Several Ridgway residents attended Tuesday morning's Elk County Board of Commissioners meeting and questioned local government officials' diligence in protecting the area's water supply during the recent Marcellus Shale drilling boom.
One resident, Clifford Stump, who resides along Montmorenci Road in Ridgway Township, expressed his concern about the drilling and its environmental impact.
"With the Marcellus well, the pond is pretty big, as big as a football field or better, and all the stuff that they bring up out of the ground when the drill goes into that pond, and it could be radioactive, whatever is down there," Stump said as he cited personal research on the topic. "When they 'frack' it, they use two to 10 million gallons of water per well. Now two percent of that is chemicals and some of these chemicals are bad and the pond is used for overflow.
"Ten thousands pounds of pressure is used to force that down there and it doesn't all come back-- they get about 12 to 20 percent of it back. It goes into that pond where it evaporates and what doesn't get evaporated is either drawn out to be used again, sometimes it's brought to a sewage plant and whatever they can't get out of there, it goes into the creek."
According to Elk County Commissioner Ronald T. Beimel, there are several options available for the tainted water.
"From what I understand, there are some treatment plants in the Franklin area that are used and they haul the brine," Beimel said. "In Elk County, we do have a Marcellus Shale task force and basically the task force meets once a month. I would ask with your concerns, I'm like you, I'm not opposed to drilling but I can live without heat but I can't live without good water, and the commissioners' main concern is the water.
"We feel that we're not opposed to drilling but we want to go slow and make sure that the water is safe, and that the regulations through DEP [Department of Environmental Protection], they're the ones who are administrating this before the Conservation District was involved, but the state [government] took that away from them and now DEP monitors these wells."
Referencing personal telephone calls to DEP and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], Stump said the ponds are taken care of in an unsafe manner.
"I couldn't believe what I heard," Stump said. "All these ponds, everything that's in those ponds, when they're done with that they cover it over with that plastic that's out around the edges-- they bulldoze it into the ground and it's there forever.
"There's one of these right up the hill about 200 or 300 yards from a site that runs into Big Mill Creek, which runs into the Ridgway Reservoir, which gives Ridgway its water, and this thing is a time bomb just sitting there. How can they do that? This to me is just not right. These gas companies abuse the land for their benefit and then just sat there and said, 'Oh well, agriculture is gone.' I'm sitting there with four acres, I'm just having a good time and I won't if my water is ruined."
From Jodi Foster's standpoint, there is little that can be done by county government officials.
"It's important to point out that there is very little that can be done at the local level at this point," said Foster, who serves as community and economic development coordinator for the county's planning department. "Federal and state law precedes what is done locally. You can pass ordinances but historically they don't stand up in court."
One example that Stump offered was an occurrence that took place at least four years ago at Bundy Farms along state Route in Penfield.
"The more holes that are put in the ground and the more holes that aren't plugged up, I realize that there's methane gas in the ground and the story I heard there, cows reduced their production-- then they started dying-- I heard 11 of them died, and this was four years ago," Stump said. "One of the cows was autopsied and they come up with brine water used from the wells to supply these animals with water to drink. Nothing was done about it and DEP found out that this well was over 1,000 feet from their well and they walked away from them.
"Whether the oil company paid them off to keep their mouths shut, I don't know, but 11 cows-- that's a lot, that's at least got to be $22,000. Somebody somewhere shut somebody up and to me, that's not right."
Another Ridgway resident, Bill Granche, mirrored Stump's remarks to the board.
"I just heard about how the laws precede to local laws but they don't precede the Clean Water Act of 1972," Granche said. "There are two parts of this law that underlies all modern environmental laws-- one's a nuisance act that sounds kind of innocuous but it says you can use your property any way you want, but if you pollute and it escapes your property and goes onto somebody else's property, you're violating the law, that's one thing.
"No. 2, the public trust office says you can't do anything that is going to diminish any property that is not susceptible to private property ownership like air, water, fishery, wetlands, wildlife, wandering animals, rivers and streams and underground rivers."
Granche further questioned county government officials about whether they were being proactive enough on the issues.
"Have we tested the water up at Mill Creek?," Granche asked. "Do we have some sort of protocol to protect ourselves because when it happens-- because it will happen-- some doubt it, it might not happen in our lifetime but those grandchildren over there may be affected.
"We know cement deteriorates and these chemicals are beyond bad-- they're the most hideous chemicals known to man. The situation that I'm talking about, we need to know what's in our water now. But do we know? We need to be able to say, 'This wasn't here at first, now it is.'"
Granche's prime example was the recent mysterious deaths of fish washed up onshore at Parker Dam in Clearfield County.
Several sources speculate that water in the Parker Dam is contaminated. Several eyewitness accounts suggest barium, strontium and chlorides supposedly traced to a drilling pad roughly half a mile uphill. Officials reportedly tested the water Nov. 10 and indicated that the pH level is safe, saying that the dead fish are likely not related to nearby gas wells.
"The first people that came in-- it was a cover-up," Granche said. "They gave it a water alkaline test or something similar to that, that was the only one they did.
"There was no testing for solids, they didn't talk about the other chemicals and when the real people came in, the geologists, they said they found without a doubt, that there was a Marcellus well footprint. The fish died and that's the reason."
Granche also discussed the Twin Lakes area in the Allegheny National Forest.
"Now Twin Lakes has that shallow well 500-some feet away from a spring that generations of people in Elk County have been able to use," Granche said. "Now that spring is contaminated, it is beyond use. We can't just eat the fish either. So now Twin Lakes has been ruined and we probably can't eat the deer either if they drank the water, and this is a place that has been known for its recreational activity.
"Right now, I live in heaven-- this is just the best place and I grew up in Pittsburgh where one out of 100 people hunt. I wanted to reverse that so I came up here [to Elk County]."
Granche again asked about protocols from local government officials to protect their residents.
"We need protocols that protect us and we don't even know the chemicals, we don't know what's being used," Granche said. "The firefighters won't go into a burning building if they don't know where the gunpowder is and where the gasoline is.
"How are they going to put down a leak when they can't approach that hazardous material without knowing what's in it?"
Beimel reiterated his support of the effort and indicated that ensuring that all practices are safe will be key in the future.
"I think as time goes on, this is what is needed to prevent 40 or 50 years from now, our children not having safe drinking water," Beimel said. "Right now we do but it can be destroyed.
"We're not opposed to drilling and I don't think you are, you just want to see the safeness done and we're 100 percent behind that to make sure that our drinking water and water for the fish and recreation is safe. We'll take that on."
For more information on this story see the November 17th edition of The Daily Press.