TOWANDA - A group of regional health care providers is seeking state funding to conduct a $350,000 study of the quality of drinking water in private wells in Bradford County, which will investigate, among other things, the effects of Marcellus Shale drilling on well water.

The Bradford County commissioners announced Thursday that they will write a letter of support for the health care providers' application for a $250,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to pay for the study.

Guthrie Health, Geisinger Health System and Susquehanna Health are applying for the state funding to conduct the study, which they would do in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller said.

The USGS will provide the technical leadership for the study and will also provide the other $100,000 needed to pay for the study, said Curtis L. Schreffler, associate director of USGS' Pennsylvania Water Science Center.

"I'm very excited about this study," Bradford County Commissioner Mark Smith said.

The study would provide a "comprehensive assessment" of the ground water in Bradford County that is tapped by private water wells, which is a source of water whose quality is "largely unknown," according to a press release that the Bradford County commissioners issued on Thursday.

"Very little private well water testing" has occurred in Bradford County, Schreffler said.

The study would involve testing at 70 homeowners' wells throughout Bradford County, and those wells will draw water from a number of different aquifers, he said.

If there are high levels of contaminants found in the wells, there are number of different causes that could conceivably be responsible for it, such as faulty septic systems, contamination from fertilizers, unsatisfactory well construction, and contamination from industry, including the gas industry, Miller said.

"At this point, we're not looking at any one particular thing (that would contaminate the wells)," Miller said. "This is just an opportunity to (collect data on) the quality of the water" and see how it changes over time.

If high concentrations of contaminants were found in water wells, researchers would be able to see if there were any correlation between the presence of contaminants and the results of a separate planned study, which would look at whether any health effects from Marcellus Shale drilling are occurring in Bradford County and other parts of the region, according to representatives of Guthrie Health.

Guthrie and other health agencies are still in the process of securing funding for the study on the possible health effects, which would investigate problems such as cardiovascular disease and cancer in the local population, according to Guthrie Health.

For the ground water study, the water at the homes would be tested annually, and, it is hoped, would continue to be tested for 10 years or more, according to officials from the USGS.

Not only would the ground water study provide a snapshot of the quality of drinking water at this time, but it would pick up changes in the quality of the drinking water over time, Schreffler said.

Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said there were no particular complaints or violations of laws that prompted the planning of the ground water study.

Commissioner Miller pointed out that Pennsylvania and Alaska are the only states that do not have standards that drinking water from private wells must meet.

Nor are there standards in Bradford County that contractors must meet when constructing a private water well, he said.

The study "should probably have been done years ago," McLinko said.

The range of substances that would be tested for would be "broad-based," Schreffler said.

The Department of Community & Economic Development will require that the ground water study measure the same substances that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recommends that homeowners test their well water for before Marcellus drilling starts, he said.

In addition, the ground water study would test for the presence of additional substances, he said.

Among the substances that would be measured in the homeowners' well water are naturally occurring ions and metals, methane, ethane, volatile organic compounds, and nutrients, Schreffler said.

Nutrients could come from fertilizer or septic systems, he said.

Methane is not only a component of natural gas, but it can occur naturally in drinking water, he said.

A computer program would randomly select the homes that would participate in the testing, he said.

However, other factors, such as whether the homes are near an agricultural area or an area developed by natural gas, may be considered when selecting the homes, the press release said.

The selected homeowners would have the option of opting out of the study.

The USGS would collect the samples from homeowners' well water, the press release states. The samples would be analyzed by accredited labs, the release states.

If a high level of contaminants were found in the drinking water, further investigations could be done to determine what the source of the contaminants is, Schreffler said.

The proposed Bradford County ground water study will have to compete with other counties that are applying for the grant money from the DCED, he said.

Commissioner Smith issued a separate press release on Thursday which states that the ground water study will measure the effects of Marcellus Shale drilling on ground water in Bradford County.

"We know the gas industry has created strong economic growth and made important investments in the region," Smith is quoted as saying in his press release. "We must also continue to remember that the protection of our citizens is the top priority ... We need to focus on what's good for our constituents, and that's what we're doing with this groundwater study."

Geisinger Health System and Susquehanna Health would also be participating in the study of possible health effects of gas drilling.

The application for the grant is due on July 31.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.