Background drinking water testing before oil and gas development: What should a landowner do?

Homeowners concerned about potential impacts of nearby oil and gas development on their personal drinking water well should consider testing their wells before drilling begins to establish baseline data.

Oil drilling rig in Saline Township, Michigan. Photo Credit: Dwight Burdette
Oil drilling rig in Saline Township, Michigan. Photo Credit: Dwight Burdette

Some property owners in areas of Michigan where oil and gas development is active are concerned about the potential impact of these activities on their private drinking water well. Although not common relative to the large number of wells that have been constructed in the state, contamination can occur from oil, gas, brine and chemicals used in the extraction process, or from pipeline spills and other activities.

Michigan rules require that oil and gas operations shall not take place where “a substance may escape in quantity sufficient to pollute...surface waters, or groundwater…” and operators are required to clean up spills.

The most recent water quality concerns are related to high volume hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the oil and gas development technique where large volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped under high pressure to release deep oil and gas reserves. The method is controversial nationally and in Michigan because of concerns about potential environmental and human health impacts.

If a homeowner discovers that their well is contaminated sometime after drilling commences, an important question will be whether the pollutants were from the oil and gas activity, or from other pre-existing sources. The best way to answer this question is to conduct background water quality testing before new drilling takes place.

New rules proposed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will require that all water sources, up to 10 within a quarter-mile of a high volume hydraulic fracturing site be identified and sampled for seven specified parameters (chemicals, gases and minerals) prior to the start of drilling operations.

Even with the new rules, some homeowners may desire to conduct their own independent testing. Deciding what parameters to test for and what the results mean can be challenging, especially for those without water quality background and experience. It is prohibitively expensive to test for every possible chemical in water, so the goal is to look for specific parameters related to oil and gas operations. Depending on which tests are performed, the cost can range from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars.

A DEQ factsheet offers suggestions for the types of analyses homeowners might consider. A set of basic tests provides a good indication if petroleum byproducts and brine are present. A more comprehensive set of analyses can identify other potential pollutants resulting from oil and gas development and hydraulic fracturing.

This type of water quality testing is most definitely not a do-it-yourself task. Homeowners will get the most reliable results by working with a professional environmental consultant and a certified laboratory. A county health department can also be an excellent local information source.

For more information about Michigan oil and gas development, visit the DEQ Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals and the Michigan State University Extension website Oil and Gas Information page.

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