Pennsylvanians are complaining their water is fracked up. Now what?
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.
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.
The state’s often plodding response has left hundreds of rural Pennsylvanians in a sort of forced drought, scrambling to pay for water deliveries, seek remedies in court, take out second mortgages, or even abandon their homes.
Complaints filed with the DEP reveal people’s fear and frustration. In 2011, a Butler County resident reported that her previously crystal-clear water had turned “brown and rusty looking” with a “terrible odor.”
In 2013, someone a few miles away complained of drinking water that “feels slimy and causes [his/her] skin to break out.” Last October, a Westmoreland County father of five wanted to know whether his water was safe to drink — it had begun staining the bathtub and “didn’t smell like normal water should smell like.” He’s still waiting for the results of the DEP investigation.
If the past is any guide, the family may drink the malodorous water for months before finding out whether it is contaminated and whether the gas-drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that swept the Marcellus a decade ago had anything to do with it.
Even if the DEP determines that there is a connection, relief may prove unsatisfying or slow to come. In each of the dozen households interviewed for this story that received “positive determination” letters from the state, people were still dealing with the burdens of water contamination. Some who have the energy and resources are seeking compensation in court, while others accept endless supplies of bottled water or filtration systems without knowing when or if their well water or property values will return to what they once were.
After Texas, Pennsylvania produces the most natural gas in the United States. It also has the second-highest number of private water wells, behind Michigan, with about 3.5 million users. Meanwhile, it’s one of only two states without regulations for private-well construction.
Fracking took hold here years before its potential health impacts were considered. The extent of these impacts remains unknown. The Pennsylvania Department of Health only began pulling residents’ health complaints into a registry this year. The DEP didn’t establish protocols for gas-related water investigations until 2015; it is still building a computerized system for tracking the results of such investigations.
“What I tell people is, don’t think that there’s somebody up there [in Harrisburg] watching out for you, because they’re not,” said David Brown, an environmental health scientist at the nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. “That’s a pretty sobering message, and it’s not one I would think I would give in many states but Pennsylvania.” (The project has received funding from The Heinz Endowments, as has the Center for Public Integrity).
In 2011, the state began requiring gas companies to report certain complaints from residents, who often call the local driller instead of the DEP. Between the complaints that never reach the agency and its inconsistency in recording the ones that do, however, the DEP is unable to provide a complete tally.
Residents have the option of closing DEP complaints and settling them privately with gas companies. But the agency doesn’t systematically track those settlements, which are often accompanied by non-disclosure agreements. The public is left in the dark.
In 2014, Pennsylvania’s auditor general, Eugene A. DePasquale, found that the DEP’s handling of water complaints from 2009 through 2012 was “a serious impediment to complainants’ quality of life” and called its documentation “egregiously poor.” The agency disagreed with all of his findings.
In a recent interview with the Center for Public Integrity, DePasquale said the DEP is headed in the right direction but has far to go.
Low-income Pennsylvanians with water problems are being left to fend for themselves “way too many times,” he said. “That’s beyond not having good technology to track complaints. It’s ignoring your duty as public officials.”
The Center has sought interviews with DEP officials since January; none was granted. In a written statement, Scott Perry, deputy secretary over the agency’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, wrote, “Protecting Pennsylvania’s water is a key part of the DEP mission, and the Department takes these complaints very seriously. DEP staff conduct a full investigation, including lab analysis of water samples, for each complaint received. Unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to impacted water supplies.”
The DEP is close to finalizing rules on gas drilling “that strengthen the protections for water supplies,” Perry wrote. The rules would ban disposal pits, which can contaminate groundwater, and impose more stringent requirements for water-supply replacement.
At a panel discussion last year, Perry acknowledged the department’s regulation of oil and gas has been a work in progress.
“The Pennsylvania DEP is really an international leader in managing the potential environmental impacts of oil and gas development,” he said. “We certainly did not start that way. We have nonetheless risen to these challenges and modernized our regulations across the board.” The agency has toughened standards for gas drilling, increased its number of inspectors, and boosted permitting fees, Perry said.
