How one Pennsylvania county got the gas chamber. And ours could too.
The answers to her water problem are laid out in the overwhelming stacks of paper and folders scattered across her kitchen island containing water tests, from Chesapeake Energy, from DEP, from her lawyer, from third parties. They all show varying high levels of methane, as well as sodium and other heavy metals. Chesapeake provides the couple with 25 five-gallon water jugs every month, but according to Vargson, the company won’t provide a large water tank, known as a water buffalo, because they say the contamination isn’t high enough to warrant one. So the Vargsons use their contaminated water for bathing and cleaning. They take quick showers because after five minutes they start to get light-headed. They also have to keep the windows open all the time to vent the methane. The couple says the gas company tried to remedy the problem by venting the gas, but it didn’t help. So they adapt, making sure not to use oil heating during the winter for fear the pilot light could send their house sky-high. The couple also won’t let their animals drink the tap water. The dogs drink bottled water, the cows drink from a spring and her duck drinks rainwater.
Beware of the Fast-talking Landmen
Kennedy, Martin and Vargson all say they regret their decisions to get into bed with the gas industry. “Hell, if I had to do it all over again, I would not sign the lease,” says Martin. “When I signed … in 2006, no one had any clue … that they were going to be drilling here.” He says that in the early years, most of the leases were for five years; they’d get a few dollars per acre, and after five years the leases would die out and nothing would happen. When Martin was approached in 2006, he figured it would be the same. “We signed because it got enough to pay off the home equity loan that we owed. We’d been approached three or four times by landmen, they’d call ’em. I call ’em crooks. They’d come up and they’d offer you as little as $5 an acre to lease your land,” he says. “We just figured we’d get some money for the lease and in five years the lease would die out and that would be it. They show you some nice photographs. They showed me a thing here with six wellheads, connected in two groups of three, and a nice green field, and that’s what it was gonna look like when they were done. But here’s what I got.” From the pad, he surveys the dominion. “We got a quarry over there, a frack water pond over there and a pad here.”
Martin says the whole thing is a sham. And it’s been that way since landmen from West Virginia and Texas first discovered that Pennsylvania—like a brush stroke from the southwest to the northeast—was sitting on a gas gold mine. They began prowling the area in earnest in 2005 and 2006, singing the praises of a new, safe industry that would be the dawn of an era of renewable energy, and rumors of impending wealth started flying. “When we first started talkin’ with a lawyer he was hearing that we’d probably get, like, $300 an acre every month? Well, that’s a crock. We started out about $90 an acre and right now it’s down to about $70 an acre a month,” for a total of around $9,000 a month. “We aren’t getting rich. A lot of people make that much in a month anyhow. It’s great money, but it’s nothing like what we were led to believe.”
Martin says he was offered another $8,000 for the pad with a $2,000 bonus if he allowed them to put a frack-water treatment plant on his property. He declined because, “there would have been trucks continuously till this day coming up here with residual waste, treating it,” he says. “The money isn’t worth it to me.”
Vargson admits that her biggest regret is that she was “totally deceived as far as it being environmentally safe and friendly. I had no idea it was going to impact and alter my life as drastically as it did,” she says. “They [the landmen] lie to you to your face to get you to sign.” And it worked. She says the $19,700 she received upon signing her lease “was like winning the lottery. I took the check, went to the bank, caught up on some bills,” she says. The wells on her property were drilled and fracked and began producing gas in 2009. They received their first royalty check of $38,000 for four months of production. The next check was for $8,400. The checks continued dwindling until they stopped altogether. “There is no income from this well pad from Chesapeake,” Vargson says, her mouth closed tightly. A phone call, with nothing in writing to back it up, said it was because of some reconfiguration discrepancy. Things only got worse. Vargson claims they signed the lease with the belief that the pad was temporary, but soon realized that temporary was permanent. At the time, the Vargsons were commercial dairy farmers. When the company constructed a well pad on their main grazing pasture, they sold their herd, keeping some cattle for beef, and found jobs off the farm.
The Illin’ Fields
Mike Bastion says he wakes up “shaking and I’ll be throwing up and have to go, [No.] 2. I used to run 10k races,” says the middle-aged Bastion. “All of a sudden I can’t breathe right. I thought I had Lyme disease.”
