State Orders Drilling Halt After 2 wells are Polluted in Forest County

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
5 April 2011
By Don Hopey

The state Department of Environmental Protection has determined that natural gas has contaminated well water at two homes on private properties within the Allegheny National Forest in Forest County and ordered Catalyst Energy Inc. to halt drilling and hydraulic fracturing at 36 non-Marcellus Shale wells in the area.

The order requires Catalyst, headquartered in Cranberry, to halt all drilling operations on new wells and to conduct tests to determine which of the 22 vertical wells it has already drilled in the Yellow Hammer area of Hickory is causing the water contamination.

The 22 vertical wells already drilled are combination oil and gas wells. Eighteen of those 22 wells have also been "fracked," a procedure that uses water, chemicals and sand pumped down the well under high pressure to fracture the rock layers and release the oil and gas.

The Catalyst wells are all between 1,500 feet and 3,000 feet deep and extend into the Bradford Group, an upper Devonian oil and gas sands formation containing an estimated 250 billion cubic feet of recoverable gas. The Marcellus Shale is a middle Devonian formation and its wells in the state are usually 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet deep.

Residents of the two homes within 2,500 feet of the wells complained to the DEP in January about odors and cloudy water. Notices of violation were issued to Catalyst on Feb. 10 and March 1 for groundwater contamination.

Freda Tarbell, a DEP spokeswoman, said the DEP's follow-up investigations confirmed that natural gas had contaminated the water supply at both homes.

Catalyst is required by the March 30 order to immediately provide temporary, whole-house water systems to the affected homes and permanently restore or replace the water supplies by July 1.

Catalyst wells already producing in the area will be allowed to continue operations, Ms. Tarbell said.

Phone calls to Catalyst requesting comment were not returned. Catalyst was incorporated in 1992 and, according to the company's website, has developed and operates more than 400 oil and gas wells in the state.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.