SOS Butler County: Black Water + Purple Water = A Fracking Nightmare
Kim McEvoy manages to find a spot to put a tray of cupcakes in a kitchen where every level surface is covered with jugs of water. Some of the water is drinkable: that’s the water her husband re-fills at his job, using one-gallon jugs; or the water she drew from her then-clear, good-tasting well water back in 2008, stocking up for a hurricane. But some of that water is not drinking water. Many of the jugs have brownish-grayish water in them — the water that comes from her kitchen tap, which have an “X” marked clearly on them with a black marker. Kim’s kitchen tap has been connected again to her water well since the gas drilling company, Rex Energy, took away the water buffalo (large plastic container) full of replacement water they had been providing for her family up until January 16th.
Kim’s neighbor Janet McIntyre succeeded in persuading Rex Energy to provide both her family and Kim’s family with 20 gallons per week of bottled drinking water, but even that will be cut off by February 29th, and even that required Janet to threaten, in a phone conversation with Rex Energy representative, to call her attorney. “They were none too gracious about it,” Janet said. Six neighboring families still have their water buffaloes; two other families, besides the McIntyres and McEvoys, had the clean water deliveries cut off by Rex Energy in January. One of those families is paying out of pocket for replacement water.
In Kim’s kitchen last Saturday, February 4th, I had a conversation I never expected to have with a three-year-old. Referring to the jug of brownish-gray water I’d just watched Kim fill from her tap, I asked Kim’s daughter Skylar, “What does the black X mean?” She said smartly, “Don’t drink the water!” Looking at a photo Kim McEvoy took of her own bathtub last year, showing gray and black water residue, I asked Skylar, “Do you take baths in your bathtub any more?” and she answered emphatically, “Nope!”
Kim McEvoy lives in Connoquenessing Township, Butler County, in western Pennsylvania. She and, according to a rough survey, 51 of her neighbors have had their water “go bad” — discolored; in one case foaming; in some cases smelly; and in some cases running out — since January 2011, when her water suddenly turned such a dark gray that it left black marks in the bathtub. By September, struggling to find out what was in her water and struggling to get a secure source of clean replacement water, Kim had had enough. She wrote Governor Corbett a letter to which the governor has never responded. It began,
My name is Kimberlie McEvoy, I own my home in Connoquenessing Township, Butler County, and I have black water.
Between the end of February and the beginning of March 2011 my water turned black and had a foul, smelly odor. My fiancée and I showered in the water and became sick with headaches, fatigue and painful sinuses. I’m so glad I did not
bathe my two-year-old daughter in the water.
The only thing in my environment that had changed was the drilling of two gas wells near my home, so I called the gas company, Rex Energy. They came out and retested my water well and gave me a water buffalo. The retest of my water showed arsenic, manganese, ammonia and other volatile organic compounds. Rex is now fracking the gas wells…
Right now the health and well being of my family depends on my water buffalo. When Rex Energy takes it away we will have no water. Since the fracking and flaring have begun, the air quality has deteriorated. We can’t play outside without getting a headache or a sore throat.
Now that the water buffalo is gone, the situation is much more serious. While Kim, her fiance and 3 year old daughter, Skylar, are neither drinking nor showering in their well water, their neighbors are experiencing multiple problems. Neighbors are reporting health symptoms including rashes; a severe nosebleed; vomiting; headaches; and more. Two leukemia cases have been reported.
One man died just over a week ago. According to Janet McIntyre, Kim’s neighbor, the man, Mr. Dennis Peterson, 49, had reported last September that he had “rashes all over his body,” and he was diagnosed with leukemia by December. The cause of death has not been confirmed independently as of this writing. While leukemia is associated with volatile organic chemicals, in particular benzene; and volatile organic chemicals abound in association with gas drilling — moving through air and water, while benzene also multiplies due to the sudden heavy industrialization and increase in truck traffic — it may be difficult to know whether the man’s rashes, failing health and death were directly caused by gas drilling in the area. The EPA recently found benzene in drinking water at 50 times the safe limit in Pavillion, Wyoming after fracking has been going on there for over ten years. Rex Energy has been drilling and fracking in the Connoquenessing area for over two years, and the people there appear to be completely without authoritative help from those who should be most concerned: the EPA, CDC and ATSDR.
