Skip to Content
Skip to Navigation

Erich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette win September Sidney

in
September, 2012

Erich SchwartzelJulia RendlemanErich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won the September Sidney Award for “Fouled Waters,” a 3-month investigation into a mysterious blight on the water supply of The Woodlands, a small Pennsylvania town surrounded by natural gas wells just 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh.

Three weeks after gas rigs started drilling nearby, the water in Janet McIntyre's house started to make her vomit. When she showered in it, she got rashes. The gas company, Rex Energy, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested the water, but could find nothing wrong with it. 

That was two years ago, Janet and her neighbors have since learned to live without running water: showering outside, foregoing indoor toilets, and paying to fill storage tanks with water trucked in from outside. 

Post-Gazette reporter Erich Schwartzel and photographer Julia Rendleman spent three months visiting the Woodlands, interviewing scientists testing the water and examining state policy on water well quality.

Pennsylvania has the second-greatest number of private water wells in the country -- and yet is only one of two states in the nation that doesn't regulate how those wells are built or maintained.

After the story ran on the front page of the Post-Gazette, the state Public Utility Commission launched an investigation and a public-spirited reader donated $3,000 to supply residents with water through the Christmas holidays. 

Erich Schwartzel, 25, covers energy for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and serves as the editor of Pipeline, the Post-Gazette's specialty news site on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Erich lead the Pipeline team who last year won the Scripps Howard Award for Environmental Reporting and the Best Specialty Site award from the Online News Association. 

Julia Rendleman has been a photographer for the Post-Gazette since May. In 2010, she won a Getty Images Student Grant for Editorial Photography for a story about five women at a military-style prison boot camp.  She worked as a staff photographer at the Houma Courier in south Louisiana until May 2012.                                                                                      

Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Schwartzel and Rendleman about their story. 

  1. How did you learn that the Woodlands had lost its clean water supply?

    Julia: On a routine fracking story, I met some "fracktivists" who were pleading their case to local legislators about the risk to groundwater contamination with Marcellus Shale drilling. They said they were sick of being in the paper because they always came across as "people with signs, complaining." I told them I would love to show people something more visual than signs to help tell the story ... did they have anything in mind?  A woman mentioned that a small community, the Woodlands, was living without water and relying on a church-organized water drive for clean drinking water.  At the time I thought, great, I can get pictures of the water drive.  But really in the end, the water drive was just the beginning of the story.
     
  2. Describe the gas drilling operations going on near the community

    Erich: Like many parts of rural Pennsylvania, the Woodlands is located near deep Marcellus Shale gas wells that have gone up since shale drilling began in the state in 2004. The wells extend thousands of feet into the ground and then turn horizontal before "fracking" the rock to retrieve the gas trapped inside. The Butler County community saw at least 15 new wells drilled by Rex Energy in the area in the six months before water problems spread in the Woodlands. None of the Woodlands residents hold gas drilling leases, though the rigs are visible from their front yards.
     
  3. Does anyone know what's wrong with the water, chemically speaking?

    Test results from both the state and the company found no differences in the water chemistry that could be traced to gas drilling activity. Residents say the water in the Woodlands has never been terrific, but that it's been much worse since January 2011. They live in a kind of twilight zone, where the water runs brown or black and causes skin rashes, and yet is said on paper to be chemically fine. The company drilling in the area and the state regulatory agency both tested the water, though they didn't test for the same list of elements because no standard list exists.
     
  4. Rex Energy, the local driller, claims that there have been no changes in the water. What exactly did they test for? Are their conclusions credible?

    After Woodlands residents contacted Rex Energy with water concerns, the driller provided water tanks that supplied fresh water to the homes. The company hired a third-party firm to run a battery of water tests but found no chemical change that established a causal link between drilling activities and the new water issues. Most Woodlands residents had no pre-drilling test results to compare with post-drilling results. Some experts testing the Woodlands water now say multiple tests of the same source should be conducted for a fuller look at possible problems, but Rex and other gas drillers are only obligated to test for water once. Since no causal link was established, the company was under no obligation to provide the fresh water supplies and pulled the tanks.
     
  5. What does the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have to say about this?

    The DEP processes scores of drilling-related complaints, but said the vast majority of their tests do not implicate the drilling company. The DEP conducted its own test of the Woodlands water, and said it couldn't link contaminants in the samples to gas drilling activities. Since our story ran, the state Public Utility Commission has begun looking into the issue.
     
