Study: County groundwater mostly meeting standard levels

A recent push to fill a 30-year gap of research on private groundwater wells in Lycoming County has introduced a resource for the county that will help well owners understand what in the environment can affect their water.

The U.S. Geological Survey performed the Lycoming County testing in an effort to map out water quality across Central Pennsylvania, an area for which the Geological Survey lacked information.

In the summer of 2014, 75 private groundwater wells in the county were sampled randomly for levels of arsenic, iron, chloride, bacteria and radon. The results were published this year.

The results showed the overall quality of Lycoming County’s groundwater to be mostly consistent with standard water quality levels. However, some of the 75 wells sampled had levels of contaminants higher than the recommended amount.

Methane was found in 20 percent of the wells sampled but only two wells had levels of methane that were of health risk. Researchers were interested in what the studies would say about methane levels in Lycoming County groundwater due to Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

“We were looking at methane levels but the study was inconclusive,” Samantha Gross, physical scientist for the Geological Survey and author of the Lycoming County report, said. “The variations that we saw looked to be explained by natural processes.”

Bradford and Lycoming counties, which both have Marcellus Shale drilling, had the same levels of methane in their groundwater as Pike and Wayne counties, where there is no drilling. The report concludes that it does not look like the methane in Lycoming County groundwater is from human sources.

The study found a number of wells with levels of other substances that exceeded the EPA’s water standards.

Arsenic levels over the legal limit for public drinking water were found in 12 percent of wells. Coliform bacteria, which is found in feces, was found in 52 percent of sampled wells. In 67 percent of the wells, radon levels were higher than the drinking water standard, but only three wells had radon levels that were harmful to the human body.

Unlike many contaminates in groundwater, radon can vary between neighbors, according to Gross.

“The PA Department of Environmental Protection radon division recommends getting your water tested every two years,” Gross said.

The sampling for Lycoming County is a part of a multi-county project to patch numerous gaps that the state has had regarding groundwater quality.

Lycoming and Sullivan counties both had papers published and a Bradford county report is in the works. The Geological Survey has also submitted a proposal for a Tioga county study. When research for the four counties is done, the Geological Survey hopes to create a fifth paper that will compare all of the counties.

“The momentum is building to fill in the gaps,” said John Clune, hydrologist for the Geological Survey and author of a Bradford groundwater report. “The interesting result when comparing these counties is that they are very similar.”

According to Gross, the sampling was long overdue in Central Pennsylvania. “Besides this sampling, other studies that were done in this area were from the 1980’s,” Gross said.

The study benefits not only those who had their wells tested for free. Jenny Piccian, community and economic development planner for the county, says the county now has a resource they can use as a starting point for education and to tackle problems with water source management.

“It is a tool for both the county and the public to help us understand what is in the water we drink,” Piccian said. “No one really had a baseline sampling of the quality and quantity of water we have here.”

The researchers working on the project are looking forward to having a better understanding of Central Pennsylvania ground water, but the geology of the ground surrounding the wells won’t be fully understood until all of the samples can be put together.

“Hopefully we will be able to tell a more detailed story when the samples aren’t limited to political boundaries,” Gross said. “What we want to do is combine everything together and see how these counties compare.”

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