An Unearthed Resource: Gas Drilling in Northeast Raises Health and Environmental Concerns Among Residents

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The Ithacan (Ithaca College, N.Y.)

An Unearthed Resource: Gas Drilling in Northeast Raises Health and Environmental Concerns Among Residents

by
Byard Duncan

Ron Carter, a resident of Dimock Township, Penn., stands at the end of his property line where a truck hauls away water used to collect natural gas in the area. (photo: Evan Falk/The Ithacan)

The road leading to Ron Carter’s trailer is made of red clay that melts away a little every time it rains. Truck traffic has created an obstacle course of tall divots that punch at the bottom of cars, rattling spines and scraping mufflers. Some lawns along the way host bathtubs full of garbage or rusty drums belching out dark smoke. Others have drill pads and cranes that stab 200 feet into the air. This is Dimock Township, the speck on Pennsylvania’s map that just became ground zero for America’s energy future.

Carter, like his trailer, is white and jagged with little hints of warmth tucked into the corners. Words slip out of his mouth in terse grunts, moving under his mustache and past the copper cross dangling from his neck. He talks about 2006: the year he leased his land to Cabot Oil and Gas for $25 per acre. At the time, nobody thought natural gas drilling would ever take place in Dimock. Leasing was just a quick way to earn some badly needed cash. Next month’s mortgage. A new bike for the kids.

So when the drilling started last September and the enormous trucks bumped down Carter’s road and the night sky lit up like an industrial-strength Christmas tree, Carter and his wife Jean Carter were a bit surprised. They were even more surprised when they found out their water had been contaminated with fecal coliform — a bacterium often found in ground soil — sometime between July and November. The smell of it made Jean Carter sick to her stomach every time she tried to do dishes. It was undrinkable. Unusable.

The Carters took a sample to Cabot, which refused to pay for a water purification system. There are no materials used in natural gas drilling activities that use fecal coliform, according to Cabot. But the Carters believed that newly excavated access roads had flooded, spilling manure from a nearby pasture into their well. Carter, a 70-year-old ex-factory worker on disability, got a credit card and charged $7,000 for the system. He’s still paying it off, waiting for a royalty check for the gas taken on his land, from the same company he believes did the initial polluting.

Ken Komorowski, a Cabot spokesman, said he doubts the fecal coliform could have come from the drilling.

“Cabot does employ state-of-the-art erosion controls and meets all DEP requirements in regards to storm water flows,” he said. “That would include runoff from any construction activity.”

But the Carters’ water had never been contaminated before. Their neighbors across the field had never had such violent stomach pains, either. It all happened just a few months after the drilling started.

“I wish that they would have helped us with it when we had a problem with the water and not kept pushing us aside,” Carter said. “They wouldn’t help. We called them, I don’t know how many times.”  

Fecal coliform was just the beginning. Not long after Carter had ordered his purification system, stories about a “methane scare” started creeping up the hill. Stories about well water that was orangey-brown or gritty enough to clog a washing machine. Water that would ignite and burn for 11 minutes if you touched a match to it. On Jan. 1, 2009, Norma Fiorentino, one of Carter’s neighbors, heard several loud bangs coming from her yard. Her well had exploded. Twenty-one days later, Cabot began providing drinking water to four Dimock households. The Carters didn’t get any, despite the fact that they had to install a vent over their well to sift out the excess gas.

“We were the guinea pigs in this area,” Carter said. He folded his hands and reclined, 7,000 feet above what geologists believe to be the third largest cache of natural gas in the world.

Carter, along with all of Dimock, sits atop the Marcellus Shale — a 31 million acre subterranean rock formation that runs under parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York’s Southern Tier and also Tompkins County.

If harvested to its projected potential — as much as 363 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to one Penn State geoscientist — the Marcellus’ reserve would be enough to heat the entire United States for two years. It could also generate billions in revenues and a flood of new jobs. But what has many citizens of southern New York in an uproar is the potential environmental cost of drilling. As Dimock illustrates, it can be quite a messy endeavor.

To begin with, there’s the extraction process. In order to access gas in the Marcellus, energy companies employ a technique called “high volume horizontal high-pressure hydraulic fracturing,” or “hydrofracking” for short. “Fracking” a well involves forcing between 2 and 9 million gallons of water, sand and chemicals down thousands of feet into the ground to break up rock formations and unleash gas. Around half of the water used stays in the ground. The other half — usually between 1 and 4 million gallons — emerges from the well and rests in man-made “disposal pits.” A well can be fracked up to 10 times during its productive life, generating between 10 million and 40 million gallons of wastewater.

