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.

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.

Colborn argues some people are already getting sick. "Most people complain about eye and skin irritations, fatigue headaches, sore throats, sinus infections, said Colborn. "The kinds of things you don't go to the doctor for and the doctor would have a difficult time saying it's because of this gas thing down the street that's blowing your way."

Critics of fracking, claim the industry does not provide enough information about the chemicals it uses, the amounts and the formulas, information she says is critical to assessing any danger to human health.

ABC News' Dan Harris sat down with Rayola Dougher, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, and asked why the industry isn't forthcoming with information on the chemicals it uses.

"It would be like Coke giving away their magic formula to Pepsi, they just don't want to tell you because they think it gives them a competitive advantage," said Dougher.

Dougher says different states deal with chemical disclosure in different ways and suggested the state of Pennsylvania, which wants more disclosure on amounts and recipes for frack fluids, simply ask for it.

John Hanger, Pennsylvania's DEP secretary, says he has already called for full disclosure but he is still waiting. Cabot Oil and Gas recycles its wastewater but there have been surface spills of frack fluid in Dimock. In the meantime the company is being forced to seal its problem wells.

"We live here. We work here and we wanna do well by the people here," said Cabot spokesman George Stark, pointing out the company has brought well-paying jobs to the area. Local business owners agree the area needs an economic boost.

"I think it would be a catastrophic effect if they stopped drilling," said Gretchen Backer, owner of nearby Inn at Montrose. "As long as the gas companies are regulated it's gonna trickle down and everybody's gonna feel the great effects that this gas industry is bringing to Susquehanna County.

After multiple fines and a halt to new drilling, the state hopes Cabot Oil and gas has finally gotten the message.

"If they don't get the message and fix the problem," Hanger said, "with this frankly two by four across the head, then I don't know what's left other than closing this operation down in this state."

The Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing the company. They had to vent their wells to avoid more explosions. Some also are buying bottled water, using elaborate filtration systems, and getting daily deliveries of water from the gas company.

For Dimock resident Victoria Switzer, Cabot Oil and Gas gets no second chance.

"I want them out of my state. I want them to go back to Texas. I want them gone," said Switzer.

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