“The odor stayed right on your body from the water”

Despite its advantages, the drilling boom did not turn out to be a blessing for everybody. As the drilling commenced, many residents began to realize that the reality of drilling was nothing like what they had expected—especially the residents of Carter Road. When he signed a lease with Cabot, Craig Sautner expected the impact on his property to be minimal. He only owned a small bit of property: a house and a yard, but no fields. “I knew they wouldn’t put a well on my property,” he recalled. He had no knowledge of any potential problems that might come with the drilling, and he expected once the drilling was done to barely be able to notice that it had ever even happened.

But what he discovered upon coming home from work on September 11, 2008 has haunted him ever since. The water in his toilet, he found, had suddenly turned brown. Not sure what was going on, he went to his kitchen, poured a glass of water, and discovered particles swirling around in the water like smoke. The water did not seem safe to drink. That moment marked the beginning of what has since become for Sautner and his family a never-ending nightmare.

Wondering if his now-dirty water might have something to do with the well being drilled uphill from his home—a well that was on the other side of the hill and out of sight, but not out of mind—Sautner called Cabot’s local office and explained what was going on. Cabot sent representatives over to investigate and, despite Sautner’s reluctance, decided the best course of action would be to purge his well. Until Cabot and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) could preform enough tests on the well and observe it over a sufficient length of time, Sautner’s well would have to be disconnected from his house. In the meantime, he got his water from a 325-gallon tank known as a “water buffalo” that was hooked up to the front of his house, the water replenished daily so that it would not run out, but with chlorinated “town water” from Montrose rather than the soft water he was used to. After about two months, Cabot put a water filtration system in the Sautners’ basement to filter out the iron, aluminum, and other metals that had been revealed to be present in the well water, and, for the time being, the Sautners were able to re-connect their house to their water well.

In the meantime, other residents of Carter Road and the surrounding area began to experience problems of their own. Norma Fiorentino’s son noticed that the cover kept coming off her well, so he put a rock on top of it to keep it in place. On January 1, 2009, they went to visit her daughter for dinner; when they returned, the well cover was in the middle of her driveway. Fiorentino’s son went to investigate and discovered that the well had exploded, tearing feet of heavy concrete blocks to pieces and scattering them across the yard. She later found out that the explosion had been so loud several neighbors had heard it, despite the considerable distance between houses.

Fiorentino's home with water buffaloes in front.

The visibility of this incident made it obvious that something was wrong, and the DEP began conducting an extended investigation. It was revealed that Fiorentino’s well contained an elevated level of methane, which had somehow been sparked, causing the explosion; according to DEP records, the well also contained high levels of several metals. The DEP began responding to complaints and testing wells at other homes in the Carter Road area and found methane to be a concern at nine residences. On February 27, the DEP sent Cabot a Notice of Violation for discharging gas and failing to prevent it from entering groundwater, and also failing to submit required documentation on time for twenty-five wells. The notice requested that Cabot install methane detectors in the nine homes and temporarily provide water for four where the DEP deemed it “necessary to assure the residents’ safety.”

 

Fiorentino did not receive any water and went for months without any access to clean water. During this time, she had no choice but to go out and buy the water she consumed. She had to sell her horse because she couldn’t afford to buy water for it.

Further down the road from the Sautners, Ron and Jean Carter had been having problems as well. Drilling had just been completed at a well site four hundred feet away from their trailer when, in October 2008, their water went bad; Mr. Carter described it as smelling like sulfur water except worse and tasting “musty” and “rotten.” “If you took a shower, the odor stayed right on your body from the water,” he recalled. “You washed clothes, it stayed in the clothes; so that’s how we knew that it was bad.” Suspecting that the problem might be related to the drilling that had just taken place, Carter went to the Cabot office to look for answers. Cabot sent a lab to take a sample for testing, and when the results came in, they showed that the Carters had fecal coliform in their water. According to Carter, the Cabot representative suggested dumping Clorox down the well to get rid of the bacteria, but Carter was reluctant to do so and began researching purification systems. The best price he could find was over $3000, which was especially steep because he needed to get two, the second one for his son who lived next door and drew water from the same well. Cabot would not pay because, it told him, the bacteria had to have come from surface water getting into the well in an incident unrelated to the drilling; so he would have to purchase the systems on his own if he wanted his family to be able to have drinkable water.

Carter contracted to have the water purification systems put in in early 2009. In between when he signed the contract and when the systems were installed, the DEP was conducting its investigation of the area’s methane problems. Carter recalls representatives from the DEP, Cabot, and the fire company of neighboring Springville Township visiting every home on the road to test for methane. They drew water from his bathtub and kitchen sink and discovered that, indeed, the Carters had elevated levels of methane. Carter said that he called the business he had bought the purification systems from to discuss this new development, and the business assured him that the systems would still work. They did, as it turned out, remove the bacteria and return the smell and taste of the water to normal, but they did not remove the methane. Like Fiorentino, the Carters began to have to look elsewhere for drinking water.

Jugs filled with water from Sautner's well.

Methane was also discovered to be present in the Sautners’ water well, and the Sautners had to have even more equipment installed in their basement to separate the gas from the water. The DEP and Cabot continued to monitor the situation, coming regularly to take water samples for testing so that they could watch for further developments; usually, Sautner remembers, people would come to take samples several times per week.

 

But despite the great measures taken to purify the Sautners’ water, things did not return to normal. Sautner’s teenage daughter began to complain of unexplained illnesses, of being in the shower and suddenly feeling as if she were about to pass out, of the feeling getting to be so bad that she would have to get out of the shower and lay on the floor to come back to her senses; she also began to develop mysterious rashes on her legs. At the time, the Sautners had no idea what was wrong. Then, in October 2009, the DEP told the Sautners that the purification systems were not enough, and the water well needed to be taken off-line. They disconnected the well system and put another water buffalo in the Sautners’ garage, and the Sautners have gotten their water from the buffalo ever since. Sautner’s daughter’s fainting spells have since disappeared, leading him to suspect that the well water was causing the problem.

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