“That water has to go somewhere,” said Steve Penningroth, a co-founder of the Community Science Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps monitor the Cayuga watershed. “The thing is it’s not water. It’s like you’re taking 5 million gallons of fresh water, and you’re contaminating it intentionally. You’re leaving half of it in the ground, and then you’re looking for a place to dispose of the other half.”

Under any other circumstances, the water stored at disposal pits would be considered hazardous waste and aggressively regulated. But thanks to the Federal Energy Policy Act, a piece of legislation signed into law by the Bush administration in 2005, oil and gas companies are exempt from much of the Safe Drinking Water Act. This essentially means that the chemicals being shot into the ground — benzene, methanol, ethylene glycol, among others — get a free pass.

Curiously, these chemicals aren’t allowed anywhere near drinking water if used for purposes other than oil or gas exploration.

Moreover, because the exact volume of chemicals used in fracking fluid is a “proprietary” trade secret, the three big players in this $15 billion industry (Schlumberger Technology Corp., BJ Services and Halliburton) have been reluctant to make their ingredients public.

“If these formulas were to become available to other companies, it is possible that we could lose our competitive advantage to those companies,” Diana Gabriel, a Halliburton spokesperson, told BusinessWeek last November.

The big three often cite a 2004 EPA study, which said though fractures can serve as conduits for gas leaking into water supplies from water wells and surface areas, fracking actually poses a “minimal threat” to drinking water supplies.

Residents of Dimock disagree. As do others in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas and Wyoming — seven states that have reported serious cases of water contamination near fracking sites.

“Mostly, the state regulators are functioning as facilitators in collusion with the industry, and their focus is to maximize production as the first and prime goal,” said Barbara Arrindel, a founder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a Pennsylvania public action group. “The EPA is still basically out to lunch.”

Out to lunch or not, environmental agencies — specifically those within New York — are certainly not prepared to deal with any sort of large scale drilling activity in the Southern Tier. If drilling expands to the levels many expect it to, the DEC, which has a staff of 19 in its Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation, would be in charge of inspecting and overseeing thousands of drill sites. These numbers seem daunting, especially since no provisions in the New York state budget exist to expand the oil and gas sector.

“Does New York state have the infrastructure even to enforce the laws they already have, let alone come up with better regulations?” Penningroth said. “Can they put instructors on site that will supervise the workers from the gas companies?”

Penningroth said though he’s by no means “anti-drilling,” he’s concerned about New York’s current regulatory template for exploration in the Marcellus.  

Currently, there is a statewide moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus. The DEC has, however, drafted a final “Scope” — a road map of specific environmental guidelines energy companies must meet in order to drill. The Scope, which according to Penningroth, failed to adequately address issues of soil erosion and disposal of wastewater, fueled accusations that the DEC is hurrying the process along to accommodate development.

The DEC disagrees, though it acknowledges the economic potential of Marcellus exploration is substantial. “There will be some amount of economic activity in the Marcellus like jobs and taxes,” said Kathy Sanford of the DEC’s Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation. “The hope is that there will be economically producible gas in the Marcellus.”

Many residents of Tompkins County share her hope and have opted to lease their land to companies interested in Marcellus drilling. The numbers are a bit surprising: 58 percent of Groton is leased, as is 49 percent of Enfield and 48 percent of Caroline. Twelve percent of Ithaca’s total acreage is under lease to oil and gas companies — all of it within five miles of Ithaca College.

Additionally, Schlumberger (one of the three main fracking industries) spent 2.65 million on an 87-acre parcel in Horseheads at the end of January and has been moving forward with plans for drilling ever since. On March 27, Chemung county planners approved the outline of Schlumberger’s preliminary site plan.

Meanwhile, back in Dimock, some residents continue to buy their water at Price Chopper grocery store. Carter and his wife continue to wait for their royalty check. Cabot trucks continue to bump, slide and skid their way up and down that hill.

“The people they haven’t drilled near should be aware of what can happen with the water situation,” Carter said. “’Cause every place they’ve drilled, the water’s gone bad. It isn’t an isolated house here and a house there.”

He points down the gashed, mucky road. “Every house has something wrong with their water. I don’t know whether it’s going to go away.”

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