A strange smell wafted across the room as well water began to flow through the hose in Bill Yoders’ garage. The smell wasn’t quite sulfur, and it didn’t smell like gas. But it sure wasn’t plain water either.
“That smell was never there before,” he said, adding that the water’s yellow tint was new, too.
Since June 19, Yoders said, his two dogs have refused to drink the water. He’s still using the water to shower. “It kind of leaves an oily film on you,” he said.
His wife, Tammy, said their 23-year-old son, Loran, broke out in hives after he took a shower at home on that June day. ”He was pure blood red, hives from head to toe,” she said.
For a month, the Yoders family and other households in the Greene County hamlet of New Freeport have been living with deep concerns about their water supply. On June 19, some residents became aware, through word of mouth or a township supervisor’s Facebook post, that Pittsburgh-based EQT Corporation had reported a “frack out” at a nearby well drilling site.
A frack out — sometimes spelled “frac out” — occurs when fluid pumped into a well to fracture shale formations and release gas instead enters an abandoned well. EQT, in a statement provided to PublicSource, indicated that “water was brought to the surface near an abandoned well” and that it had stopped drilling operations at its well a mile away “out of an abundance of caution.”
Residents, meanwhile, are yearning for clarity on the quality of their water.
Both the state Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] and Moody and Associates, a subcontractor for EQT, sent representatives to gather water samples for testing. Most residents said they have not yet received test results as of early this week.
Independently, Duquesne University microbiology Professor John Stolz went to New Freeport to test the water. Preliminary data and on-site measurements from three private wells, he told PublicSource, were enough for him to conclude: “This water is not potable.”
“Folks have to be provided alternative sources of drinking water,” Stolz said
PublicSource visited New Freeport to document a day in the lives of the residents who live alongside EQT’s drilling operations, and who have endured uncertainty about their water for a month.
The Yoders said EQT dropped off three cases and five jugs of water to the house after Bill called the corporation. That water is long gone now, they said. “A couple cases of water don’t mean anything,” he said.
“The water was good. We used it every day,” said Mark Gaines, who lives along a sparsely populated street near the site of the frack out. He said his dog and cat — like the Yoders’ dogs — won’t drink the water.
Two tomato plants wilted after he used well water from his hose to water them. The “tomatoes was doing real good,” he said, “and they just started withering away.” A third tomato plant stuck out of a barrel in his backyard. That one he didn’t water, he said, and it’s going strong.
Neighbors “say not to shower, but you got to shower,” said Gaines, who also noted that the water leaves an “oily feeling” on his skin.
He looked over water quality test results from Moody and Associates, the Washington, Pa.-based company contracted by EQT for water testing.
“I sure don’t understand it,” he said, gesturing in frustration at the packet of elemental acronyms, percentages and milligram-per-liter compounds. The packet included a web address that might help him to interpret some of the figures, but Gaines doesn’t have a computer. “I don’t know how to use one,” he said. “Most people here can’t afford one.”
“I want my water fixed,” he said. “I want clean water to use.”
Ten residents interviewed by PublicSource said they were not contacted by EQT or notified about the frack out. They said a June 19 Facebook post by the township supervisor — rather than any outreach from EQT — was the only form of public notification about the frack out that they were aware of.
In response to questions from PublicSource, an EQT spokesperson wrote that the company, along with the DEP, “is investigating whether there is any relationship between this incident and EQT’s completions operations at its Lumber pad site, which is more than a mile from the abandoned well.”
The statement added that water sampling showed “no other areas of concern at this time,” and that sampling and surveying continued. The company is “working closely with residents to address concerns” and to “help keep them informed,” the statement continued.
Residents, though, expressed frustration and anger that they hadn’t heard more from EQT.
“EQT is at fault for not speaking up and telling us,” said Gaines. “At least acknowledge it. At least say you care about me.”
Checking for methane
About three weeks ago, up a dirt road toward the EQT Lumber pad, Elizabeth Pebley noticed a strange odor in her bathroom, and later in her sink. “Every time I get in the shower, I smell it,” she said.
When a DEP representative came to conduct tests on July 7, Pebley said the department representative agreed that the water had an odor and found methane in the water, though she is still waiting for full test results. The DEP found methane in her basement, with the highest reading near a crack in the foundation, according to a notice provided to her by the agency.
Pebley said the DEP representative told her that the methane is coming up from the ground, and recommended to her landlord that she install a detector. Pebley believes that the methane in her house is a result of the June 19 frack out, though she has had methane leaks elsewhere on her property in the past.
Pebley’s landlord ordered her a handheld methane detector, and now she uses it nearly every day to take measurements in and around her home.
A DEP spokesperson wrote in response to questions from PublicSource that the agency learned of water quality concerns in New Freeport on June 20, and that fracking at the location was suspended two days later. DEP has cited the company for failing to immediately notify the agency of the incident, and for continuing fracking at an adjacent well following the incident. The spokesperson said the agency’s investigation is still in “early stages,” limiting what it can disclose.
Steve Roberts said he first heard of the frack out nearly a month after it occurred, when a PublicSource reporter knocked on his door.
The retired coal miner said inspectors — he’s not sure of their affiliations — came by recently to check his basement for methane, and the next day to check the water. But he said nobody mentioned anything about the frack out or its implications that so worried his neighbors.
His son, Steve Roberts, Jr., lives several houses away and heard about the frack out from a friend but said that when Moody and Associates came to gather samples of his water they did not mention the incident.
“Used to be, before they built the pipeline, you could walk five miles in any direction and never leave the forest,” said New Freeport resident Tom Bussoletti.
A local stonemason, outdoorsman and forager, Bussoletti handbuilt the home he and his wife have lived in since the early 1980s, which rests less than a mile from EQT’s Lumber pad.
“The pipeline ran through one of my favorite spots to pick chanterelles,” he said.
“We feel invaded and occupied,” he said after noting a laundry list of complaints he and his neighbors have against the corporation. They include EQT’s use of a shared private drive, smells of diesel and concerns that the corporation and its subcontractors park loaded trucks above the high pressure propane lines at the edge of his property, raising concerns of a line break.
The big question now, he said, surrounds old gas wells like the ones in and around New Freeport that make the area susceptible to a frack out.
“I’m in the woods a lot so I know where a lot of the abandoned wells are,” he said. “This area is honeycombed with historic abandoned gas wells.”
After the incident in New Freeport, Bussoletti said he went to check on an abandoned well near his house.
“It’s just percolating like a coffee pot,” he said. “It wasn’t doing that before. My concern is that it’s methane. And that’s why I called DEP, and I’m trying to get them to come and look.”
He said he has yet to receive a call back from the DEP.
“Who knows how many wells have been infiltrated?” he said. “To me, to my mind, this just makes it a very bad place to do hydraulic fracturing.”
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter and instagram @quinnglabicki.
This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.
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