Is Natural Gas a Cleaner Alternative Energy or a Danger to Communities?

Residents in one Pennsylvania town say natural gas wells are making them sick.

ByABC News
June 14, 2010, 8:56 AM

June 14, 2010— -- Natural gas is often touted as a cleaner alternative to oil and coal. But to more than a dozen families sharing the neighborhood with natural gas wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania natural gas has been anything but clean.

The majority of people in this small town in northeastern Pennsylvania leased their land to Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas, which has 62 gas wells in the area. Not long after the drilling began, residents along Carter Road noticed their water was turning bad.

"I was getting dizzy and almost blacking out. Sometimes I did black out," says Pat Farnelli, a mother of eight who has gas wells are both sides of her property.

"My kids had been getting sick very badly all summer long with what seemed like a very heavy duty intestinal bug. You know the wicked stomach cramps, doubling over."

After a neighbor's well violently exploded, the state investigated and found that faulty casings in the drilling well had caused methane to seep into local drinking wells. Locals have dubbed the well water here, a cloudy brownish liquid with sediment on the bottom, "Dimock lemonade." Some residents in Dimock and in other places close to natural gas drilling say there is so much gas in the water they can even light it on fire.

The gas industry asserts many cases of methane in wells occur naturally and is not because of gas drilling. Methane, it says, isn't harmful.

Theo Colburn, an expert on environmental toxins, says the bigger problem with gas drilling is not the methane but the volatile organic compounds that can come up with it: benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene which can affect the lungs. But that is not all that comes up during drilling.

Recent technological improvements have allowed the industry to reach vast reserves of natural gas. The most common but controversial technique is called hydrofracking. It involves pumping about a million gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, deep into the ground where it fractures the rock horizontally and releases huge amounts of gas. Much of that wastewater come back to the surface and is sometime pumped into enormous pits.