Erich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman
Erich 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.