The professionally printed sign bearing the banner message "SAFE TO DRINK" and affixed to a drinking fountain in the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Midway Service Plaza looked official at first glance, even if it seemed to state the obvious.
But something didn't look quite right to Tonya Markiewicz, who stopped in for a drink June 8 while on a trip to Philadelphia and New York City, and it had nothing to do with the stream of cold water arching from the fountain.
The message of the sign, which bore what purported to be a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection logo in the upper left hand corner and has since been discovered in several other turnpike service plazas, was coyly equivocal. It read: "This water is most likely safe. If you have any concerns about contamination due to hydraulic fracturing, expose water to flame."
That procedure -- unsafe at best and potentially fatal at worst if the water contained ignitable concentrations of methane -- was depicted in a graphic that shows a hand holding a lit match under a water faucet.
That raised a big red flag for Ms. Markiewicz.
"I didn't want to try to drink the water after seeing that sign," said Ms. Markiewicz, a Braddock resident, who took a photograph of it. "After reading closely it occurred to me it was posted as part of an activist project, but it was so well done. It gets right at you when you're about to consume the water."
At the bottom of the sign, posted by an as yet unknown activist prankster, was a list of symptoms from drinking contaminated water, including "headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hair loss, itchy skin and kidney failure," and a DEP phone number to call for more information.
Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman, confirmed that the not-so-subtly subversive sign was not posted by the department. He noted that its appearance at the Midway Service Plaza near Harrisburg roughly coincided with the June 7 rally in Harrisburg by hundreds of people protesting Marcellus Shale gas well drilling and development.
"That's not from DEP," Mr. Sunday said last week, noting that the "E" in the DEP logo on the sign was different from the DEP's real logo.
Bill Capone, a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman, said last week that after inquiries by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the bogus DEP signs were found on water fountains in "most of the service plazas west of Harrisburg." He said they were probably up on the drinking fountains for almost two weeks and viewed by hundreds of turnpike travelers and service plaza attendants who didn't raise questions about its message, which he termed, "odd, curious and somewhat alarming."
"We found them in Somerset and New Stanton and others, and we are having them removed," he said.
He said not only do the signs appear official but the contact number for more information is a working DEP phone line that belonged to Katy Gresh, the department's spokeswoman in its Southwest District office in Pittsburgh before her promotion to head the DEP's Harrisburg media office in March.
The signs' water contamination test, using a lighted flame, is a reference to problems caused by faulty well casing and drilling operations at Marcellus Shale gas wells in Dimock, Susquehanna County, that allowed high concentrations of methane gas from shallower formations to contaminate well water at several homes.
Also, a homeowner in Colorado was able to ignite his tap water, a dramatically explosive scene shown in the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary film "Gasland" by Josh Fox, who, coincidentally, spoke at the anti-drilling rally.
Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action, one of the environmental organizations that helped organize the rally, said last week that he hadn't seen the prank signs and doesn't endorse them, but thought them "an amusing way to raise some public awareness."
"Of course it's not a good idea to give the public misleading information on water quality and we would want any signs to be clearly factual," he said. "And as far as I know, any of the activists I've been in touch with, no one is taking credit for it."
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 28, 2011) In the documentary movie "Gasland," a homeowner is shown lighting tap water contaminated with methane. That occurred in Colorado. A story Monday about a bogus sign, purported to be from the state Department of Environmental Protection, that showed up recently at Pennsylvania Turnpike service plazas gave an incorrect location for the tap water incident.
This version corrects the location shown in the movie "Gasland." Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.