But the DEP is struggling with a shrinking budget, outdated technology, and a divided General Assembly. Last month, the department’s secretary, John Quigley, resigned following the release of an email he’d sent to several environmental groups, accusing them of weak support for oil and gas regulations that had been rejected by lawmakers the day before.
“Where … were you people yesterday?” Quigley wrote. “The House and Senate hold Russian show trials on vital environmental issues and there’s no pushback at all from the environmental community?”
The natural gas industry wields considerable influence in Pennsylvania. From 2014 through 2015, it contributed $2.7 million to political campaigns in the state and spent about $17.5 million lobbying, according to a new report released by Common Cause Pennsylvania and Conservation Voters of PA. Top spenders included the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, which gave $7.4 million to lobbyists, and Range Resources, a gas exploration and production company, which gave $1.7 million.
In a news release, Josh McNeil of the voters group blamed “corrosive ties” between fossil-fuel interests and legislators for the “recent disruption of longstanding efforts to create cleaner air and water for the people of Pennsylvania …”
Fracking takes off, water complaints grow
Around 2005, energy companies began drilling natural gas wells into America’s vast shale deposits. New technology — fracking — had made dislodging gas from ancient, underground rock formations feasible on a large scale. The process involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth at high pressure to break apart the rock and release the gas.
While operators extracted enough gas to make the United States one of the world’s leading energy producers, they were still perfecting certain parts of the process — how to construct a well so gas wouldn’t escape underground, for instance, or how to safely dispose of chemical-infused wastewater.
Research into fracking’s health and environmental effects was slow in coming; relatively few papers were published before 2013. By that time, Pennsylvania had issued permits for nearly 11,000 wells in the Marcellus Shale and had investigated at least 1,600 water-supply complaints, concluding that almost none had ties to fracking.
After their water went bad in 2009, the Eakins noticed rashes and mole-like, flesh-colored growths on their skin that seemed to pop up after showers. Their legs felt heavy. They stopped planting their annual garden in 2012 because the fruits and vegetables died right after they were watered. “It just ruined everything — the whole life,” said Shirley, 80.
When the Eakins complained about their water to Atlas Energy, the company that had begun fracking in the park uphill from their home, they knew little of the Marcellus — which encompasses 95,000 square miles in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland — or the estimated 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped within it. As it turned out, the three-bedroom house they built in 1978 in a remote part of Washington County, 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, rested atop what would become one of the most heavily drilled parts of the county.
Their water was never tested for fracking-related contaminants until sand began to clog their faucets. The DEP is still testing to determine whether their water may have been affected by gas drilling. In a letter to the Eakins last fall, the agency said contaminant levels kept fluctuating, making it difficult to reach a conclusion.
An Atlas spokesperson said the company uses the best practices in the industry, but would not comment on any alleged environmental or property damage because of pending litigation by people other than the Eakins.
Among the dozen or so houses in the Eakins’ neighborhood, known as Rea, water quality differs from address to address. Residents of at least nine homes have stopped drinking water from their wells. One, Jeannie Moten, is certain fracking tainted her well water and led to her father’s premature death from heart failure. The well no longer functions; it collapsed one too many times after the gas drilling began, and her disability income won’t cover the cost of a new one.
One time, Moten said, she was standing in line at a restaurant behind an industry worker who was talking about Rea’s environmental problems. She heard him say that with only 15 homes, the community wasn’t worth worrying about. “We’ve been feeling like nobody since 2009,” she said.
There’s no shortage of cases like Moten’s and the Eakins’ across the state. People notice their water quality suddenly change and see a correlation with oil or gas drilling in their area. News outlets do stories on brown, bubbly water, but the DEP rarely finds proof of a connection. The buzz dies down; clean water doesn’t come.
Ben Groover sold his motorcycle and pickup truck to raise the $15,000 he needed to connect his home in Fayette County, 60 miles southeast of the Eakins, to a municipal water line in 2010.
