Published: August 20, 2014
By: Nadia Steinzor
Other parts of Blackout in the Gas Patch:
From the case study:
Events in Janet and Fred McIntyre’s neighborhood in Butler County, known as the Woodlands, show just how fast the shale gas boom can change a place. According to Pennsylvania’s Environment Facility Application Compliance Tracking System (eFACTS), between 2004-2008, only 10 new oil and gas permits were issued in Connoquenessing Township; that number jumped to 51 in 2009-2013. DEP ranks Butler County sixth among Pennsylvania counties in the number of unconventional wells drilled.
The McIntyres had been bothered by noise, smells, and traffic for a long time. But the turning point came in January 2011, when the entire family got sick after a meal that included several glasses of tap water. Then the water in the kitchen and bathroom turned soapy and foamy and a dog suddenly died. A month later, they started noticing a strong smell and foaming of the water from their household well. Over time, Janet, Fred, and their daughter developed rashes, breathing problems, fatigue, eye and throat irritation, and headaches. Several neighbors have reported odors and similar problems with their water and health.
Our research indicates plausible reasons for the water and air quality and health symptoms experienced by the McIntyres and other residents of the Woodlands since shale gas drilling began.
In the months preceding the McIntyre’s water problems, at least six wells were being drilled and hydraulically fractured within approximately one mile of their home. As detailed in the events timeline below, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspectors have identified casing problems, methane leaks, soil contamination, and observable emissions at nearby wells. DEP inspection reports indicate that a defective casing at one of the wells closest to the Woodlands (Voll 1H) was leaking gas.
DEP samples of the McIntyre’s water detected contaminants and iron and manganese many times higher than pre-drilling levels, as well as elevated levels of other parameters. In addition, DEP data show that the wells and facilities near the Woodlands emit considerable amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including chemicals known to be associated with the health symptoms reported by residents (e.g., benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde).
Yet DEP has never made a connection between the rapid expansion of gas wells and facilities in the area and the ongoing, consistent problems reported by the McIntyres and their neighbors. It isn’t clear whether this had to do with time and resource constraints, insufficient information and training provided to inspectors, inconsistent parameters in testing that made data comparison difficult, or other factors.
For residents of the Woodlands, the quest for answers and help has been long, hard, and frustrating—and is far from over. Thanks to community groups, volunteers, private donations, and coordination by a local church, the “Water for Woodlands” program makes weekly deliveries of drinking water to more than 30 families. Several have also received donated water “buffalo” tanks so they can have clean water for bathing and household uses. In light of problems at nearby gas sites and emerging science, Earthworks and its partners have asked DEP to conduct a new investigation of the Woodlands.