In speaking to those assembled at Thursday's meeting of the Elk County Gas Task Force at the St. Marys Area Middle School, speakers Professor Ross Pifer of the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and attorney Tom Wagner of Meyer and Wagner in St. Marys discussed resources and legal precedents surrounding the possibility of water contamination as a result of Marcellus Shale drilling.
The speakers advised those gathered that in the event of contamination, the gas companies would be responsible for replacing and restoring any polluted water supply as well as compensation for any reduction in supply as a result.
An attendee at the meeting asked, "If they ruin the water supply on either side of you and you're not signed up for the lease, what will they [gas company] do about it? We have a water source about 1,800 feet that we feed our cattle from and we went down and they told us we didn't stand a chance to cover that, that they're not responsible."
"They are supposed to test every water source within 1,000 feet of a well. And if you're farther away, but in the neighborhood of a well, I would recommend you get your water tested, too," Wagner said.
The speakers informed attendees that there is a presumption that within 1,000 feet of a well, contamination was caused by a gas company.
"If you get beyond a thousand feet, the presumption goes away and the burden then shifts to you to show that it was the drilling of a gas well that caused the contamination," Wagner said.
"They [gas companies] will come in and test the water and you should always, always allow your water to be tested, because if you deny entry, the presumption goes away," Pifer added.
The speakers implored landowners to have water tested before drilling starts and have water tested regularly thereafter.
"It never hurts to approach a gas company drilling in your area and ask them to test your water," said Jodie Foster of the task force.
The speakers added that landowners should use independent labs to collect samples, rather than do so themselves. Pifer said "if you collect sample, it's going to give you the information but you're not going to be able to use it for anything from then on. He indicated it would not be admissible in any potential action taken against a gas company.
Task force representative and Elk County Commissioner June Sorg explained that the typical "chain of custody," or third-party water test, like that offered by Brockway Analytical, costs about $150. She added that this basic test covers certain contaminants that could be caused by Marcellus Shale drilling.
"If you go to any of the labs and tell them that you want the baseline test for Marcellus, they'll know exactly what parameters to look for, like methane. They come right to your house and take the water from your house," Foster said.
Sorg said that grants are available through Headwaters to provide water testing free of charge to low-income residents before drilling begins in their area. She added that the funding exists in eight counties, including Elk, for those who qualify, and suggested anyone interested should contact the Elk County Planning Department at 814-776-5335. Pifer added that in the event of possible or confirmed contamination, a property owner should contact the state Department of Environmental Protection as a precautionary measure.
Speakers described the Marcellus Shale phenomenon as a "land rush" and emphasized the importance of educating residents about environmental as well as legal implications and recourse.