Black Water and Brazenness: Gas Drilling Disrupts Lives, Endangers Health in Bradford County, PA
Black Water and Brazenness: Life in Shale Country is the first article in a series, “Bradford Blues: Gas Drilling Disrupts Lives, Endangers Health in Bradford County, PA,” based on interviews with residents in 2011.
In the streaming gold-green light of June, Bradford County’s rolling hills fill the soul with a sense of sweetness. But the beauty of a chestnut horse glowing against a green field on the high side of one road is marred by the huge fracking pit down a low hill on the other side.
Fracking pits are multi-million gallon earthen impoundments, lined with easily punctured plastic sheets, often filled with “flowback,” gas drilling waste with numerous toxic fracking chemicals. Flowback also includes dangerous materials which are harmless deep down in the shale but are brought up by drilling and fracking processes. These contaminants include arsenic, barium, and the intensely radioactive radium 226, which causes lung and bone cancer and has a half-life of 1,600 years.
Fracking Fumes, Bad Water, and Namelessness
Local people such as Monika Osborn worry about the proximity of gas drilling operations to schools, waterways, and to their own homes. ”I’m surrounded by 28 gas wells,” Osborn said last weekend, referring to them as “monsters.” She said she was “nearly suffocated” by a wave of fumes coming from a drilling operation last week. Osborn, who has refused to sign a lease, mentions quietly that she is losing her hair, but hasn’t reported this to any authorities. Mistrust of the industry, of the PA Deparment of Environmental Protection (DEP), and of everyone in government who is supposed to be looking out for people’s health and well-being, runs rampant in Bradford County, as I found out early.
Bradford County first came to my attention when a man I’d never met before attended an organizing meeting in Philadelphia about shale gas drilling in 2009. ”You should come to Bradford County,” he said. ”There’s a frack pit there that stinks so bad, you can smell it a mile away. It’s full of toxic fumes. It’s huge.” But when I asked him for more details, including his name, he just said, “Funny things happen in Bradford County.” He remains among the nameless.
As this post goes to press, one Granville Summit (Bradford County) woman asked me to remove her name from the story. Her family’s water has been bad since November 2008, when Talisman began drilling a well half a mile away. When her water first turned black overnight, Talisman told her, “that’s because we’re fracking,” when she asked them why. Subsequent tests showed her water to be high in methane: over 67 mg/l.
Talisman dug her another water well, then another, only to find the water in each successive water well contaminated. Her family had lived in their home for four years before Marcellus Shale drilling started, with never a problem with their water. The woman has experienced rashes and dizziness, according to Rebecca Roter of nearby Susquehanna County, who spoke with her recently. Roter added, “The rashes she described were exactly what the Sautner family, of Dimock, PA, described when their water was contaminated.”
But as often happens in shale country — sometimes because of litigation issues; sometimes out of fear of being shunned for going public with water contamination and/or medical issues; and often because a drilling company demands a non-disclosure agreement be signed in exchange for replacement water — the woman has joined the ranks of the suddenly nameless.
Serious Symptoms, Sleepless Nights
In May 2011 I traveled to Towanda to interview Crystal Stroud, the fourth person in a twenty mile radius (after Carl and Judy Stiles, and Alexis Butler, of Sugar Run) to experience high blood barium levels, high levels of barium in her water, and symptoms consistent with barium poisoning after gas drilling began nearby. Last week I spent four days in Bradford County interviewing people whose water is contaminated, with a focus on health impacts.
A resident told Protecting Our Waters months ago that the water delivery companies, subcontracted by Chesapeake Energy and other gas drilling companies, were already delivering replacement drinking water to 60 families in Bradford County. We’ve now directly documented seventeen impacted families, many with children – some of whom have had bad water since February without replacement water being supplied by gas drilling companies or by PA DEP.
Reported health symptoms range from rashes to numbness, tingling, and chemical burn sensations, escalating to more severe symptoms including racing heart and muscle tremors. Carl Stiles has intestinal cancer which he blames on Chesapeake’s gas drilling. He and his wife abandoned their home last November at the urging of a toxicologist who found barium, arsenic, and VOCs (volatile organic chemicals) in Carl’s blood. Strontium, uranium and radium were found in their water. Carl said they’ve been told to expect to get leukemia within two years. The Stiles’ story will be reported in greater depth later in this series.
Among impacted people, the psychological symptoms are also severe: high levels of anxiety and a combination of anger, powerlessness, and isolation are observable among impacted people. Sleepless nights abound.
