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Denton, Johnson county residents blame drilling process for fouled well water

07/01/2010 11:26 PM

08/09/2010 12:45 PM

When her well water took on an odd odor, Linda Scoma, who has lived near Crowley in rural Johnson County for 20 years, worried something might be wrong. Then her hair suddenly turned orange after she washed it, and she knew there was a problem.

Damon Smith of the Denton County town of Dish said the water flowing from his family's well, drilled in 2002, used to run clear and clean. Now, when he pours it into a glass, Smith regularly sees sediment floating in it.

Both suspect the same source of their problems: nearby natural gas drilling activities.

While most of the discussions about the environmental impact of natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale have centered on air quality, questions are now being raised about its potential impact on water quality as well.

Drilling critics have expressed concern that a drilling process called hydraulic fracturing -- in which millions of gallons of water and sand laced with chemicals are pumped into the ground to free up natural gas -- has the potential to contaminate groundwater supplies.

Industry advocates counter that fracturing for Barnett Shale wells typically occurs more than a mile below underground aquifers that provide drinking water. Industry practice is to install multiple layers of pipe, known as casing, and cement inside the wellbore to isolate petroleum and chemicals from groundwater.

"You're talking about 6,000 feet of strata, rock and sand separating the fracturing in the shale and the fresh water table," said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. "There's not any case in Texas where hydraulic fracturing has damaged a water table."

The federal government may weigh in on the issue. The Environmental Protection Agency is launching a study of fracturing that is expected to focus on effects on groundwater supplies. Congress is also considering legislation that would increase regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, including forcing companies to disclose the chemicals used in the process.

After drilling began near Scoma's home, water tests detected increasing levels of chemicals used in the drilling process. The company that conducted the tests advised the Scomas not to drink the water, and they wash their clothes at a Laundromat because the couple says the water is discolored and has an oily sheen. They have sued the drilling company.

"I was embarrassed to go out in public because of my hair," Linda Scoma said.

At Smith's well, though, testing by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates drilling, found no high levels of toxic materials. Contaminants detected in the water were not at a level that would violate state or federal water quality standards, officials said.

"Therefore, we would not expect any adverse health effects after ingestion of water with these concentrations," Railroad Commission spokeswoman Stacie Fowler said.

If that's true, Smith has an offer for the commission and anyone else who wonders if the water is OK.

"Come to my house. Drink a big glass of that water at my table," he said.

Sediment and surfactants

The town of Dish sits near several large compressor stations that process natural gas from the Barnett Shale. Town leaders have gained a reputation for questioning the safety of drilling and challenging state regulations.

The Smith family said they started seeing sediment in their well water last year, shortly after Devon Energy fractured a gas well less than 1,000 feet from their home.

Since then, the family has used their well water only for watering trees and their flower bed. They get their drinking water from a next-door neighbor's well, which has not shown signs of contamination.

At the family's request, the Railroad Commission has taken three samples of the family's well water since May to see whether it poses a health risk. The first sample found high levels of substances such as arsenic and barium, which can occur naturally, but did not detect more well-known drilling contaminants like benzene. The second sample didn't find anything.

The conflicting results prompted a third sample, taken June 10. It indicated that contaminants were not at levels higher than those set by the state and federal governments, according to a report obtained this week by the Star-Telegram.

Skeptical that state regulators are adequately protecting Texans, the Dish Town Council paid about $1,500 for Wolf Eagle Environmental Llc. to test the Smiths' water, Mayor Calvin Tillman said.

The firm reported that it tested positive for two chemicals known as surfactants: methylene blue active substances and cobalt thiocyanate active substances, although the company's release did not say at what levels the two chemicals were found.

Todd Anderson, professor of environmental toxicology at Texas Tech University, said those two chemicals could not naturally occur in the water. The chemicals are commonly found in some detergents, but they are also used in gas and drilling operations, he said. There are several ways they could end up in someone's groundwater, including a leaking septic system, he said.

The Railroad Commission did not test for the two surfactants, Fowler said. However, she said she invited Smith and Dish to share its data with the commission. The commission has not decided whether the Wolf Eagle results warrant more tests, she said.

Wolf Eagle President Alisa Rich said the Railroad Commission's test was an incomplete analysis of the Smiths' water. "It's not only not safe to drink, it's not safe to bathe in," Rich said.

The agency might not have thought to test for surfactants because they aren't regulated under state or federal drinking water laws, Anderson said.

The list of chemicals the Railroad Commission tested for -- including benzene, toluene and lead -- made sense as an effort to check for contamination from natural gas drilling, he said.

Devon spokesman Chip Minty declined to comment.

Considering moving away

Linda Scoma and her husband, Jim, say they have considered moving away from their home, which Jim, a retired contractor, built "with my own two hands."

Jim Scoma said that after Chesapeake Energy began drilling adjacent to their property, he noticed that his water filters were clogged and that the sink, washing machine and bathtub were stained.

The Scomas met several times with Chesapeake concerning their water well. They said Chesapeake did not offer to test the water, so they spent hundreds of dollars to have it tested. Those tests from 2008 and 2009 show that the water contained increased levels of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene xylene, barium and iron, chemicals used in the drilling process.

According to the lawsuit the Scomas filed in Johnson County civil court June 1, the water "intermittently turned an orange/yellow color, tasted bad and gave off a foul odor."

T Nguyen, a Dallas attorney representing the Scomas, said she is concerned that other people could have contaminated water wells and not realize it.

But Brian Murnahan, a spokesman for Chesapeake Energy, said the company will dispute the Scomas' claims that gas drilling activity ruined their water supply.

"Chesapeake Energy disputes the claims in the lawsuit filed by the Scomas and is confident our position will be evident when presented in court," Murnahan wrote in an e-mail statement.

ELIZABETH CAMPBELL, 817-390-7696

AMAN BATHEJA, 817-390-7695

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