Families' well water disrupted near Ligonier

Families cite Shale wastewater contamination

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Route 711, designated a "Pennsylvania Scenic Byway," wends through the countryside south of Ligonier. The bends in the two-lane road mirror the twists that three families living along it have traveled in trying to replace water supplies contaminated by wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

Although the state Department of Environmental Protection has known about WPX Appalachia LLC's leaky wastewater impoundment next to its Kalp well pad for almost two years and verified well-water contamination at one of the three nearby homes more than a year ago, all of the families remain without permanent replacement water supplies, said Nick Kennedy, an attorney and community advocate for the Mountain Watershed Association.

"The DEP should be requiring the company to permanently replace the families' water with an adequate source, but it's moved slowly and without coordination," Mr. Kennedy said. "It's scary that there is this lack of oversight by the DEP."

Ralph Brown, who lives on a hill above the well pad, filed a complaint with the DEP in September 2012 stating that his 600-foot-deep well was contaminated by fracking wastewater that had leaked from the 3 million gallon impoundment.

The DEP in June 2013 determined that his well had been contaminated and a month later ordered the drilling company to permanently replace his water supply. A year later, he's still drawing water from a 2,500-gallon water tank that WPX pays $450 to fill each week.

"The Browns are definitely frustrated," said Jeffrey Mansell, a Pittsburgh attorney representing Mr. Brown in a lawsuit against WPX and its subcontractors. The suit alleges the contamination has reduced the value of the Browns' property and their ability to use and enjoy it, and is seeking damages."

According to DEP regulations, the department has 45 days from the date it does a water-quality test to make a contamination determination. If the department orders permanent water supply replacement, a company has 30 days to submit a replacement plan. After the DEP approves that plan, the company has 45 days to implement it.

DEP spokesman John Poister said the department and the company have missed those regulatory deadlines, but he added that the cases have been complicated by ongoing investigations of the impoundment leaks and groundwater contamination.

"Those investigations have not been finalized and because of that, we've had to move a little slower than we normally do," Mr. Poister said. "Our goal is to put together documents that can stand up to a challenge.

"Because this is a water-replacement situation, our orders will be scrutinized closely by the company and could be challenged. We're sympathetic in cases like these, but things are not as black and white as they appear on the surface."

The DEP did issue an order to WPX last week to replace the water for one of the three families, the Latins. It came almost seven months after the department's own testing lab concluded that the family's well water was contaminated.

The family has been using bottled water supplied by the company.

Another family, Ken and Mildred Geary, who live next door to the Latins, has well-water test results that identify similar and "parallel" chemical contaminants, Mr. Kennedy said, but the DEP ruled the results "inconclusive" in April. The department re-sampled the Gearys' water supply last week and expects to have results from that test in 30 days.

The Gearys' daughter, Dolly Coffman, said her parents, both in their 80s, started having water problems a year ago and filed an official complaint with the DEP in January.

"Their water has a foul, chemical odor to it and it's been smelly and bad like that for a year, but they didn't know what to do," said Ms. Coffman, who doesn't live at the house. "WPX delivers bottled water as part of its 'Good Neighbor' policy but they still must use the bad well water to bathe and shower and wash their clothes."

Susan Oliver, a WPX spokeswoman, said the water contamination complaints at all three homes are still under investigation.

She said company representatives will meet with the Gearys soon to review and explain test results.

She cited a "well construction issue" that interfered with testing Mr. Brown's well and said the company has begun assessing whether an adjacent well, which she said collapsed before Mr. Brown moved into his home eight years ago, can serve as a potable water supply.

"WPX is working cooperatively and openly with the DEP and the three families to evaluate their private water supplies and to reach a conclusion that provides each family with a permanent potable water source once the investigation is completed," Ms. Oliver wrote in an email.

WPX drilled its first Kalp well in November 2011 and hydraulically fractured the mile-deep underground shale formation to release the gas in May 2012.

In January, the DEP approved a drilling permit for a second well on the Kalp pad.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. Madeline R. Conway contributed.

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