Published: December 11, 2014
By: Nadia Steinzor
Other parts of Blackout in the Gas Patch:
The reasons why Carol Jean (Jeannie) Moten continues to live in Avella are the same ones that kept her parents there for decades. Country life in a tight-knit community means neighbors are willing to help each other out, and just up the hill there’s a county park with space for families to walk and play.
But times have changed quickly in recent years as dozens of gas wells and facilities have sprung up nearby. Jeannie, her sister, and her mother live in separate homes within a block of each other, and the water problems they’ve each reported have been similar. Starting in 2008, the water from their private wells began running orange and black, fizzing, and tasting salty. Everyone developed red blotches on their skin after showering or washing their face.
The Motens then realized that they weren’t the only ones in the area having shortness of breath, burning eyes and throat, rashes, dizziness, muscle cramps, and disorientation. A neighbor also said fine sand had started coming through pipes into her sink and washing machine. At night, the air would often get hazy and the smells of burning, chemicals, and sulfur would waft down from the park.
Our research on gas development in the area shows that there have been significant pollution events, blatant evasion of permitting requirements, and an absence of site planning and erosion and sedimentation controls. Although DEP has conducted inspections and issued violations, the agency never restricted operations or limited the expansion of well sites even when problems occurred.
Several of the wells near the Motens are adjacent to Cross Creek County Park and in a special protection watershed. Yet in permitting and overseeing the sites, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) appears to have ignored the heightened environmental protection that this designation implies. In particular, DEP issued a stream distance waiver to Atlas Energy—in effect giving a stamp of approval for not having obtained the proper permit after the company had already begun constructing wells just 76 feet from a stream designated as a High Quality Warm Water Fishery. DEP then took another “after the fact” action by issuing an erosion and sedimentation (E&S) permit long after one of the well sites was already far larger than the regulatory threshold.
Documents found in hard copy gas well files indicate that several drilling pits containing contaminated waste have been buried near the Motens, but we did not find any evidence that DEP took steps to ensure that the waste was properly solidified and encapsulated, or that the pits haven’t leaked and polluted groundwater. Over time, more development across the area has meant an increase in air emissions, including of substances with known health impacts like those reported by Jeannie Moten and others in her neighborhood.
The pollution and other environmental hazards caused by a cluster of nearby wells was clearly enough to get the attention of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which cited Atlas Energy in 2012 for violating both the US Clean Air Act through “accidental releases of hazardous substances” and the US Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) by neglecting to “inform the public and emergency responders about hazardous and toxic chemicals in their communities.”
Despite the violations of both federal and state laws and a large number of complaints from residents in the area for several years, DEP has never conducted an investigation into potential damage to the area’s drinking water supplies or conducted air testing near current drilling operations. Nor have the Motens and their neighbors been provided with any information or assistance regarding the potential impact of development and particular events on their water, air, and health. But thanks to private donations, Jeannie recently received an indoor air filter and her mother now has a “water buffalo” with monthly deliveries of clean water—steps that have helped the family to feel better.