Wyalusing, Pa


Amid drilling for clean fuel, why does water go bad?

No shortage of finger-pointing as residents blame gas boom for contamination of wells


Published:September 6, 2010, 9:21 AM

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Updated: September 6, 2010, 10:50 AM

Second of two parts

WYALUSING, Pa. -- Jacqueline Place knew something was wrong when the cows stopped drinking the water.

Jonna Phillips' warning came straight through the faucet, which in July started serving up water the color of chocolate milk -- water that could be lit with a lighter.

And for Jared McMicken, the gas meter in the basement issued the ultimate alert.

"The methane in our house was at explosive levels," said McMicken, who evacuated his wife and two young children from their modern home in the woods for two weeks this summer until it was safe to return.

Place, Phillips and McMicken all live in Bradford County, a breathtaking land of lakes, valleys and farms that also happens to be the epicenter of Pennsylvania's gas boom.

With freshly drilled gas wells all around, some local residents say that nothing but the drilling could have caused their water wells to go bad.

But the company that owns the gas wells, Chesapeake Energy, points out that it drilled more than a mile deep into the earth and thousands of feet from the properties with methane in the well water.

No matter who's right and who's wrong about how the water went bad in these country homes, one thing is certain:

Extracting the world's cleanest fossil fuel from the Marcellus Shale is making a bit of a mess.

Citing state data, the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association found 1,056 serious environmental violations tied to drilling in the shale between the start of 2008 and Aug. 20 of this year.

The violations -- most commonly improper erosion plans and faulty pollution prevention -- came at a rate of more than one a day. And 50 times, companies improperly sealed their gas wells, which may cause gas to migrate into groundwater.

The rash of violations disturbs even backers of the gas boom.

"There have been too many spills, too many leaks and too much gas migration," said John Hanger, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

Tap water 'on fire'

The gas migration -- the gas that somehow got into the well water in Wyalusing and elsewhere -- causes the most immediate concern about drilling in the Marcellus.

"We lit this water on fire, right here out of the sink," said Phillips, who, with her husband, Mike, is due to have a baby later this year. "That was scary. You don't want to be pregnant and drinking bad water."

Methane in the water supply is a hugely important concern in Pennsylvania, a state with no regulation of the private wells that provide drinking water for 3 million of its residents. Yet the methane problem also remains a bit of a mystery.

At least seven families in Bradford County have complained about gas in their well water, as have at least 14 in neighboring Susquehanna County and several more in the southwest corner of the state.

That's not many in a state where 20,000 water wells are drilled every year. And to date, there's no comprehensive review of how many of the complaints can be directly tied to Marcellus drilling.

That leaves people such as McMicken drawing conclusions from their own experiences.

"The wells -- that's the only change for miles around here," said McMicken, who lives next door to the Phillips family. "It's the only thing that you can point to."

McMicken's property and the others affected nearby are more than 2,500 feet from the nearest Chesapeake Energy wellhead.

"No one nearer to our activity ... has come forward with any concerns regarding their water quality," said Brian L. Grove, senior director of corporate development for Chesapeake Energy, which says that it is trucking in water for the affected families as a courtesy.

Pre-existing methane

However, both McMicken and Place said that horizontally drilled gas pipes run under their property.

Then again, the gas in the Marcellus is by no means the only gas underfoot in the region.

In fact, Chesapeake tested residential water wells within 2,500 feet of its gas well pad sites before drilling began -- and found that about a third already were tainted with methane.

"My perception is there have been few demonstrative direct impacts from Marcellus drilling," said Michael A. Arthur, a professor of geosciences and co-director of Pennsylvania State University's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. "It's pre-existing contamination. It's not Marcellus."

In other words, many Pennsylvanians, without knowing it, may be drinking from water wells that are like the Eternal Flame Falls in Orchard Park -- water that's combustible.

There's also evidence that drilling can gas up the groundwater.

A study conducted for Garfield County, Colo., and released last year found that natural fractures in the earth are so well-connected that gas seeped from near the "fracked" gas wells deep below ground into dozens of water wells.

And in Dimock, Pa. -- 30 miles east of Wyalusing -- 14 families are having water brought in because their wells were contaminated. The state earlier this year ordered Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to pay a $240,000 fine and plug three of its gas wells in Dimock, which were built with faulty casings, allowing gas to get into water wells.

"We drank that water," said Ron Carter, a Dimock resident who, with his wife, Jean, lives next door to a set of Cabot gas wells. "And we don't know what's in it."

Dimock resident Julie Sautner noticed the problem when fumes from the shower head nearly caused her 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, to pass out.

