Fracking takes off, water complaints grow
Around 2005, energy companies began drilling natural gas wells into America’s vast shale deposits. New technology — fracking — had made dislodging gas from ancient, underground rock formations feasible on a large scale. The process involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth at high pressure to break apart the rock and release the gas.
While operators extracted enough gas to make the United States one of the world’s leading energy producers, they were still perfecting certain parts of the process — how to construct a well so gas wouldn’t escape underground, for instance, or how to safely dispose of chemical-infused wastewater.
Research into fracking’s health and environmental effects was slow in coming; relatively few papers were published before 2013. By that time, Pennsylvania had issued permits for nearly 11,000 wells in the Marcellus Shale and had investigated at least 1,600 water-supply complaints, concluding that almost none had ties to fracking.
After their water went bad in 2009, the Eakins noticed rashes and mole-like, flesh-colored growths on their skin that seemed to pop up after showers. Their legs felt heavy. They stopped planting their annual garden in 2012 because the fruits and vegetables died right after they were watered. “It just ruined everything — the whole life,” said Shirley, 80.
When the Eakins complained about their water to Atlas Energy, the company that had begun fracking in the park uphill from their home, they knew little of the Marcellus — which encompasses 95,000 square miles in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland — or the estimated 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped within it. As it turned out, the three-bedroom house they built in 1978 in a remote part of Washington County, 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, rested atop what would become one of the most heavily drilled parts of the county.
Their water was never tested for fracking-related contaminants until sand began to clog their faucets. The DEP is still testing to determine whether their water may have been affected by gas drilling. In a letter to the Eakins last fall, the agency said contaminant levels kept fluctuating, making it difficult to reach a conclusion.
An Atlas spokesman said the company uses the best practices in the industry, but would not comment on any alleged environmental or property damage because of pending litigation by people other than the Eakins.
Among the dozen or so houses in the Eakins’ neighborhood, known as Rea, water quality differs from address to address. Residents of at least nine homes have stopped drinking water from their wells. One, Jeannie Moten, is certain fracking tainted her well water and led to her father’s premature death from heart failure. The well no longer functions; it collapsed one too many times after the gas drilling began, and her disability income won’t cover the cost of a new one.
One time, Moten said, she was standing in line at a restaurant behind an industry worker who was talking about Rea’s environmental problems. She heard him say that with only 15 homes, the community wasn’t worth worrying about. “We've been feeling like nobody since 2009,” she said.
There’s no shortage of cases like Moten’s and the Eakins’ across the state. People notice their water quality suddenly change and see a correlation with oil or gas drilling in their area. News outlets do stories on brown, bubbly water, but the DEP rarely finds proof of a connection. The buzz dies down; clean water doesn’t come.
Ben Groover sold his motorcycle and pickup truck to raise the $15,000 he needed to connect his home in Fayette County, 60 miles southeast of the Eakins, to a municipal water line in 2010.
Groover’s water well was 2,400 feet from a gas well drilled by Atlas Energy. Company records show the well was fracked on February 3, 2010. The same day, Groover filed a complaint with the DEP, saying his sink and toilets were filled with “brown muck.”
Groover, who had signed an agreement with Atlas allowing it to pipe gas across his land, had his water tested before the drilling started. Tests afterward showed that levels of a few contaminants commonly associated with fracking — suspended solids, iron and manganese — had gone up.
At the time, Pennsylvania law said gas companies were only presumed responsible for water pollution within 1,000 feet of a well. Groover was out of luck, even though scientists from Penn State University sampled his water in 2011 and concluded that it showed “potential impact from disturbance related to drilling or some other nearby activity.”
The following year, the law was updated: Gas wells drilled within 2,500 feet of a water supply that went bad would now be presumed responsible for the damage. Groover’s well likely would have fallen into this category, meaning Atlas would have been required to fix the problem. Groover said he filed multiple complaints with the DEP in an attempt to hold Atlas responsible, but his calls and emails to the agency had no effect. “I have less respect for the DEP than I do the gas industry,” he said.
He never got clean water from either the company or the state. He and several neighbors have filed a lawsuit against Atlas and other gas companies operating in the area.
In its answer to the complaint, Atlas said it was not liable for the alleged injuries and damages. Any problems that occurred “were the result of unavoidable circumstances beyond the control of Atlas, which could not have been reasonably foreseen or prevented by any person or entity…,” the company said.
A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to be interviewed for this article. In a recent blog post, however, the group said that “natural gas development in Pennsylvania is governed by modern, tight regulations that in addition to the industry’s commitment to best practices strengthen our environment and protect local communities.”
In another post, the coalition noted that a state-imposed fee on natural gas has generated more than $1 billion since 2011. “These critical revenues are sent directly to local governments, which allows those closest to the development to invest in infrastructure improvements and community programs,” the group’s Dave Spigelmyer is quoted as saying.
The number of oil and gas industry jobs in Pennsylvania increased by more than 15,000 during the boom years — from 2007 through 2012 — though a recent drop in gas prices has moved companies to downsize. The number of active rigs in the state has dropped by more than half in the past year, though increasingly efficient gas-extraction techniques have sent production to new highs.