Drilling Poses Risk To Pennsylvania Water Supplies

fromWNYC

Two years ago, Pennsylvania opened the door to a natural gas drilling technique that's caused controversy in some Western states. At the time, environmentalists worried that high-volume hydrofracking could contaminate water supplies, but the state and industry insisted that fracking was safe. Now, after a spate of accidents, Pennsylvania regulators are tightening up the rules governing fracking.

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From oil now to natural gas and a domestic reserve so large it could meet the nation's needs for 25 years.

Called the Marcellus Shale, it stretches from Ohio across West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, and was once thought too difficult to drill. Advances in technology finally allowed energy companies to tap into the vast Marcellus, and widespread drilling began in Pennsylvania two years ago.

But here's where the story sounds all too familiar: with the drilling came a rash of spills, accidents and an explosion last week, so now state officials are tightening the rules.

From member station WNYC in New York, Ilya Marritz reports.

ILYA MARRITZ: The hamlet of Dimock lies high on the Appalachian Plateau, miles from anywhere. It has one stoplight and barely a thousand people. But Dimock also has more than 60 gas wells, and the new industry has brought problems.

For example, Norma Fiorentino's private water well, New Year's day 2009, the retired nurse returned home from a trip and found a crater where her water well had once been.

NORMA FIORENTINO: It was, like, humongous. And the tap to the well, which was probably thousands of pounds, had blown in three pieces and was laying helter skelter.

MARRITZ: Natural gas had seeped into the water well from a new poorly constructed gas well on a neighbor's property. Gas built up until the pressure was great enough to heave a heavy concrete capping slab into the air.

The driller, Cabot Energy, was forced to plug several gas wells and is now paying for clean water to be delivered to the Fiorentinos and to more than a dozen other households with contaminated water supplies.

And there are other problems that keep regulators awake at night. John Hanger is Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection.

JOHN HANGER: Gas drilling wastewater is exceptionally polluted. It's nasty, nasty stuff.

MARRITZ: The nastiest stuff, Hanger says, comes from the process known as high- volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which drillers blast a mix of water, sand and chemicals into the well shaft to break up the shale and release the gas.

On at least three occasions, fracked water has been spilled into the creeks around Dimock, killing fish.

Now, Hangar's agency is proposing a new rule to force companies to disclose what chemicals they use for fracking and how much. Industry people say those are trade secrets. Nonsense, says Secretary Hanger.

HANGER: The public's right to know should trump the business need of a company to keep something a secret.

MARRITZ: Last month, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection summoned natural gas drillers to a closed-door meeting in the capital, Harrisburg. Hanger told the drillers they will have to comply with a raft of new rules to make drilling safer: among them, stricter requirements for well cementing, casing and inspections to prevent gas seeping into water wells.

Ray Walker is vice president with Range Resources and chairman of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group. He says he welcomes stricter standards and they could even be good for the bottom line.

RAY WALKER: My mother told me, and I'm sure your mother told you, it's always better and cheaper to do it right the first time.

MARRITZ: Walker believes the gas in the Marcellus Shale and other reserves in Texas and Arkansas could supply as much energy as all the oil in Saudi Arabia. He wants the industry to focus on earning trust so this domestic fuel source can be harvested safely.

A spokesman for Cabot Energy says the company has created hundreds of jobs and is working with the state to clear up environmental problems in Dimock.

Back in the hilly terrain around Dimock, 14 families are suing Cabot Energy over water contamination. Norma Fiorentino is part of the suit, so is Ron Carter, a retired factory worker.

RON CARTER: They thought they'd come in here and we're a bunch of hillbillies who didn't know any better. I guess, maybe we were, but it didn't take us long to learn.

MARRITZ: Now other states are looking to learn from Pennsylvania.

In April, Ron Carter met with the chair of the New York Senate's Environmental Committee. New York has a ban on fracking that will likely be lifted soon.

For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz.

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