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Texas drilling company cited for dumping waste

| Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010

The state Department of Environmental Protection has cited a Texas energy company for dumping industrial waste into Tubmill Creek while drilling its Flickinger Well in St. Clair Township to tap Marcellus shale.

According to DEP records, 2 to 3 cubic yards of bentonite, a naturally occurring clay used when drilling under streams, leaked into the creek.

The drilling accident did not harm aquatic life or well-water supplies, said Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman.

On Aug. 4, state inspectors cited Fort Worth-based XTO Energy Inc. for four violations at the Flickinger Well:

• Discharging industrial waste into state waters;

• Discharging pollution-causing material into state waters;

• Doing so without a permit;

• Failing to notify the department of the pollution.

XTO spokesman Jeff Neu said XTO's priority is, "and will remain, to ensure the safety of the community, our employees and contract personnel and to protect the environment."

St. Clair Township resident Carl Whipkey, 83, who lives near the well with his wife, Gloria, 79, said he became concerned when Tubmill Creek, which flows through the rear portion of his property, turned "blood red" in early August.

He filed a complaint with the DEP, which resulted in the Aug. 4 inspection.

Under the state Clean Streams Law, anyone who willfully or negligibly discharges pollution into a stream could be fined up to $25,000 for each violation.

Gresh said the one-time event occurred when drillers were tunneling under the creek to make way for a connection linking the well with a pipeline, and the drill broke through to the water.

The bentonite was contained with hay bales until the leak could be fixed, she said.

Neu said the incident with XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobile Corp., has been resolved.

The possible fines associated with the violation are still being reviewed, Gresh said.

Tubmill Creek is a "priority watershed due to its richness in aquatic life," according to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Its website notes: "This trout-stocked fishery encompasses 54 square miles of rural landscape, flowing through farms and forests on its way to the Conemaugh River."

Although the Whipkeys have a municipal water line for drinking water, well water powers their geothermal heat pump.

Whipkey said he does not know whether his well water or heat pump has been affected by the clay.

Since the drilling began, the couple said, they haven't been able to enjoy their backyard because of issues he said are related to the gas well.

Although Carl Whipkey signed a deal with XTO for a one-time payment of $37,500 to harvest the gas underneath his 30 acres, he said he expected the well to be built several hundred yards away from his property.

After drilling began, about 200 feet from his property's edge, Carl Whipkey said there has been flooding, strange smells and constant noise.

"We had to move from our bedroom to a bedroom in the front of the house because we couldn't sleep with all the noise" from several diesel-powered generators, he said.

The couple said they fear that increased truck traffic will break a 24-inch water line that snakes under Ross Mountain Road in front of their property or that their land will become polluted from the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.

Fracking is the name of the process drillers use to induce fractures in rock and allow for natural gas to surface.

Fresh water and other chemicals are pumped into the well to force fissure 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground.

The Flickinger Well has been inspected 11 times since September 2009, according to DEP records.

Two of those inspections were prompted by complaints from the Whipkeys.

Gresh said the DEP conducts unannounced inspections of drilling sites and sites are inspected if there has been a complaint.

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