Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gas drillers battle Pennsylvania pollution concerns

Jon Hurdle
HICKORY, Pennsylvania
Sun May 3, 2009 8:24pm EDT
(Reuters) - U.S. energy companies rushing to exploit Pennsylvania's massive natural gas reserves have launched a public relations campaign to calm fears the bonanza is contaminating water with toxic chemicals.

The public outcry threatens to impede exploitation of the 44-million-acre (18-million-hectare) Marcellus Shale, which geologists say might contain enough natural gas to meet U.S. demand for a decade.

People in gas-drilling areas say their well water has become discolored or foul-smelling; their pets and farm animals have died from drinking it; and their children have suffered from diarrhea and vomiting.

Bathing in well water can cause rashes and inflammation, and ponds bubble with methane that has escaped during drilling, they say.

That's the challenge facing Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Texas-based Range Resources Corp who recently told around 150 residents at the Hickory fire hall that new drilling techniques are much less damaging to the landscape than traditional ones, and that energy companies are subject to strict environmental regulations.

Other companies such as Chief Oil & Gas and Chesapeake Energy Corp have held community meetings.

Over a dinner of beef stew, baked beans and coleslaw hosted by Range, Pitzarella said the company encased its drilling shafts in layers of steel and concrete to ensure that chemicals used to help fracture the gas-bearing rock cannot escape into aquifers.

"There are zero reports of chemical contamination of groundwater," he said.

Ron Gulla, who said his land has been polluted by Range's gas drilling, was incredulous.

"I have never seen such a bunch of liars in my life," he shouted at Pitzarella, to scattered applause. "You have put me through hell."


In rural Clearville, south-central Pennsylvania, Spectra Energy Corp is drilling to establish an underground gas storage facility.

Sandra McDaniel, 63, said federal authorities forced her, though eminent domain laws, to lease about five acres (2hectares) of her 154 acres to Spectra to build a drilling pad on a wooded hilltop.

McDaniel watched from the perimeter of the installation as three pipes spewed metallic gray water into plastic-lined pits, one of which was partially covered in a gray crust. As a sulfurous smell wafted from the rig, two tanker trucks marked "residual waste" drove from the site.

"My land is gone," she said. "The government took it away, and they have destroyed it."

Back in Hickory, Pitzarella acknowledged that water quality was the "No. 1 concern" but denied there was any escape of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."