“We are surrounded”
Janet McIntyre sent her water test results, including tests showing toluene, acetone, high methane levels, and other contaminants, including one test (which PA DEP says was a “blank,” meaning they say it was just trouble with the test tube) showing 1,3,5 trimethyl benzene, to EPA last December. The last she heard from EPA, around Christmas time, they had “received the documents but have been too busy to review them.”
Both families say that Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) has told them their water troubles are “just aesthetic,” and has assured them that the water is safe to drink. Requests for re-tests have gone unanswered, and Janet McIntyre said that one PA DEP regulator told her, “You should be grateful for the fracking because they’re injecting lots of water underground, raising the level of the aquifer.” Both Kim and Janet say they have been told point blank, “You’re the only one having any problems.”
Unfortunately, the problems now include disappearing water. While the gas industry withdraws millions of gallons of water locally for fracking, local residents including the McEvoys and a neighbor named “Denny Fair,” are finding their water is running out. Denny Fair reported his water was “gone” around last November, according to Janet McIntyre; and Kim says her water runs out after seven minutes.
Some of the reported health impacts, such as the vomiting, severe nosebleed, and rashes described by Janet and Fred McIntyre, are disturbingly consistent with known gas drilling impacts. Janet also described flaming water on at least one occasion: “We collected Denny Fair’s well water in a bucket. At that point we set it on fire. We were so amazed it had caught fire, I thought, ‘oh, I was so stupid not to have a video camera!’ ”
Janet described her own water as foaming out of the tap on two occasions, which she refers to as “attacks” because it felt their water was under attack by the gas drilling company. She said it was purple. Other residents have reported their water turning orange, red, and brown.
Janet McIntyre sent a statement to the press conference Protecting Our Waters organized in September 2011. and our summary of interviews with her up until that time describing her troubled water, including her test results and the death of the family’s dog, is here.
Five months later, when I finally met the McIntyres in person, Fred McIntyre told me, “We are surrounded by thirty gas wells.” On a ten-minute tour I saw several of those well pads spaced close together, along with a huge frack pit open to the sky.
Janet McIntyre, like many others, including Theo Colborn, had tried to describe to me in words the overpowering stench at gas drilling operations which regulators call an “odor event.” This blog reported on an “odor event” in Texas not long ago here. But when we stopped by the Grosick well pad on Woodlands Road and rolled down the car window, I was coughing to the point of retching within 60 seconds. It was not a mere “odor” or “smell” in the ordinary sense of the word — it was rather more like being overpowered, choked and nauseated. I have reported the event to the EPA and have gotten no response. But that was based on a few minutes’ exposure. The McIntyres said, “We were breathing that bad air all last summer.” So were the cows across the street from the Grosick well pad.
Kim McEvoy commented, “I can’t even stand to live here any more… my dream is dying.”
Kim’s gets the last word, from her letter to Governor Corbett — hand delivered to Governor Corbett’s Philadelphia office on September 7th:
I love Butler County but I fear I will have to foreclose on my home and leave. I just wonder how many more Pennsylvanians will have to make this same heart breaking decision. Please stop the drilling. It’s not right to allow the gas
companies to gamble with our lives.
UPDATE February 20, 2012: To take action to help the impacted families in Butler County, please send this letter to the EPA. It’s great if you can help by adding a supportive sentence of your own to the beginning of the letter to individualize it.
And, even while more bad news accumulates (a gray liquid observed spilling off a Rex Energy drilling pad site this morning while workers did not appear to observers to have contained the ongoing spill; another woman reported that foul odors from the Sarsen plant in Butler County sickened her on December 8th, from 1/4 mile away– that’s some extreme emissions for you!) there’s good news too!
Farmer Stephen Cleghorn of Jefferson County drove 3 hours round trip today to lend his own water buffalo to the McIntyre family; and I got a pledge from an environmental group to buy drinking water, for the month of March, for two of the impacted families, on an emergency basis! Step by step is the only way to build our meaningful assistance and resistance.
Thanks for all your letters to EPA and for any offers of help. For the moment, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to donate to help provide water, because I am already in touch both with the impacted families and with a wonderful network of local activists who are meeting right now to provide organized assistance. We will be accountable, transparent and public if any funds are donated. If you do want to help, please put DONATE WATER FOR BUTLER in the subject heading of your email; and we will coordinate with the bookkeeper of our 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor to make sure donations can be tracked properly and channeled to the families appropriately. We will report back. Meantime, please write EPA because really, this is their job. Thanks!