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Testing for Possible Water Contamination from Oil and Natural Gas Drilling

October 31, 2014

A child drinking tap water.

Weld County, Colorado, with a population of approximately 250,000 people covering over 4000 square miles, is the third largest by area and the ninth most populous of the 64 counties in Colorado. Maintaining the quality of the drinking water is one of the most critical functions of the public health laboratory. Currently it has nearly 50 drinking water and five waste water contracts for municipalities in and outside of Weld County. In addition, the laboratory acts as a regional laboratory in Northern Colorado by conducting bacteriological and chemical drinking water compliance testing for the adjoining counties. Their recent partnership with PerkinElmer exemplifies the importance they put on making sure that county water supplies are safe for its residents.

An Additional Test Ensures Drinking Water Quality

"Without this program, concerned residents who wanted to test their water for oil and gas drilling activity would have had to pay $300 for a test."

- Mark Thomas, Chemist with Weld County’s Department of Public Health and Environment

The high visibility of fracking in the media has resulted in property owners in those areas being concerned about the purity of their drinking water. For that reason, there is an unprecedented demand to test water samples for contamination components generated from "fracking". It is also possible that methane already exists at a low concentration in the aquifer from diffusion of the gas occurring naturally from the breakdown of biological materials. As the result of a substantial increase in oil and gas development, and amid resident concerns over hydraulic fracturing activities, the Health Department submitted a request to County Commissioners to fund instrumentation to reassure residents that their well water was safe. The main challenge with adding this method was the Lab wanted to use the same Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) system to run both the methane test and the current regulated water test (EPA Method 524.2) so the lab worked with PerkinElmer to optimize both methods using PerkinElmer Clarus GC/MS system.

Mark Thomas, Chemist with Weld County’s Department of Public Health and Environment. “Without this program, concerned residents who wanted to test their water for oil and gas drilling activity would have had to pay $300 for a test. To date, in conjunction with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, over 200 private wells have been sampled and tested, and shown no signs of contamination.

Peace of Mind for Residents

All this testing has given residents of Weld County added peace of mind. It won’t quell all the fears, but it does provide an important measure of confidence that their drinking water supplies are safe. And with all the samples being run in-house, as opposed to sending the work out to contract labs, analytical turnaround times have been literally cut in half. Furthermore, not many labs in the state are capable of testing for methane and other light hydrocarbon gases.

Mark Thomas summed up the benefits of this increased testing: "Every time we offer the testing to a resident of the County who is not aware of the testing program, the excitement and gratitude in their voice captures the essence of what we have accomplished."

See Resources, at right, to learn more about the work at the Weld County Laboratory..

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