Two years after residents of the Woodlands in Butler County began complaining that shale drilling was contaminating their well water, the gas company they believe is a culprit may be the community's best hope for a clean water pipeline.
At least that's how Butler County Commissioner Jim Eckstein sees it.
Mr. Eckstein is leading the charge to establish a homeowners association in the Woodlands, a low-income community of about 200 homes, 50 of which told Duquesne University professor John Stolz that their water has changed following Rex Energy Corp.'s drilling activity in the area.
Thirty-four families now pick up drinking water from a donated water bank at White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church each Monday, while they wait for a more permanent solution.
Mr. Eckstein says the solution is to tap into a water pipeline that was built by State College-based Rex Energy to supply water for its fracking activities.
The pipeline runs about a mile from the edge of the Woodlands, which is considered a private community without public infrastructure. Pennsylvania American Water supplies the water to the pipeline, and Rex has promised to hand over the line to the water company once it's done. Gary Lobaugh, a spokesman for Hershey-based Pennsylvania American Water, said he anticipates that will happen before the end of the year.
A new housing development being built nearby that's paying to extend that water pipeline another half a mile will bring it even closer to the Woodlands, Mr. Eckstein said.
The cost to get it to the edge of the property is now estimated to be $490,000. That also includes the construction of a building where the water company's pipeline would end and where any withdrawals from it would be metered.
State Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, believes he can get government funding to pay for the waterline and the distribution building.
The rest will be up to the residents of the Woodlands, Mr. Eckstein said.
"This is feasible," he said. "The people have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps."
The role of the homeowners association would be to figure out how its members will divide the monthly charge and make sure the water company gets paid. Mr. Eckstein even suggested that if more than 50 homes join the association, it would cost less than $2,000 to run small, plastic pipes from the distribution building to their homes. The homeowners association would be responsible for maintaining those pipelines.
The plan has been in the works for more than a year and Mr. Eckstein says 55 people are interested so far. He'll make another pitch Oct. 21, during the weekly water drive at White Oak church.
Unhappy with the plan
But the plan makes little sense to Sheri Makepeace, a Woodlands resident who now pays up to $250 a month to fill a water buffalo in her yard that supplies cooking, cleaning and showering water for her and three young children. For drinking water, Ms. Makepeace still turns to the water drive.
"I would not sign to take responsibility for other people in the community," she said. "That doesn't make sense. We don't share an electric bill."
Ms. Makepeace thinks the plan might be another way for public officials to wash their hands of the situation.
The initial outpouring of support and donations last year helped keep the water buffalo in her yard after Rex Energy stopped paying for others it had installed in the neighborhood while investigating the contamination claims. Rex and the Department of Environmental Protection concluded that residents' well water didn't differ significantly from pre-drill samples taken by the company.
The water buffalo, the water drive -- they're Band-Aids, Ms. Makepeace said.
"It's just like we're forgotten now," she said.
Woodlands residents want public water. They want Pennsylvania American Water to run lines directly to their homes and be responsible for them, just as in other neighborhoods.
The water company, at the request of township supervisors, did a feasibility study on the prospect and determined that "a sparse customer density and a lack of zoning ordinances and infrastructure" would blunt the effort, Mr. Lobaugh said. It would also require between $700,000 and $2 million in infrastructure investment.
The Butler County commissioners have indicated it would be unfair to spend the tax dollars of all their constituents for the benefit of the few in the Woodlands, a stance that has drawn fierce opposition from Marcellus Outreach Butler, an anti-fracking group, which called for all money given to the county from impact fees on drillers to be put toward this issue.
Another temporary solution is being offered by the Butler County Housing Authority, which launched a program in mid-September to provide 500- or 1,000-gallon cisterns for low-income families and vulnerable populations in the Woodlands. The money, capped at $5,000 per applicant, comes from deed fees and is part of the authority's emergency repair program.
Perry O'Malley, executive director at the housing authority, is hoping to serve 25 homes to start.
Some Woodlands residents are taking their water concerns to a different venue.
Nine families filed lawsuits against Rex Energy so far this year, claiming the company's practices and several well casing problems contributed to the decline of their water quality, health and quality of life.
Janet and Fred McIntyre, who have been the most public faces of the Woodlands' water struggle, are the lead plaintiffs. The other eight lawsuits will follow the same fate as the McIntyres' once a judge decides how that case should proceed.
Rex Energy and its contractors, Universal Well Services and Union Drilling, are named in the complaint, which Rex has challenged in preliminary objections. A hearing is set for Nov. 15. The company declined to comment.
David McGowan, a partner at Caroselli Beachler McTiernan & Conboy LLC, who is representing the families, said he intends to put up a vigorous fight.
'Just fix my well'
As does Paul Harper, a 75-year-old Woodlands resident who built the house he occupies 50 years ago. Mr. Harper, a retired prison sergeant and welder, has engaged a different attorney and plans to file a lawsuit against Rex soon.
Like many residents in the Woodlands, Mr. Harper always keeps a few empty sauce jars to display well water in case visitors stop by, he said. The well that's been in the ground behind his home since the 1960s started to smell like grease in late 2011, he said. Then the water turned orange.
Last year, he installed a $2,800 water purification system in his basement that filters the well water enough to use for cooking, showering and cleaning, he said.
Mr. Harper still buys bottled water to drink.
Unlike some Woodlands residents who would be happy to move if given the option, Mr. Harper vowed to stay put and "fight till my last breath."
"Just fix my well," he said. "If our wells can't be saved, then I think they should pay to put public water into these Woodlands."
Anya Litvak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455