It turns out Bastion has barium poisoning. He says his blood tests came back with four times the recommended limit of the heavy metal used to make paint, bricks, tiles, rat poison, boiler water and additives for oil and fuel.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), barium “is used mostly by the oil and gas industries to make drilling muds,” to keep drill bits lubricated. The CDC further reports that: “Eating or drinking ... barium compounds can cause changes in heart rhythm or paralysis in humans ... vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, difficulties in breathing, increased or decreased blood pressure, numbness around the face, and muscle weakness.” Left untreated, the effects of barium can cause death.
Bastion lives in a trailer on a small parcel just west of the Northern Tier Solid Waste Authority, which accepts waste from gas operations. There’s a well pad adjacent to Bastion’s parcel; his house sits on the bottom of the slope. The pad’s on his neighbor’s property, so Bastion earns nothing from it. The pad construction started in May 2010. “When the drilling started, I started hearing all kinds of strange noises ... from in the ground, and it’s like Mother Earth is crying, like groaning and groaning, and I thought I better check my well,” says the patent inventor and wood carver. “So I pulled the casing up and I looked. My water went pffffft. My water just disappeared.”
Chesapeake sent a rep, an environmental scientist. The two went back and forth. “He said, ‘We haven’t used any harmful chemicals or anything ... your water will come back.’” Bastion took the rep into the bathroom and turned on the water. “It was all black and he said, ‘It won’t hurt you ... It’s really not that bad.’” Bastion’s voice breaks and he starts crying. “He said, ‘You can wash your clothes in that. Just don’t do the white clothes.’” But he told Bastion not to drink it. Bastion was given cases of 12-ounce Chesapeake spring water and a water cooler. Upon inspection, DEP told him not to even touch the water.
Crystal Stroud says the gas boom ruined her life. Two weeks after drilling began on her neighbor’s property last February, the 29-year-old hair dresser says she started getting sick. Her hair started falling out in clumps. She was often short of breath and her heart raced. She’d wake her husband in the middle of the night, unable to breathe. A doctor tested her thyroid, which was normal, so he prescribed anxiety medication. After two days of taking Zoloft Stroud’s hands started shaking “like an 80-year-old woman. I had muscle weakness, I couldn’t stand for long periods of time.” She had to take off from work. Stroud had the water tested by an independent tester. She says the tester told her to stop drinking the water. There were highly elevated levels of methane, barium, lead, manganese and radon, among other things. And isotope testing confirmed the methane was from deep underground shale.
Stroud and her family were fortunate to be able to move to a house her father gave her. Since she’s moved her hair has grown back and her symptoms have subsided, but her doctors have never dealt with barium poisoning before, and don’t know what to tell her. “They said with all those carcinogens that I’ve been drinking, I am five times as likely to get cancer.”
She counts herself lucky that her children didn’t get sick, though she says her 4-year-old had leg cramping at night, showing symptoms of a potassium drop associated with barium poisoning, which she guesses was from bathing in the bad water. She went to Harrisburg to request an interview with Gov. Corbett, and was locked out of his office. She says groups have submitted petitions requesting the governor meet with her, but were met with silence. “They completely ignore me,” she says.
Stroud says that since she went public with her story, other neighbors have come forward to her; her neighbor has methane contamination, and a cop who had been feeling sick got his blood tested and found he had barium poisoning.
Linking the various medical symptoms to water-well contamination has been difficult. During a Citizens Marcellus Shale Commission hearing last week, experts testified that there hasn’t been any rigorous information or data gathering to determine how many people have had detrimental health effects due to their proximity to drill pads.
Diane Siegmund, a psychologist in the Bradford County seat of Towanda, says she’s been trying to get those numbers. “For several months I would go to the county commissioner’s meeting here in Bradford County in Towanda and say, ‘You know what the big missing piece here is? How many [water] wells are contaminated?’ Well, they didn’t know. Nobody counts,” she says. “This person from New York attempted to count them and we ended up with a count somewhere between 81 and 92, but it’s unofficial, so they [the commissioners] blow it off.”
Siegmund had an idea to set up a hotline. “People are afraid to speak up,” she says. She submitted a plan to the county commissioners: “A gathering line, a place where people can call in. They don’t have to worry about their names being turned over to the gas company.” She says the commissioners thought it was a good idea, but by the time the commissioners elections took place, “they’d changed their minds,” she says. “One of the commissioners had the nerve to accuse our people of crying wolf. In other words, you’re just saying your water’s bad ... it’s not really bad.”
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom