(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID BUBBLING)
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Wow, what a sound - the sound of bubbles popping up in water near a fracked natural gas well in Pennsylvania. State regulators say methane gas has leaked out of the well, and it's fouled water supplies. The gas industry insists hydraulic fracturing has never caused water problems, and technically, they are right. The process of fracking itself may not be to blame, but that does not mean the industry is off the hook. Scott Detrow of member station WITF visited Leroy Township, Pennsylvania to explain why.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Mike Leighton's problems started on May 19th, just as he was settling in to watch the Preakness Stakes. A neighbor called and told him to check his water well.
MIKE LEIGHTON: I went out. You can hear my well just bubbling. You know, I got 80 to 100 foot of headspace, and the water actually bubbled up out of the top of that well.
DETROW: Gale and Ted Franklin live a couple hundred yards away. Their water well had a different reaction.
TED FRANKLIN: It was black.
GALE FRANKLIN: Oh, black as coal. It was awful.
DETROW: And had that ever happened before?
FRANKLIN: No, no.
FRANKLIN: No, no.
DETROW: Regulators ran some tests and said yes, a nearby fracking operation is to blame. They say gas has been leaking out of the well owned by Chesapeake Energy. The well is located about a half-mile from where the Leightons and Franklins live. Both families recently received a certified letter from state inspectors, which Nancy Leighton reads to me.
NANCY LEIGHTON: (Reading) It is the department's recommendation that all water wells should be equipped with a working vent. This will help alleviate the possibility of concentrating these gases in areas where ignition would pose a threat to life or property.
DETROW: In other words, you've got flammable nature gas in the air. So they're saying you should vent your well, but that won't eliminate all the problems.
LEIGHTON: Right. Right.
DETROW: How's that make you feel?
LEIGHTON: Well, you're a little nervous.
LEIGHTON: We heat our house with wood, too, by the way.
LEIGHTON: We all heat our houses with wood.
DETROW: Chesapeake Energy is providing the families with equipment to clean out their drinking water. But that won't stop methane gas from bubbling out of the ground in dozens of puddles on their properties.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLING)
DETROW: OK. Over and over again, you hear the drilling industry say fracking has not been linked to water contamination. But here's a case where the state says, yes, the well's to blame. So what's going on here?
It turns out, they're both right. Here's why: to frack a well, drillers crack up shale rock with explosives, and then flush gas out of the ground with millions of gallons of fluid. For a long time, the fear has been that you shoot these chemicals deep underground, and then the chemicals and the gas find a way to seep back up a mile through the rock and into the water supply. Well, that has not been conclusively documented. But what has been proven is something much more basic and closer to the surface. It's not the technique of fracking. It's the pipe the gas uses to go from point A to point B that can be a problem.
Penn State University geologist David Yoxtheimer has been studying this. He says when a well is leaky, it becomes a methane gas express elevator.
DAVID YOXTHEIMER: Gas wants to migrate up. You know, it's lighter. It's less dense. And it finds itself getting trapped in these shallower, more porous formations. During the drilling process, you can go down through these shallower formations, and as you're drilling through, suddenly you've created a conduit for those gasses to escape.
DETROW: A shoddy cement job is usually what's to blame, here. Gas wells are lined by a series of steel pipes surrounded by cement. And if the cement job is rushed or poorly done, methane is going to get out of the well and into the ground.
Chesapeake Energy is responsible for one of the most high-profile methane leak problems. Last year, the company was fined $900,000 for faulty cementing that contaminated 16 Pennsylvania families' water supplies. Since then, Pennsylvania regulators put much tougher drilling standards in place, in order to minimize methane leaks. They mandated higher-quality cement and pipes in gas wells, among other changes.
Chesapeake spokesman Michael Kehs says the company has improved its standards. He says the problem affecting the Leightons and Franklins is an isolated incident.
MICHAEL KEHS: In this particular case, there was a unique problem with a particular piece of equipment that caused a pressure buildup that was highly unusual.
DETROW: But Mike Leighton, the guy who still has bubbling puddles in his yard, says he's fed up.
LEIGHTON: The newspapers keep minimizing the damages here, but it's here. And people think that we're radicals, and we're not. We're just upset about the condition of our property, and we want things fixed. I want my real estate back to where it was before. Right now, it ain't worth dirt.
DETROW: Amy Emmert, a policy advisor with the American Petroleum Institute, maintains the leaky wells are few and far between.
AMY EMMERT: A typical natural gas well is constructed with three million pounds of steel and cement.
DETROW: Still, it only takes one small hole, or one faulty piece of equipment, or one weak chunk of cement to create problems on the surface. For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.
INSKEEP: That report came to us from State Impact, a collaboration of NPR and local member stations, a collaboration that explores how state issues affect American lives.