Fouled Waters: Woodlands trying to solve its own problems

Water tests by state, U.S. agencies, driller provide no answers

CONNOQUENESSING TOWNSHIP -- With each passing week, more and more residents in the Woodlands start to live in a waterless world.

The backwoods neighborhood of 200 homes and trailers about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh has exhausted nearly every option for official help since private well water began running orange or drying up altogether in early 2011.

In just the past four months, the number of homes collecting gallon jugs of donated fresh water has more than doubled to 25. The community set up a water bank at a local church to accommodate the growing demand -- the latest step in a two-year saga that started when neighbors called each other with the same complaint: The well water was getting very bad, very fast.

Living without water

Thirty miles from Pittsburgh, in an enclave near Evans City, a number of families are living without clean, running water. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 8/19/2012)

The community is still left with few answers.

Water test results from state and federal agencies -- and from a major gas driller operating nearby -- all showed little difference in pre- and post-drilling samples. The results absolved the driller, Rex Energy, of paying for water "buffaloes" that were providing fresh water to affected homes.

With no official channel for support, and with no well water regulations to fall back on, the community continues to take matters into its own hands. The residents' latest search for answers is being led by John Stolz, a Duquesne University professor trying to track water changes over time and map how accelerated drilling operations might affect aquifers deep underground across several Pennsylvania communities.

Mr. Stolz surveyed 122 households in the Woodlands, 59 of which reported problems with their water pertaining to appearance, taste or scarcity. Some complained of a rotten egg stench every time they took a shower, while others couldn't run their faucet for more than 30 seconds at a time.

Mr. Stolz hasn't published his findings yet, but he shared some details with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The majority of water samples show elevated sulfate, elevated iron and often elevated manganese in Woodlands water. Those elements are often associated with legacy mining operations or mine drainage.

Many samples show elevated chlorides, bromides and fluorides, he said, which could signal brine contamination associated with shale or coalbed methane operations.

"We're finding a multitude of problems, but the common theme is essentially the water table for the community has changed," he said.

"Something is pushing the water around."

Research results coming

Mr. Stolz's research is funded through a Colcom Foundation and Heinz Endowment grant financing a survey of well water quality in communities with unconventional drilling operations in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. The researchers are creating a map that plots well water data with traditional mining maps and current drilling operations.

Rex Energy has ramped up drilling in Butler County, telling investors it plans to spend almost half of its 2013 capital budget there next year. The $100 million to $105 million intended for Butler County development will drill 19 wells and frack 22.

In just the past year, Rex Energy has drilled at least 16 wells in the area, including four wells that were "super fracked" to allow for greater access to the lucrative natural gas liquids buried thousands of feet under rural Butler County.

Mr. Stolz's research is also tracking drilling operations as they continue in the region, and his report will be the first look at month-to-month changes in the Woodlands water.

The Woodlands is only the beginning of research that Mr. Stolz sees as vital as drilling expands.

"There are a lot of people out there who are being provided water buffaloes and they're reluctant to step forward," he said. "It's going on not just in Pennsylvania but in over 30 states, and they want to expand it to New York."

He's sent results to 10 homes so far, with plans to host a community meeting for Woodlands residents to go over the tests. Full results will be submitted to scholarly journals in the next couple months.

Checking the wells

It's unlikely the results could carry any official weight, since test results sent to homeowners in 2011 from the Department of Environmental Protection and Rex Energy found little difference in pre- and post-drilling samples.

At the request of two Woodlands homeowners, the Environmental Protection Agency examined data from Rex and DEP samples and reached similar conclusions.

"Our review indicates that most of the chemicals detected in the samples from the private drinking water wells in your area could be naturally occurring and/or typical of background levels," the agency wrote in an August 2012 letter. Those elements include iron, manganese and sodium, and the concentration of inorganic chemicals was unchanged.

In each of those testings, Rex Energy said it helped investigators by "providing access to records, sharing files and data, and otherwise giving its complete cooperation and support to the effort," said Derek Smith, senior director of health, safety and environment, in an email.

"In each case, the scientific analysis concluded that neither Rex Energy's operations nor natural gas development impacted water quality, with the EPA citing no scientific difference in pre-drill and post-complaint water samples."

There are many variables that complicate trying to diagnose what's causing the water to change color or, in some cases, cause rashes and vomiting.

Many in the Connoquenessing Township neighborhood use private water wells that are different in construction, depth and maintenance. Private water wells aren't regulated in Pennsylvania, and when a Public Utility Commission inspector started looking into the Woodlands case a few months ago, he had to back off upon realizing his organization didn't have the jurisdiction over such wells.

Mr. Stolz conducted preliminary tests analyzing how the underground water tables feeding those wells might differ in direction and slant from surface topography, which would offer clues into how above-ground activity could set off chain reactions deep below the surface.

He recently rented a camera and lowered it down a new water well.

The initial footage seems to show the aquifer flowing from the northwest to the southeast, which would be a different direction than the surface topography that lies above it, he said.

To really study the complexity of groundwater flow, he'd have to ask surrounding households to stop using water for 48 hours -- a tough proposition when water is already scarce in many homes.

'Come live with this'

On the most recent testing trip, two Duquesne University master's students followed Janet McIntyre as she navigated the Woodlands' dirt roads from house to house. Ms. McIntyre has taken the lead in the community, coordinating the water distribution and testing since problems started in early 2011.

The Duquesne students, both working in Mr. Stolz's lab, collected samples from kitchen faucets and backyard hoses to take back to their lab. The close-knit community still surprises the students here on research.

"Janet pushes the door open and walks in, and I want to say, 'Are they even home?' " said Shyama Alawattegama, one of the students making monthly trips.

Ms. Alawattegama and her partner collected water from the home of Dennis Higgins. Mr. Higgins, 41, has water that runs brownish-orange and smells bad enough for the fumes to carry when the Duquesne students let it run from his backyard faucet.

Mr. Higgins, who shares a backyard with his in-laws and a ranch with his family, carries water inside from his above-ground pool to flush the toilet. When he recently married his wife in a backyard ceremony, guests used rented port-a-potties set up in the grass.

"That's what I live with," he said, looking at the orange water sample and sounding off on local government officials he sees as sitting idly by. "Tell them to come live with this."

Water distribution in the Woodlands initially started as a weekly drive, with volunteers loading jugs into pickup trucks and driving from house to house.

As the number of families needing clean water increased, the drive became impractical.

All water is now stored at a water bank at the White Oaks Springs Presbyterian Church, where residents can pick up their water.

The water bank hands out more than 400 gallons of water to Woodlands residents every week at a cost of about $800 per month.

Donations totaling more than $13,000 have poured in since the Post-Gazette published a story on the Woodlands on Aug. 19, with some checks coming from Washington County and Ithaca, N.Y. One anonymous donor sent a check for $3,000 -- enough to fill water buffaloes at three homes for almost five full months.

A woman showed up at the water bank for the first time last week after she started to make coffee that morning and the water ran cloudy. With each new water recipient, said Mrs. McIntyre, the radius of those affected grows wider.

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Erich Schwartzel: or 412-263-1455. First Published December 30, 2012 5:00 AM


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