Butler County residents protest after state tests of their wells absolve driller

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Janet McIntyre of The Woodlands, a rural community in southern Butler County, said her well water foams and turns purple when it comes out of her faucet.

"When I bathe in it, I get rashes, so I'm thinking I shouldn't be drinking it, either," she said Thursday afternoon at a rally and march by more than 75 people to the downtown Butler office of Rex Energy Inc. to protest the company's decision to stop providing replacement water to the McIntyres and 10 other families in the Connoquenessing Township community, 30 miles north of Pittsburgh.

The chanting and sign-waving demonstrators, who brought enough jugs of water for the Woodlands residents to fill a pickup truck to overflowing, blamed Rex Energy's Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations near that community for contaminating the water wells.

The company has provided the families with 800-gallon plastic tanks, commonly called "water buffalos," and filled them regularly for a year but drained and removed the last of them Thursday, citing a series of test results that fail to establish a link between the drilling and the water contamination.

"A battery of tests have been performed by state-certified laboratories and environmental experts," said Derek Smith, a Rex spokesman, in an email.

"The laboratory results all unequivocally determine that natural gas development has not impacted water quality in the area."

The DEP tested the water wells in response to complaints by Woodlands residents that began in February 2011, but couldn't link contaminants in the water to the Rex Energy gas well drilling, said DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday.

"Our investigation included sampling conducted by the department both before and after hydraulic fracturing," Mr. Sunday said in an email response to questions. "Pre-drilling surveys also informed our investigation, which considered any events that took place related to Rex's drilling activity. We have been more than thorough in our investigation."

But Diane Sipe, an organizer with Marcellus Outreach Butler, a grassroots environmental group, said the water tests, done by the state Department of Environmental Protection and Rex Energy found widely varying levels of contamination and should be redone.

"The DEP found some toluene the first time it tested one of the water wells, then came back to retest that well and didn't screen for toluene," Ms. Sipe said. "We don't trust them."

Also in the same area of Butler County the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has investigated approximately 20 stream erosion and sedimentation violations caused by gas pipeline construction and reached settlements on 15 of those.

MOB and Protecting Our Waters, a Philadelphia-based alliance of environmental groups, have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene to provide drinking water for the affected families.

David Sternberg, an EPA Region III spokesman in Philadelphia, confirmed that the agency received requests to intervene from "a number of citizens expressing concern and requesting replacement water" and is reviewing those requests.

Last month, the EPA decided to deliver water to four homes and conduct tests of well water at 60 homes in Dimock, the small Susquehanna County town featured in the 2010 documentary "Gasland" where residents say Marcellus Shale gas drilling has contaminated their water.

Stephen Cleghorn, a Jefferson County farmer who delivered a water buffalo to the McIntyre family last week to replace the one Rex took away, said the water was fine in the Woodlands before the drilling started and bad after it started.

"You wouldn't drink it now, and they say no one can prove what caused it.

"But, as far as I'm concerned, there is a preponderance of evidence," said Mr. Cleghorn.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published March 2, 2012 5:00 AM


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