Residents Claim Number of Tainted Wells up, Property Values Down
A number of concerned citizens and activists sounded off at the April 7 Bradford County Commissioners meeting, aiming many of their comments about the impact of gas well drilling at commissioner Doug McLinko. While there was plenty of disagreement about water quality and what has been done to address the impact of contaminated wells on homeowners in Terry Township and other areas, McLinko also agreed with many of the statements being made and reached out to one of the public representatives in an effort to collectively assess the damage and provide some solutions. Towanda resident Diane Sigmund, Sheshequin Township resident Carol French, Terry Township resident Joe Shervinski, and Community Shale Network representative Shelly Northrup were among the speakers who feel that the damage has already been done. While further harm to the area’s infrastructure may be prevented, “The horse is already out of the barn,” said Siegmund, who produced a map that indicates that there are dozens of contaminated wells in Bradford County alone. “This is a huge problem. There’s no way to put a number on it, and nobody has been compensated for it,” Shervinski said of the water contamination. McLinko acknowledged that a number of homeowners have not been dealt with fairly by the gas companies. “People with affected wells cannot be looked upon as if they are not telling the truth, and that is going on,” he stated. “People ought to be compensated for the water buffalos and the (increase in the) totals of their electric bills.” French noted that, presently, many of the property owners with tainted drinking water have been footing the bill for water testing, water tanks, and excessive costs for heating water and powering filtration systems, all while watching their property values plummet. She cited a reassessment of one of several properties on Paradise Road in Terry Township that fell from approximately $300,000 to $39,000. The homeowners, Mike and Jonna Phillips have joined Scott and Cassie Spencer and Jared and Heather McMicken in a class action lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy, the representatives of which have never publicly taken responsibility for the contamination, although the company has drilled new water wells that were also found to be tainted with methane and other toxic substances. McMicken reported a similar 85-percent decrease in the value of his property after noticing last summer that the well water that the family was using for bathing, cooking, and drinking was brown and bubbly. Water tests conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Chesapeake indicated high levels of methane. After the new well turned out to be tainted as well, the McMickens were displaced for two weeks while the gas company installed an extensive water filtration system at their home. “We’ve been through the wringer with it,” Jared McMicken said of the ordeal. While Chesapeake Energy representatives have since informed the family that the new filtered water coming into their home is safe to drink, they are unconvinced. “We only bath with it,” said McMicken. The Phillipses too are only using the filtered water for bathing. Mike Phillips referred to the system installed between the original water well and the house as “a science experiment.” The water in the holding tank that is drawn from the well continues to be dirty, and there is a slight discoloration to the water that runs from his tap. Phillips reported that he had his water tested prior to the start of well drilling and “it was darned near perfect.” The Phillipses and the McMickens share a deep concern for the health of his children. Jonna Phillips gave birth prematurely to a daughter six months ago who has suffered from heart ailments. She was slated for open-heart surgery in Delaware on April 7. Many people have speculated that the baby’s health problems are related to the tainted water wells. “We have experts looking into her condition to see if there is any correlation,” Phillips related. Although his daughter wasn’t directly exposed to the contaminated water, his Jonna was before the well water became noticeably putrid. “She drank a lot every day through her pregnancy,” he stated. Shervinski, who resides on Welles Mountain, expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the commissioners handled potential gas drilling problems from the start. “Your responsibility should be public safety,” he said to McLinko at the meeting. “We have too many people (for whom) this is real. This isn’t a county where people are used to lawsuits. They (gas companies) have usurped our water quality, and we just want it back the way it was.” Shervinski also expressed concern for a friend in the hospital whose barium poisoning he attributes to gas drilling. For the McMickens, any long-term solutions may come too late. As a 2006 Wyalusing Valley High School graduate, he and his wife thought they were living out their dreams when they built their home in the Wyalusing Area School District primarily for its strong educational and athletic curriculum. Like their water, their dreams are now tainted. The lawsuit, McMicken remarked, is currently “in Chesapeake’s hands.” The family is hoping to “get things resolved and get back out of the house what it was worth.” Then, they plan to move out of the area, as their experiences with gas drilling have soured them on an area they had hoped to always call “home.” Mike Phillips, a math teacher at Wyalusing Valley High School who has served the school district for 17 years, is unsure of what the future holds for his family. “We’re up in the air yet,” he said in reference to the family’s difficult decision to stay in the area or move. “I have an excellent rapport with my students,” he added. Phillips agreed that those involved in the lawsuit are in a wait-and-see mode. “They still feel that they have done no wrong,” he said of Chesapeake Energy. Chesapeake senior director of corporate development Brian Groves stated via e-mail that his company “remains committed to continuing dialogue with all of the families. All three residences have recently been reconnected to their permanent private wells, and we will continue to work with the families and their attorneys to bring this matter to a mutually respectable resolution.” “Brian Groves needs a new script to read from,” Phillips remarked. McMicken was unimpressed by McLinko’s claims that he had visited with several residents of Paradise Road. “Nobody ever called or stopped to see how we were doing,” said McMicken. “Nobody stepped up to asked if we needed anything, unless we called them.” At this point, he continued, the best that he could hope for from the commissioners is that they do more to make state legislators more aware of the problems in Bradford County. “They need to let them know that things aren’t pretty up here,” McMicken remarked. “There seems to be no local recognition, accountability, or solution coming from our leaders,” Siegmund read from a prepared statement at the April 7 meeting. “Our newly industrialized county bears an enormous burden from unsafe air and from unsafe water. The danger is compounded by the secrecy and diffusion of information surrounding the problem. We can do better.” During the meeting, McLinko expressed his personal dissatisfaction with Harrisburg’s perspective of the well drilling in Bradford County. He was frustrated with the limited amount of time he was given to address participants at a recent meeting to which he was invited to speak. As an elected official from “the most drilled-upon county in the state of Pennsylvania,” he related that he was given two minutes to talk, “And I was cut off.” McLinko also had a meeting scheduled with PA Rep. Sam Smith, but Smith did not show up. McLinko disputed claims by Shervinski and Siegmund that the commissioner had downplayed the number of contaminated wells and the extent of the contamination to legislators in Harrisburg. McLinko reported that, in meetings with officials from gas companies and DEP, “I told those people that migrating methane is a problem that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for the gas companies not to take responsibility forever.” He added that he has been trying to get politicians in Harrisburg to understand that “This is not a laboratory up here.” “They can take ‘responsibility,’ but, you know what, there is no ‘fixing.’ It’s already history,” Shervinski retorted. French suggested that the commissioners help to find a way to ease the financial burden on the affected property owners, as well as to improve the process by which their situations are handled. “Each individual is treated differently,” she stated, “even with the same gas company.” McLinko agreed. “There needs to be a procedure in place when people have infected wells. They need to be dealt with honestly. There is no uniformity to how this is dealt with,” he concurred. When French pressed for answers to her questions by the April 14 commissioners meeting and tangible results before the May 10 election, McLinko countered by asking French to work with him and DEP and gas company representatives. “It needs to be done relatively quickly,” he asserted. French agreed to further discussions with McLinko in hopes of finding answers and a more consistent approach to ongoing gas-related challenges.