CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

National News

March 10, 2013

Cause of off-color, fetid water eludes Pa. town

PITTSBURGH — What causes clear, fresh country well water to turn orange or black, or smell so bad that it's undrinkable?

Residents of a western Pennsylvania community have been trying for more than a year to get that question answered in their quest to get clean water back.

Some of them say the water was spoiled by drilling deep underground for natural gas. Others point to pollution from old coal mines. They've also been told it could even be a baffling mix of natural and manmade reasons that change the water over time, like the leaves change on trees. But no one knows for sure, and they say the uncertainty is maddening.

In late 2011, the drinking water for about a dozen residents in the Woodlands, a rural community about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, began to change. At first, the families blamed gas drilling, or fracking, being done 2000 feet away. But state tests showed the water wasn't contaminated by drilling, and even more confusingly, many of their neighbors reported no problems.

Families with bad water then turned to federal officials. But last summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly sent a letter to one resident, Janet McIntyre, saying the agency agreed with the state finding, since most of the chemicals found in the water could have occurred naturally.

McIntyre wasn't satisfied, noting that the EPA "never set foot on my property to test the water themselves." The EPA didn't respond to a request for comment on why the agency didn't retest the water.

Still, the residents with water problems were hopeful that the Atlanta-based U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was looking at the issue. But last month the agency said it "is not actively investigating complaints from this area."

"I'm just very, very frustrated," McIntyre said.

So was John Stolz.

He's the director of the Duquesne University Center for Environmental Research in Pittsburgh. Stolz said state and federal agencies failed to do detailed reviews, so a Duquesne team has been monitoring water quality and surveying households in the Woodlands, in what is one of the most in-depth surveys of alleged impacts of gas drilling in the nation. With funding from two foundations, a team has regularly tested area water for more than a year.

"We'll see black water, we'll see orange water, there's often times an odor," Stolz said.

Overall, about 50 out of the 150 households in the community have complaints. "There are certain areas that clearly don't have any problems," Stoltz said. And, he added, a well that has bad water one month may be clear the next, and a few homeowners even say that their well water improved after gas drilling began.

Even in areas with no nearby oil and gas drilling, the water quality in some aquifers changes naturally, groundwater experts say.

"It varies even within the same aquifer. It can vary from the top of the aquifer to the bottom, and from one side to the next," said Mike Paque, executive director of the Oklahoma-based Ground Water Protection Council.

The wells themselves may be causing the problem, too. Stoltz said the depths vary from 90 feet to 900 feet deep, with an average of about 130 feet. Pennsylvania is one of the only states with no standards for rural water well construction, meaning multiple other factors could be contributing to the problems.

Others say the cause could be old coal mines or old oil and gas wells that date back to the 1800s.

Shafts from old mines lie under the region, said Butler County commissioner William L. McCarrier, who worked as a water well driller in the area during the 1970s. Those can fill with water, and that water then gets contaminated. He said pollution from old mines and wells was a common problem long before the recent gas drilling boom, which began about five years ago, adding that the situation is more complicated than many outsiders realize.

"It's very unclear where the problem came from," McCarrier said. He said he accepts the state finding that drilling didn't cause the problem, but that authorities are still trying to find solution for the people who say their water is undrinkable.

That has put local officials in the middle of a fight.

The Woodlands is an unincorporated area that was laid out with no rights of way for public water or sewer lines, and even the idea of extending a public water line to the area has created divisions. Some people who live within a quarter mile of McIntyre say they have no water problems whatsoever, and they don't want to pay for improvements they don't see a need for.

McIntyre said a water company is willing to bring a feed line to the edge of the community and put a pump house in. But the Woodlands residents would still need to form an association to manage and pay for water lines and hookups.

Residents met in January with lawyers to discuss filing lawsuits. But one expert said any claim would be complicated by the variations in water quality and the lack of a contamination finding from state or federal agencies.

"It's a tremendously difficult case," said Emily A. Collins, a professor and supervising attorney with the University of Pittsburgh Environmental Law Clinic. Collins said that even if there is a lawsuit, plaintiffs might find it difficult to get their expert opinion into evidence, since the science isn't clear.

The debate should be over anyway, say both state regulators and the drilling company Rex Energy, because multiple independent reviews found no contamination from drilling at all.

"In each case, the scientific analysis concluded that neither Rex Energy's operations nor natural gas development impacted water quality," said Rex spokesman Derek Smith, who noted that the company provided access to records, shared data, and gave "its complete cooperation and support" to the reviews. Rex is based in State College.

Yet Stoltz expects that ultimately his team's research will provide a definitive answer for the Woodlands residents. The tests haven't found any evidence of drilling chemicals in the water wells, but Stoltz said that even though no gas wells went directly under the Woodlands, the surrounding countryside is full of them. He said that while his team's conclusions aren't final, he believes that the recent gas drilling around the Woodlands has affected groundwater flows, thus indirectly causing problems for some people.

But even if drilling didn't cause the problems, McIntyre said she doesn't understand why the community must struggle to find the answer.

"It just seems like I can't get some kind of justice," she said. "I want water so bad I can taste it."

 

1
Text Only
National News
  • Fort Hood (UPDATED) Officials: 4 dead, including gunman, at Fort Hood

    A gunman opened fire Wednesday at Fort Hood in an attack that left four dead, including the shooter, law enforcement officials said.
    One of the officials, citing official internal U.S. Justice Department updates, said 14 others were hurt. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information by name.

    April 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • mfp file Hoffner Fired coach unjustly accused of visiting porn sites

    The president of Minnesota State University-Mankato accused a football coach of looking at Internet porn on a work computer before firing him, an arbitrator has revealed. The official said the claim could not be supported, and the coach shouldn't have been fired.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • High School Stabbings 4 students seriously hurt in Pa. school stabbings

    A student armed with a knife went on a stabbing and slashing spree at a high school near Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, leaving as many as 20 people injured, including four students who suffered serious wounds, authorities said.

    April 9, 2014 2 Photos

  • Obit Ultimate Warrior Former pro wrestler Ultimate Warrior dies at 54

    James Hellwig, better known as former pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior, has died, the WWE said. He was 54.

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_amazonfiretv.jpg Amazon introduces Fire TV to challenge Apple in living rooms

    Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos is stepping up efforts to win over customers in their living rooms with a $99 TV box for watching digitally delivered shows and movies, challenging Apple's TV device.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Washington Mudslide Death toll in Washington mudslide rises to 30

    As medical examiners painstakingly piece together the identities and lives of the 30 people known killed when a mudslide wiped out a small Washington community, one mystery troubles them.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • APTOPIX Fort Hood Fort Hood gunman sought mental health treatment

    An Iraq War veteran being treated for mental illness was the gunman who opened fire at Fort Hood, killing three people and wounding 16 others before committing suicide, in an attack on the same Texas military base where more than a dozen people were slain in 2009, authorities said.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Supreme Court Campaign Big donors may give even more under court’s ruling

    The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday erasing a long-standing limit on campaign donations will allow a small number of very wealthy donors to give even more than is currently the case, according to students of the complex campaign finance system, and could strengthen the establishment in both parties.

    April 2, 2014 1 Photo