Sixty years after his service in the Army, Jesse Eakin still completes his outfits with a pin that bears a lesson from the Korean War: Never Impossible.

That maxim has been tested by a low-grade but persistent threat far different than the kind Eakin encountered in Korea: well water that’s too dangerous to drink. It gives off a strange odor and bears a yellow tint. It carries sand that clogs faucets in the home Eakin shares with his wife, Shirley, here in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Eakins told the state environmental agency about their bad water nearly seven years ago and hoped for a quick resolution. Like thousands of others who live in the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale, however, they learned their hopes were misplaced.

Today, the state is still testing their water. The results of those tests will dictate whether a gas exploration and production company is held responsible for providing them with a clean supply. Meanwhile, the Eakins drink donated bottled water and in late 2014 began paying for deliveries of city water to avoid showering in contaminants such as lead and manganese.

Jesse and Shirley Eakin stand by the water well they no longer use at their home in Avella, Pa. Delivered water is stored in the tank behind them.
Jesse and Shirley Eakin stand by the water well they no longer use at their home in Avella, Pa. Delivered water is stored in the tank behind them.Maryam Jameel

Since 2007, at least 2,800 water-related complaints have been investigated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil and Gas Program. Officials found ties to the drilling industry in 279. Another 500 or so cases, including the Eakins’, are open. While regulators try to catch up to natural gas exploration, some residents of the state have gone months, even years, without access to clean water at their homes.

Responding to a public-records request by the Center for Public Integrity, the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, provided data on 1,840 complaints lodged since 2010. More than half took longer than the agency’s target of 45 days to resolve. Almost one in 10 took more than a year.