Fracking Fears Surface in Pennsylvania’s Lenox Township

When hydraulic fracturing came to Lenox Township, Pennsylvania in 2008, it came with the promise of an economic boom. Cash-strapped farmers and others in the economically depressed area eagerly leased their mineral rights to gas drillers for more than $2,100 per acre and a promise of 18 percent of the royalties from any natural gas found. But now some in the township are asking if the promised prosperity was worth the cost.

Susquehanna County, where Lenox Township is situated in the Appalachian Mountains, is often referred to as the “Endless Mountains.” It lies atop the Marcellus shale, a formation rich in natural gas that sits beneath parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Maryland. Since the gas drilling boom hit Susquehanna County, drilling rigs have become a familiar site around Lenox Township and other parts of the county.

The state of Pennsylvania, hungry for the revenue and jobs promised by fracking, has welcomed the drillers, too. Unfortunately, the state’s current oil and gas regulations were written for shallow wells, not the deep wells and millions of gallons of fracking fluid employed in Marcellus drilling. Pennsylvania officials are now working to improve those regulations, but the drilling industry – which claims to be in favor of better oversight – is deeply involved in the overhaul.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. The chemicals that make up that fracking fluid are cause for concern. They may include, among other things, barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high.

Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so drillers don’t have to disclose what is contained in their fracking fluids. Drillers got the regulatory exemption by convincing Congress that fracking fluids are ultimately removed from the shale formations into which they are pumped. But recent evidence suggest otherwise. A ProPublica investigation recently purported that “as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale.” Likewise, the water treatment company ProChem Tech reported that “generally 10 to 20% is recovered.”

Hydraulic fracturing has been blamed for contaminating water in several places around the country. Now it looks like Lenox Township may join that list. According to Peter Cambs, a lawyer with the national law firm of P<"http://www.yourlawyer.com/">arker Waichman Alonso LLP, several Lenox residents have contacted his firm about tainted water.

“We are working with 10 clients so far, and we expect to be retained by more people in Lenox Township,” Cambs said. “All of these people have experienced problems with water since the drilling started.”

According to Cambs, those problems include discolored water. Worse, test of some residents’ wells have turned up high levels of strontium and barium in water. It is Cambs’ belief that fracking fluid from nearby drilling operations has fouled water wells in Lenox.

Parker Waichman Alonso LLP continues to assess health problems caused by the tainted water. According to Cambs, the firm knows of one child who suffers from a seizure disorder believed to be associated with the contamination.

The problems described by Cambs have a disturbing similarity to those experienced by people in Dimock, another Susquehanna County town that has been devastated by fracking. There, problems with the cement casing on 20 wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas have caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. Levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps.

In October 2009, state regulators finally acknowledged that a major contamination of the aquifer had occurred. In addition to methane, dangerously high levels of iron and aluminum were found in some wells. Fifteen Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing Cabot.

The tainted aquifer is only the worst of many indignities Dimock has suffered because of fracking. A truck turned over and caused an 800-gallon diesel-fuel spill in April 2009. A month later, up to 8,000 gallons fracking fluid leaked from faulty supply pipes, with some seeping into wetlands and a stream, killing fish. Over a six-month period Cabot was fined $360,000 by the state for contaminating Dimock’s groundwater and failing to fix the leaks that caused the problem. It was also ordered to suspend drilling in Dimock until the situation was resolved.

So far, it’s too early to say if the reports of problems in Lenox are in any way comparable to what has happened in Dimock. For now, Cambs and his firm are urging any Lenox residents who’ve experienced water problems to arrange for independent lab testing of their wells.

“I wouldn’t depend on the drillers, or state regulators for that matter, to tell people if their water is safe,” Cambs said. “It’s too important to leave to any entity that can’t be trusted to be completely objective.”

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