Fouled Waters: Woodlands residents search for ways to survive without clean water
If Janet McIntyre needs to shower and can't drive the 11 miles to her son's house, she steps outside and undresses. Her husband puts on a rain poncho and pours three gallons of water over her as she hides behind a shower curtain hanging between two cars that sit in their yard.
Before Kim McEvoy watched her home value plummet and moved to one with public water, she went behind rhododendron plants to urinate. Her fiance used bushes along the other side of the house -- the "men's room."
And when the time comes to refill the tank that provides clean water to her home, Barb Romito waits to see if her anonymous donor has pulled through once again and paid the $125 fee needed twice a month to keep her faucets flowing.
These and other lifestyle adjustments started in the Woodlands neighborhood about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh after January 2011, when residents started calling each other with the same story: Water from their wells was running brown or black with floating pieces of solid material in it, and it smelled awful. When they showered, they got rashes. When they drank, they threw up. The farm show rabbits Russ Kelly keeps behind his house even stopped drinking the water.
It was a major disruption in a quiet neighborhood. The community of homes sits several miles off the main drag of Zelienople in Butler County, a grouping of trailers and ranch houses that share bumpy, dirt roads and large yards that sometimes look more like campsites.
Gas drilling had begun near the Woodlands, though some originally thought the tall rigs built to access Marcellus Shale gas thousands of feet below the ground were cell phone towers. They called Rex Energy, the gas company that had drilled at least 15 new wells in the Zelienople area from July to December 2010, and they called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
"Next thing you know, the water buffaloes are sprouting up like mushrooms" across the neighborhood, said Ms. McEvoy's fiance, Peter Sowatsky.
If a resident contacts a gas company with suspicions of water contamination, it is typically company practice that an alternate source of water -- usually in the form of a large tank called a "buffalo" -- must be provided within 48 hours. Many residents used the water buffaloes provided by Rex, replacing the private wells they'd depended on for decades, while Rex and the DEP conducted tests.
But when both test results came back, the Woodlands neighborhood residents who'd noticed unmistakable changes in the look and taste of their water were told nothing was wrong.
"There are no noticeable differences in water chemistry in pre- and post-drill water quality of the water wells in question," stated a report by Rex Energy based on testing done by a third-party firm hired by the company. DEP test results in February 2011 couldn't link contaminants in the water to the Rex Energy drilling.
The company declined comment for this story, referring questions to the report.
Pennsylvania, home to some of the most active gas drilling in America, has the second-highest number of private wells in the country. Yet it is one of two states where no regulation exists for how those wells are constructed or maintained -- an issue advocates say has taken a backseat to other concerns over drilling.
When residents call with suspicions of contamination, analysts examining the water must grapple with scattershot information about how the well was built. Compounding the problem, experts and legislators say, is a lack of understanding over how shale drilling operations could affect land already perforated with holes from private water wells, coal mining, and shallow oil and gas drilling.
"In Pennsylvania, we have a lot of pre-existing conditions," said John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, and a professor conducting his own tests on the Woodlands water.
The DEP, which recently updated its tracking system to specifically chart Marcellus Shale complaints, has received 198 drilling-related complaints from residents since 2009, and 51 of those were related to water concerns. But the vast majority of DEP tests do not implicate the oil and gas firm, the agency said.
Thousands of Pennsylvania residents live in scenarios similar to the Woodlands, where their water, for whatever reason, isn't trusted.
With no clear cause of their water problems, neighbors in the Woodlands have moved on without one resource and leaned on another: the community.
Neighbors helping neighbors
For a while, residents protested, marching on the local Rex offices and sending YouTube videos to the Environmental Protection Agency. For a while, it seemed the Woodlands might become the Western Pennsylvania analogue to Dimock, the Eastern Pennsylvania town where some residents said water supplies were ruined because of poor well casing on nearby Marcellus wells. The EPA cleared the Dimock water to drink last month, though as in the Woodlands, many residents there still refuse to use their wells.
Eventually, the Woodlands residents tired of the blame game. When called to attend a recent anti-drilling protest in Washington, D.C., they didn't go, opting to send jugs of their dirty water in representation.
Now, an assembly of anti-drilling activists and empathetic churchgoers drive a caravan of F-150 pickup trucks and Jeep Cherokees once a week to deliver gallons of water from house to house. Mrs. McIntyre leads the group she organized.
"I felt myself becoming very bitter" when the water buffaloes went away, she said.
To channel her frustration, she organized the water drive, which deposits between 25 and 35 gallons of water weekly at about a dozen homes. Some residents, like Sherry Makepeace, need special fluoridated water for infants. Others immediately give half the supply to their farm animals.
The group has become more organized in the past few weeks, handling water donations through White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church and setting up a checking account to accept monetary donations.
Many of the homes receiving gallon jugs once had water buffaloes provided by Rex Energy. When the company came to remove the tanks in February, residents stood with angry out-of-town protestors and journalists who watched the trucks haul them away. That same month, the Associated Press reported that Rex Energy had casing problems on at least two nearby gas wells -- violations that were not reported by the company or the DEP.
Water buffaloes were removed from all but three homes. Two are refilled with help from money that comes from an anonymous donor. The owner of the buffalo company, Wagner Trucking of Saltsburg, told residents he can't financially justify sending refill trucks for any less than three clients. When one home can't afford the twice-a-month payment, all three risk seeing their fresh water supply stop.
"You know that expression, 'they got us over a barrel?' " said Mrs. McIntyre. "Well, they got us over a buffalo."
