News / USA

Environmental Concerns Rise in Northeastern Pennsylvania as Natural Gas Drilling Spreads

Environmental Concerns Rise in Northeastern Pennsylvania as Natural Gas Drilling Spreads
Environmental Concerns Rise in Northeastern Pennsylvania as Natural Gas Drilling Spreads


Carolyn Weaver

Victoria Switzer and her husband, Jim, are building what they hoped would be their retirement home in the rural hamlet of Dimock, Pennsylvania, in the eastern U.S. When Cabot Oil & Gas offered a lease for the natural gas under their land a few years ago, saying that it might drill a single horizontal well nearby, they weren't worried. 

Switzer says they were told the drilling was an environmentally safe, low-impact process that would also help reduce U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels. She and her husband didn't know much about the new natural gas boom that was just then arriving in northeastern Pennsylvania, seeking to tap gas in the Marcellus Shale rock formation roughly two kilometers underground.

Victoria Switzer says she and her husband may have to abandon the home they have built in Dimock
Victoria Switzer says she and her husband may have to abandon the home they have built in Dimock

"In a short time, we realized that we were going to have 27 wells within a short walk from the house," Switzer said in an interview. "And as of today, we have 63, with indications that will double in the next two years." She said that the industrial nature of gas drilling, with heavy truck traffic and noise, and occasional wastewater and chemical spills, has transformed their peaceful country life. And now, she says, they are afraid to drink their water – or to let children and animals play in the creek.

The Switzers are among a group of 15 families around Carter Road in Dimock who sued Cabot in November. They allege that the company's drilling polluted their water with chemicals, metals and methane, the main constituent of natural gas, causing explosions as well as gastrointestinal and neurological illness.
"The smell and rotten taste, you couldn't take a shower in it because the smell stayed on your skin, you couldn't wash clothes in it," said Ron Carter, who lives with his wife, Jean, about 150 meters from a drilling operation.

Patricia Farnelli with two of her children
Patricia Farnelli with two of her children

Patricia Farnelli said her five children were sick for months, until the family stopped using tap water for drinking or cooking.

"They're fine all day at school, they come home, they get a drink of water, and that's when they got sick," she said. "They would have very, very severe stomach cramps, and double over, and throw up or have diarrhea."

Monica Marta worried about her water when a relative showed her that her tap water could be ignited. "The flame from the jug of water was this high," she said, indicating about half a meter, "and that's what my kids and our family have been drinking."

Several said they first realized something was seriously wrong when Norma Fiorentino's water well blew up on New Year's Day 2009, throwing cement slabs into the air. State investigators found Cabot's drilling had caused gas to migrate into her well. Fiorentino, a widow in her 60s, began buying water or getting it at a natural spring 10 kilometers away.

Other families had similar scares. Sheila Ely was in her bathroom getting ready for church one morning last year.

"The pipes started rattling, and it sounded like they were going to come through the wall," she said. She called emergency numbers at the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection. "DEP told us to get out of the house immediately. They said the house could explode."

Ron and Jean Carter said their well was so full of gas at one point that they were warned to open windows before turning on a faucet. Like most of the other families who sued, they are now receiving drinking water deliveries from Cabot, as ordered by the state.

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydro fracking, as it's also called, shoots thousands of cubic meters of fresh water, mixed with sand and a proprietary blend of more than 200 chemicals, deep underground, first vertically, and then horizontally. The fluid is injected at such high pressure that it cracks open pores in gas-containing shale, freeing small pockets of gas.

Even some Dimock residents who didn't own land or sign leases have been affected by the drilling. Landowners also had little choice, since land ownership often doesn't cover the resources below. Ron Carter said he and his wife were reluctant to sign until Cabot representatives explained that not doing so would mean only that they would be paid a lesser royalty.

"They told us that all of our neighbors had signed and if we didn't, they would go under our land and take the gas anyway," Carter said.

Cabot Gas & Oil’s offices in Dimock, Pennsylvania
Cabot Gas & Oil’s offices in Dimock, Pennsylvania

Cabot Oil & Gas declined requests for interviews. But in a statement responding to the lawsuit, Cabot said it saw no merit in the claims. Industry representatives defend hydro fracking as safe, and contend that methane contamination is a coincidence, since it can also occur naturally.  They say the drilling takes place too far underground to contaminate aquifers. The Dimock plaintiffs respond that there were no problems with their water until the drilling began. According to the DEP, four people have been killed and three injured by explosions caused by migrating gas in the last decade in Pennsylvania. 

Director Josh Fox has documented the environmental effects of new drilling methods, including flammable tap water, across 24 states in his new film "Gasland." He says reports of water contamination occur wherever there is hydro fracking, perhaps because the process uses such great pressure.

"That pressure's got to go somewhere. It might be going back up the well bore," he said, "contaminating the aquifer in that way, since they drill down through the aquifers. Or it could be causing fractures in the earth that go all the way to the surface. It could be hitting natural fractures that already exist."
Fox notes that toxic gases like benzene, toluene and hexane also accompany natural gas extraction. But water is the first priority for the Carter Road plaintiffs. Without drinking water, Victoria Switzer says, the house she hoped her grandchildren would visit won't be livable -- or saleable.  "How would you advertise it?" she asks. "'Beautiful house in the country. Bring your own water.'"
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Cabot last year for chemical and fuel spills and wastewater discharges. It ordered the company to provide a permanent water solution for families whose wells are polluted. Cabot must also repair defective construction on its gas wells by the end of March or shut them down.

You May Like

US Companies Pledge Action on Climate Change

Goals include reducing emissions by as much as 50 percent, reducing water usage by 80 percent, and buying 100 percent renewable energy

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

UNICEF: Hidden Epidemic of HIV Among Adolescents

Researchers warn that Asia Pacific nations facing sharp rise in incidence of HIV among adolescents

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs