Tammy Yoders reached into the cabinet beneath her kitchen sink and pulled out a sagging plastic wrapper from a case of water. Two bottles left.

She would need to drive to Hundred, a town across the West Virginia border to buy enough for her and her husband to cook dinner and for their two dogs to drink. And she needed it to brush her teeth, too.

Nearly four months after a frack out disrupted private water supplies in a rural Greene County community, residents are still without safe drinking water, according to John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. When fluid injected to fracture shale formations and release natural gas instead enters and “communicates” with an abandoned well, a frack out can occur, and that fluid can sometimes make its way to the surface and potentially into the water supply.

On Oct. 13 in New Freeport, around 30 people convened at the firehouse to hear Stolz deliver the results of several months of water sampling and testing.

“The question is,” he told the room, “did these operations impact your water? And if they did, who's going to do something about it?”

John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, delivers the results of several months of water sampling and testing to residents at the firehouse in New Freeport, on October 13, 2022. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

The tests, according to Stolz, show evidence that fracking activities impacted water supplied by private wells, leaving residents of the unincorporated hamlet living in uncertainty since the June 19 incident. Samples of private water supplies tested by Stolz showed considerable levels of methane and ethane, and evidence of potential brine contamination.

Pittsburgh-based EQT Corporation first reported a “possible communication” between the company’s 13H lateral well and an abandoned conventional well in New Freeport — over a mile from EQT’s pad — on June 20 and pledged to investigate the incident alongside the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP]. The developing situation has spurred new discussion of state regulations governing driller responsibility for alleged well contamination and how the lines of liability are drawn.

The bottom line, Stolz told residents at the firehouse: “For safety’s sake, everybody within this zone of impact should definitely be using bottled water.”

Water testing

Since the frack out, Stolz, a professor who specializes in environmental microbiology and water quality, independently sampled and tested 19 private wells or springs belonging to homeowners in New Freeport. As of Sept. 7, the date the last sample was collected, impacts were still present in the water supply, he said.

The presence of ethane in addition to methane, said Stolz, indicates that the kind of natural gas that’s released from wells deep underground entered into the water supply in 11 of the 19 samples. Twelve of 19 samples contained methane, of which two samples showed concentrations greater than 7 milligrams per liter— the threshold that typically triggers action by the state.

A person rides a four-wheeler along Main Street in New Freeport. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

“It's quite possible that if you had 7 milligrams [of methane] that could build up in the house to the point where, you know, spark — boom,” said Stolz. A Sept. 7 sample showed methane at a concentration of 14.7 milligrams per liter, he said.

“I was truly amazed at how many folks along this one area had evidence for methane,” said Stolz.

Stolz’s analysis also suggests, based on the relative amounts of certain elements like lithium, magnesium and chloride, potential contamination from brines from unconventional and conventional wells as well as mine drainage.

It's not definitive proof that the frack out contaminated the water, said Stolz, acknowledging a lack of baseline testing. “But it sure as heck to me is evidence.” Coupled with resident reports of discolored, murky and strange-smelling water, “I don't know why DEP isn't camping out here at this point.”

Although Stolz’s findings suggest that fracking operations impacted the water supplies of residents, more testing is needed to determine the extent of that impact and ultimately, the safety of the water in New Freeport, he said. Stolz tested for metals, salts and light hydrocarbons, but not specific fracking fluids or the thousands of proprietary compounds often used in fracking operations, which, he said, are outside of his capacity and should be the responsibility of the DEP.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the DEP said the department “continues to receive and review data as its investigation continues and it continues to investigate water supply complaints.”

The statement also noted that EQT “is not permitted to resume fracking of the well subject to the communication incident without approval from DEP.”

EQT did not respond by Monday to questions emailed on Friday.

“I wish I had better news.” Stolz told the people back at the firehouse. “But unfortunately, the next thing that has to happen is you guys need legal representation.”

‘Without water, what do you have?’

Near the window on the other side of the Yoders’ kitchen, packets of test results splayed out across a table. One was from the DEP, two were from Moody and Associates— a subcontractor for EQT — and a fourth was from Stolz, which Tammy Yoders received a few weeks ago.

Packets of test results from the DEP, Moody and Associates and John Stolz splay out across a table in Tammy Yoders' kitchen in New Freeport. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

“No one understands them,” she said. “Should we use it? Should we not?” She lamented the fact that she’s not heard from DEP as she flipped through the pages.

“I would just like for them to talk to people,” she said, “[to hear] a plan or to admit they screwed up.”

She and her husband, Bill, moved into their house in 2006 and tore down a decrepit two-story house on the property to build a garage. “We re-did this whole place,” she said. Now she’s concerned that her property value has plummeted.

“It’s just a terrible feeling,” she said. “Without water, what do you have?”

Bill came home around 5 with a new case of water he bought on his way home from work at an excavation company. Enough for dinner and the dogs until Saturday. “You have to save that money for the water because you got to have water,” said Tammy. “I mean, we'll manage, but we shouldn't have to, right?”

An hour later, people trickled into the firehouse clutching their own packets of test results. Each sought clarity on the status of their water.

Most had stopped drinking the water months ago. But some continue to use it for bathing, as do the Yoders, even after their son broke out in hives after a June 19 shower. Several other people at the meeting reported feeling “itchy” after showering.

Holding a packet of test results, Tammy Yoders and her husband, Bill, speak to neighbors after a firehouse meeting in New Freeport. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

Peggy Boyer of New Freeport expressed her frustration to those gathered. “This isn't a high-income area where people can afford to buy water for their baths and to drink.

“Nobody wants to say it's their responsibility,” she said. “So that leaves all of us with this unknown, you know: Are we poisoning ourselves every day?”

A regulatory blind spot

While Stolz’s test results suggest that fracking operations disturbed private water supplies in New Freeport, all of the households tested sit more than 2,500 feet from the EQT wellhead. That's important because state oil and gas regulations require that operators provide alternative water supplies during the duration of an investigation to homes within 2,500 feet of their wellheads. Because all or nearly all of the New Freeport homes are outside of that so-called “zone of presumption,” EQT doesn't have to provide water.

“It's very clear that people were impacted by this pollution incident outside of the zone of presumption,” said Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice. The developing situation in New Freeport, she said, shows that “the regulations we have on the books right now are creating gaps and holes and people are being lost through ineffectiveness. They’re not adequate enough to protect everyone.”

Homes outside of the zone of presumption are also not required to undergo baseline testing prior to the start of gas drilling operations, which makes it difficult to determine the exact impact of a potentially contaminating incident.

Signs posted along Main Street in New Freeport, just a block from the site of the abandoned well where the frack out occurred on June 19. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

One issue, said Coptis, is that the regulation requires the zone of presumption to be drawn from where the vertical wellhead enters the ground, not from where the horizontal bore is drilled. The average horizontal length, she said, is about 5,000 feet, nearly double the radius of the zone of presumption.

Now the Center for Coalfield Justice is helping residents in New Freeport to file and track official complaints with the DEP, and advocating for an expansion of the zone of presumption to include households that may be impacted yet fall outside of the currently regulated radius.

“To me, it's just plain wrong that even while an investigation is ongoing, folks have not been told whether their water is safe or not to drink and are on their own to find a replacement until the state makes a determination,” said Coptis.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on twitter and instagram @quinnglabicki.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...