Testing Your Water

tapmain2While testing water should be a regular activity for people with private water wells, Albert County residents living in the vicinity of proposed oil and gas development areas, may wish to have their water quality tested prior to any further development.

Oil and Gas companies are only required to test water within 500m of a well pad. Residents outside that area must pay for their own.

The Conservation Council has provided a short online guide to address some of the questions homeowners may have during seismic testing, however it provides good points for those in development areas as well.

The province also supplies this Overview on Water Protection.

Water Quality Monitoring Questions

Monitoring for potential water quality impacts is a complex issue that is aimed at investigating 2 different questions:

  1. Is there any contamination by specific threats (e.g. pollutants from industrial processes) that were typically not present prior to activities, and
  2. Are there any indicators of changes in water quality characteristics (clarity, flow rate, recharge, etc.)

With respect to oil and gas industry, the new NB Government rules specify the parameter lists located on page 69-70 of this document http://www2.gnb.ca/content/dam/gnb/Corporate/pdf/ShaleGas/en/RulesforIndustry.pdf. However, testing for this complete parameter list would be a very expensive undertaking and out of the reach of the average homeowner.

Department of Public Health Recommendations:

Homeowners should follow the recommended routine testing for private wells at http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/ocmoh/healthy_environments/content/testing_private_watersupplies.html.

These include testing for microbiological quality at least twice per year and testing for general Inorganic chemistry including trace metals once every two to three years.  Doing this testing helps to determine what are the things you should be aware of regarding your own well’s water quality in general, irrespective of any outside impacts, and helps to promote responsible stewardship and maintenance of one’s own well water supply.

Other parameters that could be monitored above and beyond the recommended generic testing above, the following suggestions, which are not meant to be prescriptive but could be helpful for those who wish to conduct additional monitoring if they are concerned about possible impacts in gas development areas, are recommended:

1.  Dissolved methane gas.  This is the potential pollutant most likely to be present in high levels and with the highest likelihood to migrate quickly though soil in the event that a gas well casing leaks.  Although it is typically absent in groundwater, natural presence in well water has been seen before in NB, so advance background testing would be crucial to interpreting any result.

This test should be done as a baseline before any development, but as it is a relatively costly test (likely $60 to $100 per sample), it can be monitored less frequently in future than some of the other parameters below.  Furthermore, it is a very specific test, i.e. it really only tells you if you’ve been affected by a gas leak, nothing more, so it is not a good indicator of more generalized impacts

If methane is detected it is worth checking for ethane and propane also (this can help to discriminate whether the methane comes from petroleum deep underground or from other shallow sources such as rotting organic matter in bogs and fens).  Depending on pricing (i.e. if it costs the same or only a little more) it might be worth testing all 3 of methane, ethane and propane in the first analysis rather than as a separate follow up analysis only when needed.

2.  Conductivity, which is a surrogate for significant changes in any of the major ions from the general inorganic water quality tests (i.e. rather than testing for all of them each time).  Relying on this test does have a weakness in that some water chemistry changes will not change the overall Conductivity by much, but generally speaking if a significant shift in water characteristics occurs (e.g. more water being drawn from a different depth where the natural water chemistry is different), Conductivity testing can be a good indicator to signal this kind of change.

3.  Turbidity.  This is a measure of the cloudiness of water, and can be an indicator of significant changes to a water well such as well bore collapse, a heaved or cracked casing, or changes in underground aquifer structures.  However, relying on this test alone has several weaknesses that need to be considered:

Natural Turbidity fluctuations in water wells are common, and can have many possible causes (including seasonal changes and links to rainfall amounts), so detecting a change does not automatically mean that a serious water well structure impact has occurred.

But any drastic changes in Turbidity should be followed up with microbiological testing, as these changes could be an indication of influence from surface water, which can be contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms

Accredited Labs

Residents are advised to use laboratories that are accredited under the ISO/IEC 17025 international quality assurance standard for all of the parameters to be tested.  Knowing that a laboratory is accredited to this standard gives one some assurance that the proper controls and documentation are in place at the laboratory to ensure the validity of results.  While non-accredited laboratories may also be competent, one cannot tell this easily, so it is best to look for an accredited lab if one is available for the desired parameter/test.  Accredited laboratories in Canada may be searched at CALA Directory of Laboratories and Standards Council of Canada (NB).