"It's insane," Sautner said of the gas drilling. "It's intrusive. We came here 13 years ago, and we were expecting peace and quiet. We never thought anything like this could happen."

Place, who says her well water remains tainted even though the gas company says it's just fine, termed the local gas drilling boom "devastating."

"And it's just starting," added Place, who lives about two miles west of the McMickens.

'Invasion of the earth'

The trouble in Bradford County does appear to be just one of many bad omens about gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

Most recently, mysterious gas bubbles popped up in the Susquehanna River near here.

And last week, the Pennsylvania Land Conservation Trust reported that 155 times since the start of 2008, gas companies in Pennsylvania improperly discharged industrial waste.

"The biggest problems are spills and leaks at the surface," said Hanger, the state environmental chief. "They tend to be relatively local. Sometimes there are small fish kills. We've never had a public system contaminated."

Spills can happen because the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process used to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale involves a voluminous mixture of water, sand and chemicals. After boring a hole deep into the earth, gas drillers drill horizontally -- and then use that mixture to blast open the shale, allowing the gas trapped inside to be captured.

The trouble is those chemicals. While they make up less than half a percent of the mix used in the fracking process, they include poisons such as xylene and trimethyl benzene.

Most of those fracking fluids remain buried deep underground, and there's a great dispute over what that means.

"You're drilling a well a mile below the surface," said Gary G. Lash, professor of geosciences at Fredonia State College and director of its Shale Research Institute. "It's very difficult to see how the frack fluids would get to the surface."

Yet others say it's only a matter of time before that happens.

"Fracking is an invasion of the earth. You're blowing rock apart with all kinds of toxic chemicals," said James F. Gennaro, a geologist and New York City Council member who has led the fight to prevent fracking in New York State. "If you don't prevent the migration of this water to the surface, there are going to be dire environmental consequences to people."

Waste goes skyward

Of even more concern are the open ponds that some companies use to store the fracking wastewater that's pumped to the surface and later shipped off-site for cleanup.

"Fracking ponds are like having an open hazardous waste well," said Theo Colborn, president of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a nonprofit group that studies the effects of chemicals on human health.

For that very reason, some companies shun the use of fracking ponds. Chesapeake, for example, recycles all its wastewater. Seneca Resources, owned by Buffalo's National Fuel Gas Co., stores its waste in tanks.

Overall, though, "improper construction of wastewater compoundment" occurred 162 times in Pennsylvania since the start of 2008, the study of environmental violations showed.

And outside of Wellsboro, the Tioga County seat, water leaked from a pond of fracking waste water mixed with fresh water this spring. Soon afterwards, the state Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cows that may have drank water from the leak.

"We took this precaution in order to protect the public from consuming any of this potentially contaminated product," State Agriculture Commissioner Russell C. Redding said.

Most ominously of all, a June blowout at a well in Clearfield, in central Pennsylvania, sent 35,000 gallons of gas and fracking waste shooting into the sky. The state fined the well's operators -- including EOG Resources, formerly Enron -- $400,000 for ignoring proper safety procedures.

EPA plans hearings

Hanger, the state environmental chief, acknowledged that there's a vast range in the quality of Pennsylvania's gas operations, and the numbers prove it.

Chesapeake, the largest gas driller in the state, had one of the lowest rates of violations per well: 0.8.

Seneca Resources, owned by Buffalo's National Fuel Gas Corp., was close behind at 0.9.

In contrast, JW Operating Co. has 29 violations per well. And East Resources, creator of the leaking fracking pond near Wellsboro, has four per well.

"I certainly have a concern that any violation is going to taint all of us," said Matthew D. Cabell, president of Seneca Resources. "I think the process is very safe and the environmental threat is very minimal."

Research to prove that point, though, is incomplete.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of a review of the hydrofracking process, and will hold public meetings on the issue in Binghamton next week.

Meanwhile, fracking is on hold in New York State's share of the shale at least until the completion of a state Department of Environmental Conservation report later this year.

To McMicken, whose family now lives in a beautiful home with a huge water tank out front, New York's delay is a good thing.

"I used to think you weren't very smart in New York, waiting like you did," he said. "But I think you're the smart ones now."


DISTANCE: From Dimock, Pa            26.6 MI
1. Bear left onto SR-706 1.0 mi
2. Keep straight onto SR-267 / SR-706 0.1 mi
3. Bear right onto SR-706 10.9 mi
4. Turn left to stay on SR-706 5.2 mi
5. Turn left onto US-6 / Grand Army of the Republic Hwy / State St 0.0 mi
6. Arrive in Wyalusing, PA den
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