Groundwater Expert Weighs In On Hydraulic Fracturing
Published: March 22nd, 2011
By: Melissa deCordova

NORWICH – In an ongoing effort to educate themselves about the natural gas industry, a multi-county organization monitoring drilling and preparing for future developments in Central New York heard from an invited groundwater expert recently.

Russell Urban-Meade, senior hydrogeologist with The Chazen Companies of Poughkeepsie, provided his engineering and environmental perspective on groundwater, its migration characteristics and whether the controversial hydraulic fracturing method of releasing natural gas from deep shales might also contaminate ground and surface water with dangerous chemicals and radioactive elements.

About 40 concerned citizens and municipal government officials attended last month’s Chenango, Otsego, Delaware, Madison Regional Natural Gas Collaborative meeting at the County Office Building in Norwich.

Though not an expert on natural gas drilling, Urban-Meade took the approach that it is unlikely that the high water volume horizontal fracturing technology will be stopped everywhere in the country. Currently, it is ongoing in several states, including in adjacent Pennsylvania, but not in New York. Energy companies and lease holders have been waiting on the sidelines here while the state’s environmental conservation agency revises its permitting regulations for the enhanced technology.

Urban-Meade backed up his optimism with assurances that scientists and engineers have the capability of measuring the exact levels of the potentially dangerous carcinogens being brought back up to the surface with fracturing fluids. They can be measured before being processed through municipal water treatment plants and a second time before being released into rivers and streams.

Not all well wastewater is processed. Some states permit injection wells for storing the fluids, while others, particularily in western states, allow it to evaporate onsite from collection pools. Many energy companies have begun recycling it for repeated fracturing.

“It’s a domestic energy source, so let’s approach this cautiously and be prepared to upgrade, reevaluate and change our practices to do better,” Urban-Meade said. “Somebody has an idea of what an acceptable dose (of heavy metals and fracturing chemicals in wastewater) is. I’m a firm believer that with good data, we live in an era that can figure out what to do.”

Rapid dilution and source identification issues make managing fluids at the surface of wells challenging at best, he said. But, as an expert in the development of water allocation resources for municipalities, Urban-Meade said just as petroleum brownfields at gas stations are being successfully remediated and stations constructed to more environmentally-cautious specifications, so, too, can natural gas production and well sites. Governments should develop groundwater management ordinances to help regulate and mitigate the risk, he advised.

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