Groover’s water well was 2,400 feet from a gas well drilled by Atlas Energy. Company records show the well was fracked on February 3, 2010. The same day, Groover filed a complaint with the DEP, saying his sink and toilets were filled with “brown muck.”
Groover, who had signed an agreement with Atlas allowing it to pipe gas across his land, had his water tested before the drilling started. Tests afterward showed that levels of a few contaminants commonly associated with fracking — suspended solids, iron, and manganese — had gone up.
At the time, Pennsylvania law said gas companies were only presumed responsible for water pollution within 1,000 feet of a well. Groover was out of luck, even though scientists from Penn State University sampled his water in 2011 and concluded that it showed “potential impact from disturbance related to drilling or some other nearby activity.”
The following year, the law was updated: Gas wells drilled within 2,500 feet of a water supply that went bad would now be presumed responsible for the damage. Groover’s well likely would have fallen into this category, meaning Atlas would have been required to fix the problem. Groover said he filed multiple complaints with the DEP in an attempt to hold Atlas responsible, but his calls and emails to the agency had no effect. “I have less respect for the DEP than I do the gas industry,” he said.
He never got clean water from either the company or the state. He and several neighbors have filed a lawsuit against Atlas and other gas companies operating in the area.
In its answer to the complaint, Atlas said it was not liable for the alleged injuries and damages. Any problems that occurred “were the result of unavoidable circumstances beyond the control of Atlas, which could not have been reasonably foreseen or prevented by any person or entity …” the company said.
A spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to be interviewed for this article. In a recent blog post, however, the group said that “natural gas development in Pennsylvania is governed by modern, tight regulations that in addition to the industry’s commitment to best practices strengthen our environment and protect local communities.”
In another post, the coalition noted that a state-imposed fee on natural gas has generated more than $1 billion since 2011. “These critical revenues are sent directly to local governments, which allows those closest to the development to invest in infrastructure improvements and community programs,” the group’s Dave Spigelmyer is quoted as saying.
The number of oil and gas industry jobs in Pennsylvania increased by more than 15,000 during the boom years — from 2007 through 2012 — though a recent drop in gas prices has moved companies to downsize. The number of active rigs in the state has dropped by more than half in the past year, though increasingly efficient gas-extraction techniques have sent production to new highs.
Scientists are still unraveling how, and under what circumstances, fracking can affect water. In Pennsylvania, methane or other impurities are sometimes present before drilling occurs, making things difficult for investigators. A 2012 Penn State study found, for example, that 40 percent of wells tested before fracking contained at least one contaminant above safe limits.
Rob Jackson, a professor of environmental earth systems science at Stanford University, has been investigating possible ties between fracking and poor water quality since 2009, when he and his colleagues realized that no peer-reviewed papers on the topic had been published.
When Jackson’s team released the results of studies showing evidence of such links in Pennsylvania and Texas, it quickly felt backlash from industry. When the team found no correlation in Arkansas, environmentalists were dismissive.
“It really depends on what we say, and always someone is unhappy with our conclusions,” Jackson said.
His work suggests that fracking impacts only a fraction of water supplies. In those cases, there is “very strong evidence” of a connection, Jackson said. Yet people whose water has been blighted “can’t get anyone to listen.”
A 2016 analysis of 58 water-quality studies by PSE Healthy Energy, an environmental research and policy group that has received funding from The Heinz Endowments, found that 69 percent showed an association between fracking-related activities and water contamination. Most air-quality studies reviewed indicated elevated risks from gas drilling as well.
The study’s lead author, Jake Hays, wanted to assess the state of the science, knowing much of it remains unsettled. “Unfortunately,” he said, “that’s in many ways paralyzed actual action on the issues.”
It also makes things hard for doctors who treat people living near drilling operations.
Poune Saberi, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who also serves on PSE Healthy Energy’s advisory council, trains doctors to ask such patients about fracking-related exposures.
