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Connoquenessing neighborhood turns to Web to raise money for clean water

| Saturday, July 25, 2015, 4:44 p.m.
The Rev. Lee Dreyer stands with a recent shipment of water jugs at the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church in Connoquenessing Township Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  For the past three-and-a-half years, the church has stored and distributed the water to nearly 50 families in the Woodlands neighborhood with water-quality problems.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
The Rev. Lee Dreyer stands with a recent shipment of water jugs at the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church in Connoquenessing Township Wednesday, July 22, 2015. For the past three-and-a-half years, the church has stored and distributed the water to nearly 50 families in the Woodlands neighborhood with water-quality problems.
Residents of the Woodlands neighborhood in Connoquenessing Township test the quality of their waster with these digital devices.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Residents of the Woodlands neighborhood in Connoquenessing Township test the quality of their waster with these digital devices.
Dennis Higgins, his wife, and their three children have been relying on this water buffalo at their Connoquenessing Township home for the past three years. Every two weeks the fire department delivers 1,500 gallons for which they pay $100. They do not use it for cooking or drinking, however, relying on donations of jugs of water for that.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Dennis Higgins, his wife, and their three children have been relying on this water buffalo at their Connoquenessing Township home for the past three years. Every two weeks the fire department delivers 1,500 gallons for which they pay $100. They do not use it for cooking or drinking, however, relying on donations of jugs of water for that.
A view down into the Higgins family's water buffalo.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
A view down into the Higgins family's water buffalo.
Dennis Higgins carries in a box of fresh jugs of water to his Connoquenessing Township home Wednesday, July 22, 2015, that he received from the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Dennis Higgins carries in a box of fresh jugs of water to his Connoquenessing Township home Wednesday, July 22, 2015, that he received from the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church.

An online campaign aims to raise more than $7,000 to pay for clean water in a Connoquenessing Township neighborhood where residents for years have blamed deteriorating water quality on nearby fracking.

“People there can't cook with the water. Many say they can't use it to bathe. We are just trying to do what we can to help,” said Michaele Geibel of Butler, who is organizing the effort though Red Basket, a Nebraska nonprofit.

Geibel wants to raise $7,200 to buy over 7,200 gallons of clean drinking water for a church-based “water bank” to serve the Woodlands neighborhood.

Even if she succeeds, it will not be a permanent solution to a problem that residents and a Duquesne University scientist say is at least 4 years old. County and state officials say the problem is likely much older and could be related to abandoned coal mines.

The Rev. Lee Dreyer of White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church in Connoquenessing organizes the water bank, which distributes about 500 gallons of water to 20 households in the Woodlands every week.

Each gallon of water costs about $1, he said.

“There just seems to be no end to it. The water bank is not a permanent solution. Residents of the Woodlands are pretty much relying on the kindness of neighbors,” Dreyer said.

The neighborhood, where residents use private wells, was originally built as a campground and hunting and fishing retreat.

Dreyer, who says residents would like to tap into municipal water supplies, describes water in some households in the area as resembling “iced tea, cider or even motor oil.”

Residents have approached the township and county for help with the problem and have been rebuffed, Dreyer said.

“The township and county wish they would just go away,” Dreyer said.

Scott Longdon, head of the Connoquenessing Township supervisors, said the municipality and county came up with a plan to get water to the edge of the Woodlands.

“They did not want to do it, the residents. You cannot run municipal water onto private property if the owner does not want it,” said Longdon, who declined to discuss the issue of the residents' water quality.

The small community's problem has achieved notoriety even outside of Pennsylvania.

The Baltimore Sun and Buffalo News — newspapers in neighboring states that each made contentious recent decisions to prohibit fracking — have interviewed Dreyer.

Butler County, which this year has received more than $2 million in revenue from drilling impact fees, has not used them for the Woodlands because the state Department of Environmental Protection has not identified fracking as the source of bad water there, said Bill McCarrier, head of the Butler County commissioners.

“We spent a lot of time looking at this. The problem seems to go back much further than three or four years,” he said.

Many of the water wells are on lots that are too small for a well, McCarrier said. And some Woodlands residents have good water, he said.

“There's no easy solution. Some residents seem to want water brought to their house at no cost,” McCarrier said.

If impact fees do not go to something such as the Woodlands' problem, Dreyer questions how they are used.

“I thought impact fees were meant to be spent to address the specific impact of drilling, not pet projects,” he said, citing the county's use of $600,000 of last year's impact fees to renovate Alameda Park pool.

The state Public Utilities Commission says a “significant portion of the funds collected will be distributed directly to local governments to cover the local impacts of drilling.”

Act 13 imposed fees on well owners that go mostly to communities with drilling. It lays out 13 categories for approved use of the money that range from road and water projects to tax reductions, environmental programs and “big purchases.”

The Woodlands area has abandoned coal mines nearby, which the state Department of Environmental Protection identified as a potential cause of contaminated water.

If that explains some contamination, Duquesne University environmental microbiologist John Stoltz says, water in the neighborhood clearly became far worse around the time that fracking started.

“We have a difference of opinion, the DEP and me. I do think the groundwater in the Woodlands has been impacted by fracking,” Stoltz said.

The DEP has not revised any of its information on the Woodlands, said spokeswoman Melanie Williams.

Stoltz said he conducted tests that found elevated levels of manganese in the water of 25 households in the Woodlands.

An essential nutrient, manganese also is a neurotoxin, and prolonged exposure can lead to “manganism,” a syndrome that mimics the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published studies also have documented lower IQs in young children exposed to excessive manganese.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or rwills@tribweb.com.

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