Along with the water deliveries, Mrs. McIntyre stops to chat with each neighbor in her unofficial capacity as Woodlands mayor. When the gas company started setting off seismic explosions to prepare for drilling, her answering machine received 17 messages from neighbors asking what was going on.
She and a neighbor also contacted Mr. Stolz, and told him about their colored water with the sulfur smell.
When he heard the description of the Woodlands, Mr. Stolz thought "it could be as good a survey sample as you could find" for testing changes in water quality. The neighborhood is isolated, and gas drilling is the only industrial activity around the farmland.
He sent a questionnaire to residents in October asking:
l Do you have well water?
l What kind of well is it (e.g., artesian, rotary, cable tool)?
l Have you noticed any change in water quality (taste, smell, color) in the last year and if so, when?
l Have you noticed any change in the water flow or quantity?
l Where is your well located?
l Do you know how deep the well is?
l Have you noticed a change in this depth?
l Have you had the water tested and would you be willing to share those results?
More than 130 homes out of the Woodlands' 200 responded, and about 50 reported water problems ranging from minor to significant.
Mr. Stolz's questions allude to the many variables in trying to detect changes in well-water quality across a neighborhood. Wells in the Woodlands are drilled to various depths, ranging from 125 feet to more than 600 feet, and many are near old oil and gas operations or abandoned mines.
"Two neighbors living next to each other could be drawing water from two different sources, and one is affected and one isn't," he said.
Without a baseline test conducted before drilling began or thorough documentation on their specific well construction, it can be difficult to track any changes that may have occurred after the rigs went up.
Many residents were frustrated with the Rex and DEP test results, which both absolved the gas firm of wrongdoing but didn't test for the same exact list of elements.
Results may have shown the water to be safe to drink, but Mr. Stolz said even the "cosmetic" issues of orange-tinted water or floating bits of floculant warrant more testing, often at the landowner's expense.
"Even if it's from a cosmetic point of view, you're not going to bathe in that water, you're not going to drink that water, you're not going to use it to make your tea," he said.
With tests already done by the company and DEP, it's up to the Woodlands residents to find others who might figure out what's wrong. Mr. Stolz took samples of the water, and expects results from his own tests to come later this month.
Regulating water wells
The confusion isn't unique to the Woodlands. Researchers at the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency created by the General Assembly in Harrisburg, found "there is no standard list of parameters for which the companies must test," so three drillers operating near the Woodlands could theoretically conduct three different tests.
More than 3 million Pennsylvanians drink water from a private well, and about 20,000 new wells are drilled each year, the report found.
"A well can be drilled using any materials, and the driller does not have to follow designated guidelines," wrote the researchers. At the same time, water well constructors don't answer to universal standards or documentation requirements, which can complicate matters when homeowners near shale operations want to get their well water tested.
Legislators have recently tried to impose statewide regulation of water wells, but it's considered a quixotic mission by some who think government regulation will never find support in rural Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended statewide regulation. In January, Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, introduced legislation that proposes standards for all stages of a water well's life cycle, from construction of the casing to treating it when the well is abandoned. The bill is in committee, and Mr. Miller hopes to see movement on it this fall.
"The Marcellus Shale has highlighted the fact that a lot of wells were not installed properly," he said.
He said push back comes from the nature of Pennsylvania, which is divided into scores of individual municipalities, and from the nature of Pennsylvanians, who don't want legislators telling them what to do in their literal back yards.
"Any water well that is drilled into the surface is like tapping a wound on your body," he said. "It opens the surface and allows contamination in."
Some drilling technology exists that might clarify well water problems, said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Horwitt said colleagues have asked for mandatory "tracers" in fracking fluid that show themselves if found in private water supplies. Others call for "gas fingerprinting" that would test whether gas found in water supplies was coming from shallow formations or deep underground rock like shale.
Those ideas haven't been fleshed out, said Mr. Horwitt, as advocates continue to focus less on the water well issue and more on concerns about establishing mandatory buffer zones around drilling operations and demanding greater transparency about the fluids used in the fracking process.
While experts and legislators debate how to treat water wells, some residents in the Woodlands took drastic measures to escape the problem altogether.
Ms. McEvoy decided to move. She bought her three-bedroom home in the Woodlands 16 years ago for $68,000. Without water, the house on the market got one offer for $15,000, and even that fell through.
Her new home, bought this summer with her fiance's retirement fund, is about 20 minutes away. The new neighborhood is a far cry from the Woodlands, where her daughter Skylar could sit on a neighbor's porch, no questions asked, and no one seemed to mind if a neighbor stowed five rusty boats in his front yard.
She's taking some habits from a life without water with her.
"I find myself not flushing the toilet," she said.
Mr. Sowatsky, her fiance, has left the Woodlands behind, but not his paranoia over water supplies. He still loaded 25 bins of empty jugs into a U-Haul truck on a recent summer day. He'll fill them and keep them on hand in case the public water is shut off, he said.
"It's a culture shock," said Mr. Sowatsky. "I keep looking for the gallon jug."
Others, like Mrs. Romito and her husband, Dave, want to stay in the Woodlands home they moved to in 2000, and even plan to pass the house onto their granddaughter.
"She might not be able to live here because of the water," said Mrs. Romito. "But it's hers."
On a recent weekday in July, water was running low, and she hadn't gotten word from Mrs. McIntyre about whether the donor had pulled through. Then Mrs. McIntyre came by with the news that the $125 check had again made it to the buffalo company, and they'd be out to fill her tank.
Mrs. Romito started to cry.
Mrs. McIntyre, who had written that check and the several that came before, put her arm around her neighbor but didn't say anything else.
First published on August 19, 2012 at 12:00 am