“The true prevalence of health symptoms is way underestimated,” Saberi said, because many of those conversations aren’t happening. Patients often hesitate to talk about their experiences. “It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re going to think I’m crazy.’ ”
Some residents of the Woodlands area of Connoquenessing Township, north of Pittsburgh, can relate. The township runs a weekly water drive funded by donations because about 45 households have found their water unsuitable to drink since 2011. There are 65 gas wells within two and a half miles of the neighborhood.
Resident Kim McEvoy allowed her home to go into foreclosure and moved away from the Woodlands because of her black, foamy water. Every day for more than six months, she and her then-fiancé would fill 30 one-gallon jugs at work or friends’ houses so they could cook and shower.
“Every morning you woke up, you thought about, ‘Where I am going to get water today?’ ” McEvoy said. She underwent therapy to deal with her anxiety and depression.
At least eight families in the Woodlands are suing the gas driller, Rex Energy, and its contractors. Rex Energy, which initially provided some families with water after they complained, did not respond to interview requests from the Center. In 2012, a spokesperson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “a battery of tests” performed by experts had concluded that natural gas development had not affected water quality.
The DEP investigated 12 complaints from the Woodlands made within a year and found no ties to fracking in any of the cases.
Limited EPA powers
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it has limited ability to help private well owners when their water degrades. The EPA doesn’t regulate such wells. It is barred from enforcing federal drinking water standards when fracking is involved — unless the contaminant is diesel, as per a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.
The exemption codified a 2004 finding by the EPA that national regulation was not necessary. At the time, Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, an oilfield services company that pioneered the use of fracking, was in charge of energy policy for the White House, prompting critics to dub the provision the “Halliburton Loophole.”
One tool the agency does have when local officials have not acted is Section 1431 — “emergency powers” — of the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s the legal authority the EPA used — albeit belatedly — after the lead crisis in Flint, Mich. came to light in 2015. All told, the EPA has issued 228 orders under Section 1431 since 1991, forcing polluters to address “situations where there may be an imminent and substantial endangerment.”
In 2010, the EPA used this authority against a gas company for the first and only time. Range Resources, a major presence in the Marcellus, was accused of fouling two water wells near Fort Worth, Texas, with benzene, methane, propane, and toluene. Range said the contaminants were naturally occurring and sued the EPA.
The EPA ultimately dropped the four orders it had issued against the company, saying it wanted to avoid a costly legal battle, and that the affected families had been switched to an alternate water supply. Range Resources agreed to monitor wells in the area and participate in a national EPA study of fracking’s effects on water. As it turned out, the company didn’t have a role in the study.
In 2012, the EPA also tested water wells in the heavily drilled northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock after receiving complaints about brown, sometimes flammable, water. It said the water was safe to drink, though in 2016 the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that chemical levels in at least 27 wells during a six-month period in 2012 were “high enough to affect health.”
The DEP ordered Cabot Oil & Gas, which operated in the area, to compensate people whose water had degraded. Dozens of residents later sued the company, and most of the lawsuits were settled. Two families whose cases went to trial were awarded $4.24 million by a jury this year. Cabot is appealing, saying methane found in their water was naturally occurring.
Southwestern Pennsylvania was one of five case studies included in the EPA study, released in draft form in 2015. Jesse and Shirley Eakin’s well in Cross Creek Township was one of 16 sampled in the area. After analyzing the water in 2011 and 2013 and considering an array of reasons for its poor quality, the EPA didn’t reach a conclusion about the cause of the contamination. Among the possibilities: natural sources, gas drilling, and coal-mine drainage.
In the Eakins’ case, the situation was clouded by the lack of pre-drill water testing. But Jesse Eakin said, “You can’t have a pre-drill test when you don’t know nobody’s coming.” Before significant drilling began in the area in 2008 he had tested only for bacteria, not pollutants commonly associated with fracking.
In addition to the one filed by the Eakins, the DEP received at least six water-related complaints from Cross Creek Township in 2009. One resident reported water that looked like tea. Three others said their water flow had slowed to a trickle or stopped.
Nineteen more complaints came in over the next few years. Some cases were settled privately with Range Resources; others were closed after state inspectors decided the water wells were too far away from drilling to have been impacted.
