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Oil, gas drilling damage details sparse in states like Pennsylvania

| Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 11:39 p.m.

In at least four states that have nurtured the nation's energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in some of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen.

The Associated Press requested data on drilling-related complaints in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas, and found major differences in how the states report such problems. Texas provided the most detail, while the other states provided general outlines.

Although the confirmed problems represent only a tiny portion of the thousands of oil and gas wells drilled each year in the United States, the lack of detail in some state reports could help fuel public confusion and mistrust.

The AP found that Pennsylvania received 398 complaints in 2013 alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells, compared with 499 in 2012. The state confirmed about 100 contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells.

The complaints can include allegations of short-term diminished water flow, as well as pollution from stray gas or other substances.

The number of complaints shocked Heather McMicken, an eastern Pennsylvania homeowner who complained about water-well contamination that state officials eventually confirmed.

“Wow, I'm very surprised,” said McMicken, recalling that she and her husband never knew how many other people made similar complaints.

The McMickens were one of three families that reached a $1.6 million settlement with a drilling company.

During the past 10 years, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has led to a boom in oil and natural gas production across the nation. It has reduced imports and led to hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue for companies and landowners but touched off pollution fears.

Extracting fuel from shale formations requires pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break apart rock and free the gas. Some of that water, along with large quantities of existing underground water, returns to the surface, and it can contain high levels of salt, drilling chemicals, heavy metals and naturally occurring low-level radiation.

But some conventional oil and gas wells are still drilled, so the complaints about water contamination can come from them, too. Experts say the most common type of pollution involves methane, not chemicals from the drilling process.

Starting in 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection aggressively fought efforts by the AP and other news organizations to obtain information about complaints related to drilling. The department argued in court filings that it does not count how many contamination “determination letters” it issues or track where they are kept.

Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the leading industry group in Pennsylvania, said in a statement that “transparency and making data available to the public is critical to getting this historic opportunity right and maintaining the public's trust.”

When the DEP determines natural gas development has caused problems, Forde said, “our member companies work collaboratively with the homeowner and regulators to find a speedy resolution.”

Among the findings in the AP's review:

• Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said in an email. None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said.

• West Virginia had about 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells during the past four years, and in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action, officials said.

• A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62 of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators haven't confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination in the past 10 years, she said.

Releasing comprehensive information about gas drilling problems is important because the debate is no longer about just science but trust, said Irina Feygina, a social psychologist who studies environmental policy issues. Losing public trust is “a surefire way to harm” the reputation of any business, Feygina said.

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