Fouled Waters: Woodlands residents search for ways to survive without clean water

Fouled Waters: Woodlands residents search for ways to survive without clean water by Julia Rendleman, August 19, 2012, Post-Gazette
“This is America 2012. Look at what’s happening. We have all this technology but no water,” she said. Before Kim McEvoy watched her home value plummet and moved to one with public water, she went behind rhododendron plants to urinate. Her fiance used bushes along the other side of the house — the “men’s room.” And when the time comes to refill the tank that provides clean water to her home, Barb Romito waits to see if her anonymous donor has pulled through once again and paid the $125 fee needed twice a month to keep her faucets flowing. These and other lifestyle adjustments started in the Woodlands neighborhood about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh after January 2011, when residents started calling each other with the same story: Water from their wells was running brown or black with floating pieces of solid material in it, and it smelled awful. When they showered, they got rashes. When they drank, they threw up. The farm show rabbits Russ Kelly keeps behind his house even stopped drinking the water. … They called Rex Energy, the gas company that had drilled at least 15 new wells in the Zelienople area from July to December 2010, and they called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “Next thing you know, the water buffaloes are sprouting up like mushrooms” across the neighborhood, said Ms. McEvoy’s fiance, Peter Sowatsky. If a resident contacts a gas company with suspicions of water contamination, it is typically company practice that an alternate source of water — usually in the form of a large tank called a “buffalo” — must be provided within 48 hours. Many residents used the water buffaloes provided by Rex, replacing the private wells they’d depended on for decades, while Rex and the DEP conducted tests. But when both test results came back, the Woodlands neighborhood residents who’d noticed unmistakable changes in the look and taste of their water were told nothing was wrong. “There are no noticeable differences in water chemistry in pre- and post-drill water quality of the water wells in question,” stated a report by Rex Energy based on testing done by a third-party firm hired by the company. DEP test results in February 2011 couldn’t link contaminants in the water to the Rex Energy drilling. The company declined comment for this story, referring questions to the report. … “I felt myself becoming very bitter” when the water buffaloes went away, she said. … That same month, the Associated Press reported that Rex Energy had casing problems on at least two nearby gas wells — violations that were not reported by the company or the DEP. … “You know that expression, ‘they got us over a barrel?’ ” said Mrs. McIntyre. “Well, they got us over a buffalo.” … Ms. McEvoy decided to move. She bought her three-bedroom home in the Woodlands 16 years ago for $68,000. Without water, the house on the market got one offer for $15,000, and even that fell through. … She’s taking some habits from a life without water with her. “I find myself not flushing the toilet,” she said. Mr. Sowatsky, her fiance, has left the Woodlands behind, but not his paranoia over water supplies. He still loaded 25 bins of empty jugs into a U-Haul truck on a recent summer day. He’ll fill them and keep them on hand in case the public water is shut off, he said. “It’s a culture shock,” said Mr. Sowatsky. “I keep looking for the gallon jug.”

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