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Photo by Alfonso", originial work, CC 2.5 via Wikimedia

Washington County drilling hearing raises conflicts over contamination

Loren “Buzz” Kiskadden first noticed a water problem at his house trailer in rural Amwell Township, Washington County, while using a hose to fill a wading pool for his grandchildren in June 2011.

“A gray sludge was filing up the bottom of the pool. It was just nasty,” said Mr. Kiskadden, 55, in testimony before the state Environmental Hearing Board last week in Pittsburgh. “I shut the water off and told the kids not to get in it.”

Mr. Kiskadden testified that he continued to use the water, which periodically had a “rotten-egg smell,” to shower, wash dishes and clothes, water his garden and to drink. To get rid of the odor, and at the suggestion of a state Department of Environmental Protection inspector, he poured half a gallon of bleach down his well once or twice a month.

He testified that he stopped using the well water on his garden that summer after his tomatoes turned black and the plants died. He stopped drinking it in fall 2011, after he got sick.

Mr. Kiskadden’s testimony about his water pollution problems highlighted the third week of hearings on his appeal of a Sept. 9, 2011, DEP determination that Range Resources’ Yeager shale gas drilling operation on a ridge did not contaminate his well water in a valley a little more than half a mile away.

The legal question is whether the DEP followed its rules and procedures to identify and assess the contamination and made the appropriate and correct determination. Mr. Kiskadden wants the DEP to issue a finding of contamination and order Range to restore or replace his water supply.

Testimony in the case, the first in the state to challenge a DEP water quality determination, is to resume Wednesday.

Range and DEP inspectors and administrators who also testified last week maintain that a leaky 13.5-million-gallon wastewater impoundment did not cause Mr. Kiskadden’s water contamination. Nor was it caused by a failed drill cuttings and drilling mud processing pit or by spills in and around the drilling operation, they said.

Related: West Virginia won’t accept additional drilling waste tainted with radioactivity

Alan Eichler, DEP’s former oil and gas program manager during the investigation of Mr. Kiskaden’s complaint, testified the Sept. 9, 2011, determination letter was based on there being no evidence of a hydro-geologic connection between the drill site and the water well.

If there was a hydro-geological connection, high concentrations of chlorides present in the wastewater impoundment also would show up in Mr. Kiskadden’s water well, he said in response to questions by DEP attorney Michael Heilman. According to tests that the DEP and Range performed, they did not.

“If it were oil- and gas-related, we should have seen chloride levels 10 or 20 times higher,” said Mr. Eichler, who was replaced as oil and gas program manager in May and is now manager of the department’s Safe Drinking Water Program in the Southwest Region.

He attributed Kiskadden water test results showing high concentrations of calcium and sodium — which, with chlorides, are “primary chemical constituents” of shale gas drilling and fracking wastewater — to a chemical reaction called “natural softening.” It produces high alkalinity and high total dissolved solids “and is absolutely consistent with what we see in so many other water samples in Western Pennsylvania,” he said.

Mr. Eichler was asked on cross-examination why, in light of that natural softening, water samples taken from Mr. Kiskadden’s kitchen faucet in Jan. 30, 2012, registered a water-hardness reading of 206 milligrams per liter, considered “very hard.”

He said the water would have been even harder if not for the natural softening.

Also on cross-examination, he said that when he wrote the 2011 Kiskadden determination letter he was “unaware” of a series of soil contamination test results from around Range’s leaking drill cuttings pit that showed sodium levels much higher than chloride levels.

Range has maintained that natural contaminants, bacteria from livestock in nearby farm fields and septic tank contamination caused Mr. Kiskadden’s water well problems.

On cross-examination by John Gisleson, an attorney representing Range, Mr. Kiskadden detailed a less-than-pristine environment around his well, where he washed vehicles, used a burn barrel and burn pit and where he and his father operated a vehicle salvage yard beginning in the 1960s.

Several rusted and disassembled school buses, dump trucks, cars and a boat remain on the property. He denied there are any septic system problems.

Mr. Kiskadden is also a plaintiff with seven of his neighbors in three families in a civil suit filed in May 2012 in Washington County Common Pleas Court that claims they faced serious health problems due to exposure to air emissions and spills and leaks of drilling and fracking wastewater at the Yeager well site. The case has not yet gone to trial.

Mr. Kiskadden has been diagnosed with a form of leukemia and lymphoma, a blood-borne cancer, and he alleges that exposure to chemicals from Range’s Yeager drilling operation caused his condition. He also testified that he has lost his sense of taste and smell.

Range’s Yeager wastewater impoundment is one of five leaky Range reservoirs in Washington County that the DEP ordered drained and closed last month in a consent agreement that also levied a $4.15 million penalty on the Fort Worth, Texas-based company.

The Yeager drill site and impoundment is one of three shale gas development locations in Pennsylvania and seven nationwide that are part of a three-year, congressionally mandated $1.9 million study on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that the 31-member Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel will release a draft assessment for public comment and review by the agency’s Science Advisory board in early 2015.

 

3 comments

  1. I like how we have to wait for the next study results to be released in 2015 ….. !! while these polluting companies are allowed to continue to operate and expose residents to their poisons …… this is common sense….folks….you can not do such things without impacting our air, water and health ……keep doing your studies while more folks come down with cancers and die …..

  2. There is nothing like a picture to convince a jury of your peers. Why is the state letting the frack industry self regulate ? Would you turn yourself in if you went over the speed limit ? What kind of a joke being pulled on us.

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