by Nastassja Noell | 11.18.2009
Clearville, Pennsylvania used to be a healthy rural town, a paradise for hunters, fishermen, and farmers. The town is deep in Bedford County, surrounded by numerous state game lands historically rich with turkey, grouse and deer, streams thick with fish and aquatic life. The soil was black and alive, and the vegetation is thick and green in the summertime. Folks used to be able to drink straight from these creeks when they were out stalking a deer or taking a hike to pick berries.
Wayne and Angel Smith of Clearville, PA, don’t use chemicals on their farm. Their blueberry bushes, milk from their cows, and their spring water were safe and non-toxic — until the gas drilling started. Uphill from the Smiths, rumbling drill rigs ran day and night, and soon after the wells were capped, their cows started to die. So did their neighbor’s cows. Same with the cats, horses, and all their hens too. Arsenic was found in their wells in high levels, iron too, the DEP claimed it was naturally occurring but internal documents state that DEP agents could find no naturally occurring reason for the arsenic levels to “spike”. Then three gas compressor stations came in, surrounding the Smiths on three sides with more noisy, toxic industrial machinery and noxious fumes. Last August the Steckman Ridge Compressor Station blew motor oil all over the valley’s farmlands — the company warned everyone not to eat from their gardens without washing off the oily residue with soap — and then the toxic gas compound toluene showed up in water tests. And the battle extends to emminent domain, as landowners battle the federal government’s attempts to turn their property rights over to the natural gas companies that are already poisoning their lives.
Wayne and Angel worked for 13 years to create a healthy and sustainable organic farm, and now their land is being destroyed, along with all of their years of hard work. Gas drilling over the past 4 years has changed this paradise into what Angel Smith calls “a nightmare.” Now residents are having to buy water filtration systems that cost more than $10,000 so that they don’t have to drink or bathe in natural gas production contaminants. Artesian wells, streams, and ponds have recently been bubbling with a thick chemical foam, and water runs are showing a pink liquid which floats on the surface.
Schaeffer Creek, which is currently deep in a foam that looks like lemon meringue pie, is a tributary of the Juniata River watershed which feeds the drinking water supplies of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. Also downhill from drilling activities is Evitts Creek, which gives drinking water to 50,000 residents living in the city of Cumberland, Maryland. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires community water sources to be clean of harmful contaminants at a cost to local taxpayer; communities downstream will be burdened with the increased costs of new filtration technologies that still cannot remove all the harmful contaminants associated with natural gas production.
Residents first noticed that Schaeffer Creek was foaming back in early August, but by the time the DEP got to the site the foam had washed downstream; additionally, the DEP did not test the water for chemicals used in natural gas production. Today, Schaffer Creek is foaming once again, fed by the springs and a pond which recently tested positive for methyl blue active substances (MBAS), a group of substances which include fracking chemicals called surfactants. The DEP told residents that the foam is ‘just detergent from someone’s laundry,’ but this is a rural area and uphill from the springs and pond are drilling pads, not houses. The natural gas industry, including Craig Lobins who is a leading DEP oil and gas division official, repeatedly exclaim to the public that natural gas production fluids are “just soap.”
The drilling pads uphill from the foaming pond and springs may have buried some of the drilling wastes on site, as is legal by Pennsylvania state regulations when the wastes are buried 18 inches underground. Groundwater can carry contaminants downhill, and the contaminants from natural gas drilling and fracking include radioactive uranium, radium and lead along with mercury, and hazardous chemicals. These chemicals then leak into nearby aquifers.
2-Butoxylethanol (2-BE) is a foaming agent used for natural gas production and is proven to cause cancer in animals. 2-BE is a primary component of AirFoam HD, a product that has been found on drilling pads in Pennsylvania — the MSDS sheets for Air Foam HD state that is dissolves in water and that chronic exposure causes cancer. Testing for 2-BE costs over $100 per test, and the cost burden is on the landholder — the DEP has failed to test for drilling or fracking chemicals in their standard tests which are only performed when landowners report problems in their water supply, not before the problems occur. Residents who will soon have natural gas production occurring in their region or upstream from their groundwater supply must hire an independent water testing company to do a “baseline test” to show the lack of contaminants prior to the drilling. Without a baseline test, it is more difficult to convict a drilling operator for water contamination – the drilling operator can claim that there is no proof that the contaminant was not in the groundwater supply prior to the drilling.
“If you have a gas company that you can’t fight cause they went through FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] and you have a DEP gas and oil division backing the gas company up, then how can you win?” said Wayne Smith, but his wife Angel reminds us that the battle is long going and not conventional. “If you can help one more person that doesn’t have to go through what we’ve gone through, then thats worth it, thats winning to us. Most people are about the big bottom dollar, but its not the monetary dollar that important, its helping the next person thats important.”
To listen to an interview with Wayne and Angel Smith on WHRW Binghamton’s “The Point”, see the link for radio4all.net here.
For folks who are interested in other issues associated with natural gas production, please visit un-naturalgas.org