The DEP tracks all complaints in a system developed in the early 1990s, though it’s working on an update. Most information about cases is still kept in paper form at the agency’s regional offices. In January, two Center reporters visited the DEP office in Meadville, in the northwestern part of the state, to review complaints, consent orders, gas company correspondence and other documents. The reporters were given incomplete case files, heavily redacted determination letters, and materials that were unresponsive to open-records requests.
The antiquated system has been the subject of several battles between the DEP, journalists, and environmentalists. It took the Scranton Times Tribune a year to get access, through a lawsuit, to letters the department had sent between 2008 and 2012 to residents telling them whether their water had been impaired by oil and gas activities. The DEP had argued that it couldn’t provide the documents to the newspaper because it didn’t know where they were kept.
Later, the DEP told the investigative news outlet Public Herald that complaints were considered confidential because the department feared they would cause alarm. It took the outlet two years to obtain complaint documents for 17 of 40 counties in the Marcellus Shale.
In an analysis of more than 200 complaints, Public Herald identified the many ways cases were being closed prematurely or minimized. In some, the DEP claimed pre-drill tests proved that complainants’ water had been bad all along. (In fact, these tests had been done after drilling started.) In others, it diverted complaints from the Office of Oil and Gas Management to divisions within the agency such as the Environmental Cleanup Program. This kept the DEP from classifying the cases as energy-related.
Pressure from environmentalists and Auditor General DePasquale prompted the DEP to begin publishing positive determination letters — informing recipients that their water had been affected by “oil and gas activity” — online. To date, 279 such letters have been posted.
Companies deemed responsible for damaging a water supply are legally required to replace or restore it. This is easier said than done. A new well might tap into the same unclean groundwater source as the old one. Filtration systems don’t always remove every contaminant. Connecting homes to city water lines can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Ed and Karen Atwood, who live in Warren County, in northwestern Pennsylvania, received a positive determination letter from the state more than three years ago.
In November 2012, sand started coming out of the Atwoods’ showerhead. DEP tests found high levels of iron, manganese, and chlorides, all of which can be associated with oil and gas activity. In May 2013, the department ordered an oil well operator, Waste Treatment Corporation, to provide the Atwoods with a replacement water supply.
For two years afterward, the Atwoods received bottled water. They washed their clothes at laundromats and continued to bathe in their well water.
By 2014, their home was still crowded with big blue bottles, and they were eager to be connected to the nearest city water line, 830 feet away. Waste Treatment agreed to pay, on the condition that the Atwoods release the company from any past or future liability. They demurred. They sold their truck for $3,500 and convinced their bank to give them a $14,000 home-equity loan, even though their poor water quality had lowered their property value.
“Mother just took all her life savings,” Ed said of his wife. The couple still owes $1,105 on the loan and pays a monthly water bill of about $80. “We went bare-assed because of the oil people to pay for this city water,” Ed said.
Waste Treatment representative Kelly Roddy said the company does its best to limit environmental impacts. She blamed the Atwoods’ ordeal on the DEP’s “notoriously slow” process for resolving water complaints and the couple’s decision to seek legal counsel. Last year, the DEP told the Atwoods their water had returned to pre-drill quality and Waste Treatment was no longer responsible for replacing it. But they still don’t feel comfortable drinking it, and won’t recover what they’ve spent.
Down in Washington County, the Eakins stopped using their well water for showers in late 2014, a year before they learned from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that it contained aluminum, iron, manganese, sodium, lead, and di-ethylhexyl phthalate — a human-made chemical commonly added to plastics — at levels of potential concern. The agency said residents faced a “slight increased risk of developing cancer” if they consumed the water for a lifetime.
Earlier that year, Shirley had had surgery to remove a large tumor — “the size of a lime” — from her heart. The growths on her skin had gone away while she was at the hospital.
Sitting in her living room in Rea, she cried remembering how she felt when the doctors told her she could go home. “Am I going to be going home and bathing in that water again?” she asked them. “I said, ‘I don’t want to go home.’ ”
Jie Jenny Zou of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this story.
Get Grist in your inbox