical issue. If this isn’t willfully obstructing the truth from the people of Pennsylvania, I don’t know what is.”
White also has written and plans to introduce House Bill 268, which would require the DEP to report full and complete results of any tests conducted for residents, including raw data and documentation. The bill also would require that this information be made available at no cost to landowners by written request within five business days.
White isn’t the only elected official who has voiced concern regarding the DEP’s water-testing practices.
Newly sworn-in Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has made clear his plans to conduct an audit of the state DEP to ensure the agency has the resources to protect the state’s water supplies from pollution from drilling activity. DePasquale worked for the DEP under former Gov. Ed Rendell.
Breakouts to DEP shelves more stringent water test:
1. So what’s the deal with the DEP’s ‘suite codes,’ anyway?
Late last year, the DEP came under fire when court documents showed that in its testing of drinking water, it was not reporting all findings to homeowners.
Sworn depositions of high-ranking DEP officials also brought to light the agency’s use of so called "suite codes" in its testing of residential drinking water.
Using Suite Code 942, the DEP in one case tested for 24 contaminants but listed only eight of those in the report given back to a resident who requested the analysis: barium, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium and strontium.
Using the same suite code, this report would not include results for silver, aluminum, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, nickel, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, tin, titanium, vandium, zinc and boron. In a previous interview, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday would not confirm that these metals were unrelated to Marcellus shale drilling. These heavy metals can be toxic and some have been identified as carcinogens.
Suite Code 946, an updated version, was developed in 2010. DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said that when the agency updated Suite Code 942 and created Suite Code 946, it added parameters for arsenic, zinc, lithium, selenium, total suspended solids, sulfate and turbidity. He made no mention of Suite Code 944, which was actually developed before Suite Code 946, in 2008.
Facing criticism for not reporting all findings of its residential water tests, the DEP said it did not report all chemicals discovered because the substances simply weren’t related to wastewater from commercial gas drilling. But a 3-year-old study, in which the state DEP participated, links those unreported chemicals with flowback water from fracking.
The study, “Sampling and Analysis of Water Streams Associated with the Development of Marcellus Shale Gas,” links these unreported metals and fracking. It was prepared for the industry-funded Marcellus Shale Coalition by Thomas Hayes of the Gas Technology Institute with input by the state DEP and sampled water at 19 locations, before and after fracking.
The study found aluminum, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, lithium, molybdenum, nickel, tin, titanium, thallium and zinc in the flowback water after fracking.
That same testimony by high-ranking DEP officials also found that the DEP Bureau of Laboratories reran parts of its residential water tests for fracking pollution and, in some cases, the numbers differed. This same state official also could not say if the higher or lower number was reported to homeowners.
And testimony by another DEP employee revealed that the department requires no formal training for its water quality specialists -- apart from a driver’s license -- and has no Marcellus shale-specific training.
2. So what’s the difference between the three codes?
Suite Code 942 tests for 14 substances, including specific conductivity, pH, alkalinity, hardness, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, barium, iron, manganese, strontium and total dissolved solids.
Suite Code 944 tests for 45 substances, including ammonia, Kjeldahl nitrogen, nitrate and nitrite, phosphorus, carbon, cyanide (distilled and weak acid dissociable), sulfide, hardness, calcium, magnesium, sulfate, fluoride, arsenic, barium, beryllium, boron, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, thallium, molybdenum, silver, zinc, antimony, tin, aluminum, selenium, titanium, phenols, mercury, pH, total suspended solids and total dissolved solids.
Suite Code 946 tests for 23 substances, including specific conductivity, pH, Alkalinity, total suspended solids, hardness, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, sulfate, arsenic, barium, iron, manganese, strontium, zinc, aluminum, lithium, selenium, residue, bromide and turbidity.
3. So how does the DEP deal with water contamination complaints?
The state Department of Environmental Protection officials said if they determine an operator is responsible for the water contamination, they issue a report to that operator for replacement or restoration of the water supply.
Private wells are only inspected if a complaint is received, officials said, and are not regularly tested by the DEP.
According to DEP officials, there were 11 complaints filed in the past two years in Beaver County with the state DEP by residents who claimed their water was contaminated because of oil and gas activity.
The DEP does not keep track of how these complaints are resolved, so it’s unclear if these complaints were actually representative of water contamination because of drilling activity. In a past interview, DEP spokesman John Poister said the agency tries to respond to water complaints within two days and most are resolved in less than 10 days.
“When operators are found to have impacted a water supply, they are required to restore or replace it,” DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said. “We will take action when this happens.”