Gray Water, Red Rashes, Flaming Faucets
“Mom, you’ve got to see my water. It’s gray.” Bonnie Simons heard her daughter Jodie’s strained voice say over the phone this past February. The day before, Bonnie says, she was helping her daughter clean and paused to make tea, then noticed something wrong. Bonnie recalls saying, “Jodie, the water tastes funky,” but then didn’t think more about it. But later the same day, “we both noticed the water tasted strange.”
Sleepless that night, Jodie arose in the wee small hours, made a pot of coffee in the dark, and shared that pot of coffee with her husband, Jason. Bonnie reports, “’Tween her and Jason, they drank a pot of coffee out of that.” It was only in the morning light that they noticed the water was dark gray. Bonnie went over for a look and noticed the contrasting color in the toilet bowl: “The bowl was white, the water was gray.”
Jodie began coming over to her mother’s place to fill jugs for the family to drink: her son, the baby; her daughter, ten years old; a couple horses, two outside dogs, two inside dogs, herself and Jason. Test results showed a high level of methane in the water, and they were told not to drink the water. But no one supplied them with safe water for months, and they were still using their tap water to bathe and do dishes, having no other option. Soon the baby had a rash which wouldn’t go away. Rashes have been reported in association with water contaminated after shale gas drilling operations in many states.
“She quit giving the baby a bath in that water finally. When she quit, the rash cleared up,” Bonnie said.
In nearby Dimock (Susquehanna County), Pat Farnelli never received replacement water, so her family is still showering in contaminated water. She said her teenagers have “red skin rashes on their bodies after showering; the redness eventually fades but the bumps stay. It doesn’t itch, but it burns.” She said her teenagers are “embarrassed to wear T-shirts or tank tops because of the bumps all over from the rash.”
Bonnie said Jodie’s family “had no water til three weeks ago, when Chief [Chief Oil and Gas] gave them some five gallon jugs.”
Not only is their funky-tasting water discolored and full of methane. The kitchen tap’s become a flame-thrower. When a reporter drew water from their kitchen sink last week, “the flames were two feet high,” Bonnie said.
The family now has a methane detector inside the house with an explosivity alarm. “But what if there’s a fire? How are you going to put out a fire with water that’s all methane?” Bonnie’s jaw set with anger and determination.
As this post goes to press, Chief has still not delivered a water buffalo to Jodie and Jason. Water buffaloes are the 200-gallon white plastic cylinders full of blue-tinted, chlorinated water sprouting up like so many tumors along country roads in Bradford County – and elsewhere in Pennsylvania’s shale country, from Susquehanna County in the northeast to Washington County in the southwest. Bonnie had expected Chief to deliver one to the family three days ago.
When I called DEP to ask why this family has no replacement water, DEP spokesman John Repetz said the matter was under investigation, and that he cannot comment “without knowing the specifics.” But Repetz did say, “It’s my understanding that Chief offered Jodie’s family a water buffalo and the family turned it down.”
Waiting for Water
Turns out there’s a twist. Bonnie Simons said Chief did offer Jodie’s family a water buffalo – along with a document, to “release them from any responsibility for contaminating their water.” Jodie Simons refused to sign the document, so she and her family still don’t have a replacement water supply from Chief.
Charlie, Jodie’s dad, confirmed over the phone yesterday, “It’s been four months since her water went bad and she’s been coming over here, getting water for the horses, she takes showers here….Jodie’s water was all right til they drilled up behind there, that’s the problem,” he said. “Chief tried to blame it on Tennessee Gas, which is putting in a pipeline there, but it was when they [Chief] drilled up there that started it all.”
Monika Osborn, Bonnie’s neighbor, has a copy of the document Chief tried to get Jodie Simons to sign in exchange for safe water. “The gist of it is Chief will not deliver temporary water unless the family signs a document saying Chief is not responsible.” Osborn said the Simons family “passed those copies around like donuts, they were so angry about it.”
“The brazenness, the lies, the immorality of it knocks you off your feet, to take away people’s water and not replace it,” said Osborn.
Jodie and Jason’s family can’t shower safely at home or provide the animals drinking water from their own well. As a recent study by researchers at Duke University pointed out, the health consequences of human exposure to high levels of methane through ingestion and skin contact has yet to be studied.
Black water, gray water, fizzy water, flaming water…. What the frack is going on when people don’t have clean, safe water in Pennsylvania in the year 2011?