  6. If it's not gas drilling, what else might be contaminating the water?

    Pennsylvania's long history of water well use introduces a host of factors in determining what's causing the problems. Many wells have pre-existing methane and other contaminants in their water supplies, and a lack of state regulation compounds the problem. Pennsylvania is one of two states without statewide regulations on how water wells are constructed or maintained. Contamination concerns spreading with the natural gas development have shone a light on how much is left unknown about how drilling interacts with land already perforated with thousands of private water wells.
     
  7. You mention that some residents are peeing behind bushes to avoid flushing their toilets. Obviously, the tap water's not fit for drinking or bathing, but why can't residents flush their toilets with it?

    In most cases, the wells remain hooked up to the houses in the Woodlands - to flush the toilets, but also for added security in case of a fire, for example. Kim McEvoy (the woman whose family pees behind bushes) has a unique case.  Her well is actually dry. Her water turned black before it stopped running altogether.  She can get about 3 gallons of water out of it a day.

Backstory Archive

Yes
September, 2013
Stein wins the September Sidney Award for Exposing the Devastating Impact of Sequestration

Sam Stein wins the September Sidney Award for exposing how sequestration is crippling vital federal programs, including the public defender system, social services, health care, and medical research. 

Yes
August, 2013
Kocieniewski wins the August Sidney Award for Exposing the Goldman Sachs ‘Metal Merry-go-Round’

David Kocieniewski wins the August Sidney Award for exposing Goldman Sachs’ practice of shuffling aluminum from one Detroit-area warehouse to another in order to delay shipping and extract more rent from the metal’s owners. These tactics have added an estimated $5 billion to the cost of aluminum since 2010, the equivalent of two cents for every can of soda. 

Yes
July, 2013
Grabell wins the July Sidney Award for his portrait of our “permatemp” nation

Michael Grabell wins the July Sidney Award for showing how employers and the temporary labor industry turned the U.S. into a “permatemp” nation where armies of expendable temporary workers have become a permanent part of the supply chain.

Yes
June, 2013
Frey, PBS Need To Know team win June Sidney Award for coverage of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border

Juan Carlos Frey and PBS Need to Know team (producer Brian Epstein, correspondent John Larson and editor Judith Starr Wolff) win the June Sidney Award for exposing the rising death rate among undocumented migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Yes
May, 2013
Manik, Greenhouse, and Yardley win the May Sidney Award for their coverage of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh

Julfikar Ali Manik, Steven Greenhouse, and Jim Yardley of the New York Times won the May Sidney Award for their extensive coverage of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. The seven-story factory complex crumbled on April 24, burying over 1100 people. Most of the victims were garment workers who died sewing clothes for Western companies like Walmart and Benetton. 

Yes
April, 2013
Joe and Harry Gantz Win April Sidney for “American Winter,” an HBO documentary about middle-class families falling into poverty

Joe and Harry Gantz won the April Sidney Award for American Winter, a documentary that follows eight Portland, Oregon-area families struggling to survive the winter of 2011/2012 in the grip of the Great Recession.

Yes
February, 2013
Arizona Republic Wins February Sidney for Exposing a Faulty HPV Test Linked to False-Negative Results and Undetected Cancers

Bob Ortega won the February Sidney Award for sounding the alarm about a faulty test for HPV, the virus that causes most cervical cancer. Each year, about 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and about 4,000 die of the disease. 

Yes
January, 2013
Bloomberg News Wins January Sidney for A Tale of Two McDonald's

Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News won the January Sidney Award for her profile of McDonald’s as seen by a fry cook and the CEO of the company. 

Yes
December, 2012
Josh Eidelson of The Nation Wins December Sidney for Coverage of Historic Walmart Strike

Josh Eidelson of The Nation won the December Sidney Award for his coverage of the historic Black Friday strike at Walmart and the ongoing strike wave moving through Walmart’s supply chain.

Yes
November, 2012
Jina Moore of the Christian Science Monitor Wins November Sidney for Inquiry Into American Poverty

Jina Moore, regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, won the November Sidney Award for Below The Line: Poverty In America, a portrait of poverty as it is measured by official statistics and lived by real people.

No
October, 2012

Sasha Chavkin, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Ronnie Greene of the Center for Public Integrity won the October Sidney Award for “Mystery in the Fields,” an international investigation into a mystery kidney disease killing young farm workers in India, Sri Lanka, and Central America.