Gas drilling and drinking water

November 23, 2009 9:24:30 PM PST
Tucked into the Northeast corner of Pennsylvania is the village of Dimock. In the past year, the hamlet has grown a skyline of gas drilling rigs. They have brought jobs and landowner royalties, but at a price.

"That's my water since drilling began," said Julie Saunter, who showed as a murky cup of water.

Sautner had clean, good tasting well water before the drilling. Now, her basement looks like a science lab with ten water purification tanks and a methane gas vent in her front yard.

Sautner: "We've had dirty water for 14 months now, so it's never ever going to go away. Ever"
Hoffer: So all these tanks behind you are part of your life as long as you're here?
Saunter: Yes, yes.

She blames the nearby gas drilling for contaminating her well. The state investigated and found her "water supply had been affected by drilling" and now the company must deliver water to her.

Hoffer: Your water is trucked in here?
Sautner: Every morning they bring a hose

The same type of drilling now taking place in Dimock is headed for towns in upstate New York, including the Catskills. It's called hydraulic fracturing.

Millions of gallons of water mixed with numerous chemicals are blasted deep underground to break up the rock to release the gas. Some of the drilling could take place near the reservoirs and tunnels that provide drinking water to 9 million New Yorkers. In a recently released environmental impact study, the state finds damage due to ''hydraulic fracturing" is "not reasonably anticipated." It also sites an industry study which concludes the risk of contamination to underground aquifers is less than "1 in 50 million wells."

Sautner: " Nobody's going to buy a house with water that looks like that."

Those odds don't hold up in Dimock, where less than a mile from Julie Sautner's house lives Norma Fiorentino.

"My well exploded January 1st," she said.

Methane gas from nearby drilling caused the explosion of Fiorentino's well. Leaking gas is now vented through a stack. A plastic tank substitutes for her contaminated well.

"Everybody in my neighborhood has bad water. Everybody," she said.

Including the Carter's, who have a drilling rig right next door. Like more and more residents, they too have a methane gas vent in their yard, purification systems in their house, and still, well water that's unhealthy to drink:

Hoffer: "Did they say at any time to you, the drilling company, that this process could at some time effect your drinking water?"
Ron Carter: "Oh no. They never said that."

Film maker Josh Fox is making a documentary about the impact of hydraulic gas drilling in Dimock and other towns.

He warns that the lessons learned in Dimock should not go ignored in New York.

"Energy companies coming in where they can take their resources out, but it's up to the citizens to deal with the pollution later," Fox said.

An industry spokesman says the record shows drilling has little long-term impact and once the fracturing is finished, the workers and trucks are gone and all that remains is a well head and a clean source of energy:

Hoffer: "How do you explain the contamination in the wells in Dimock?"
John Conrad (Gas Association of New York): "If there have been incidents like that, they are the rare exception and I think in New York you'll find more precautions have been taken than in other states."

Tight oversight is the same promise made to the people of Dimock, along with the guarantee of money -- lots of money.

"People see money and that's what they want. They think that they can clean the water. You can't clean an aquifer once they dirty it. You can't clean it. There is no going back," Saunter said.

New York City has called on the state to ban gas drilling in the watershed.

The state is looking into new regulations and recently extended a public comment period until the end of the year.

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