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Produce buyers question safety of drilling at farm market

| Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011

Trax Farms is known in the South Hills for its family-owned farm market, strawberry festivals and harvest season hayrides. Now it's known for something industrial, too: Marcellus shale drilling.

A drill rig, tanker trucks and gas flare have worked for months since spring along Route 88. Chesapeake Energy Corp. drilled into what was a corn and strawberry field directly across from the white-and-red farm store in Union, just south of the border between Allegheny and Washington counties.

Some people worry that means the place isn't the bastion of family farming they thought. But using all the land is part of farm life in Pennsylvania, company president Bob Trax said. Like its festivals, landscape supply store and deli, the gas well is another way to help Trax diversify and stay competitive, he said.

"We're doing everything we can to stay in business like anybody else," Trax said. "It's not easy."

Customers reacted to the gas well in a way they never did to the pumpkin patch: with complaints. The store received about 30 letters from concerned shoppers and drilling opponents, said Courtney Robinson, its advertising and marketing manager. Some people posted threats of boycotts on Facebook and Google.

"I'll never go back. I'm very disappointed," said Jodi Borello, 34, of South Franklin. She held children's birthday parties there and picked pumpkins at least once every fall, she said. "I thought they were about families and healthy foods, and this is not a healthy choice they've made for customers."

The nearly 150-year-old farm company opened a store at its site in the middle of the 20th century. Trax holds 327 acres and leases another 50 to 100 acres to grow sweet corn, pumpkins, apples and peaches, among other crops it sells.

Trax explored drilling in 2004 and two years later signed a lease he thought would be for shallow gas wells. It wasn't one of the big-money leases that have become common with deep-shale drilling booming across Pennsylvania, but it provides heating gas for the company and a little money, Trax said.

Complaints died down and business is up this summer, Trax said, though he declined to give figures about the gas lease agreement, the store's customers or revenue.

Robinson responded to the complaints with letters about how the company agreed to drilling leases before widespread reports of potential environmental problems from shale drilling.

Trax believes the drillers operate safely, and he leased mineral rights at his home. Seven of the 11 family members with ownership stakes in the farm live on its property, spanning Union and Peters.

"We would never do anything that would jeopardize that or the business," he said.

The farm relies heavily on natural springs and wells for water, Trax said. Chesapeake conducted environmental tests on the water table to ensure its good condition, he said.

Well water contamination can be problematic in shale drilling, which uses a technique called hydraulic fracturing more than a mile underground. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Duke University researchers reported water wells near fracking operations in Bradford and Susquehanna counties contained high levels of methane.

Industry officials and the state Department of Environmental Protection secretary criticized that research, noting the authors have supported gas industry competitors and limited their study to an area known for contaminated water wells. Pennsylvania strengthened its environmental standards last year to try to stop gas well leaks because of water problems near drill sites.

"We take extreme precaution with all operations, regardless of location," Stacey Brodak, Chesapeake's director of corporate development, wrote in an e-mail. "Our environmental and safety best management practices are designed to protect the environment, the surrounding community and our employees."

Chesapeake holds the record for the largest fine Pennsylvania imposed on a shale driller: $1.1 million. The state levied most of that for 2010 well water contamination in Bradford County and $188,000 for a Feb. 23 fire in Washington County that injured three subcontractors.

The fines came in May, just weeks after a Chesapeake well blowout contaminated a stream in Bradford County. At the time, the company was drilling at Trax.

"It's always in the back of your mind," Trax said of the potential for accidents.

The well has not caused the farm problems, Trax said. Online DEP records show it passed five inspections in March and April without a violation.

Chesapeake finished the well in July, capping it until it completes a pipeline next spring, Trax said. The company has permits to drill five more wells and add a water pit on site.

Trax customers at the store offered mixed opinions when asked about the drilling. Some believe gas drilling has become "a necessary evil" in the state or presents no problem. Fran Castellano of Bethel Park visits Trax at least four times a year, especially for fresh fruit such as strawberries and apples, she said. She was concerned about the drilling when she learned of it in May, but she won't stop visiting the store unless there's an accident.

"You do it, then when something goes wrong, you say, 'Oops,' " Castellano said. "Well, I don't want the 'oops' to happen over here."

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Drilling on Trax Farms

Drilling on Trax Farms

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