Federal Agencies Probe Range Resources' Yeager Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Site

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
11 June 2012
By Don Hopey

Federal health and environmental agencies are investigating whether Range Resources Inc.'s Yeager Marcellus Shale gas drilling site in Washington County caused toxic air and groundwater pollution that damaged the health of nearby residents.

The Atlanta-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said this week it has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since March 2011 to assess health problems reported by residents living in a valley below Range's wastewater pond and a drill cuttings pit at the Amwell Township site.

Three of those families filed a personal injury lawsuit in Washington County Common Pleas Court last month alleging that their health was damaged and their risk of cancer increased due to exposure to toxic leaks, spills and air pollutants from Range's operations. Range has denied the charges.

Three plaintiffs, Stacey Haney and her children, moved out of their home on McAdams Road, about 1,500 feet from the Yeager impoundment. The other plaintiffs are Beth, John and Ashley Voyles, and Loren Kiskadden and his mother, Grace Kiskadden, who live in separate homes near the impoundment.

Federal agencies have legal authority to step in to supplement state regulation and enforcement.

The toxic substances registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said its focus has been in "evaluating whether the health effects and symptoms being reported at this (Yeager) site could be related to any environmental exposures."

The agency stated it has had discussions with the EPA and area residents, made two site visits and "facilitated medical consultations" for some residents, but as yet has produced "no formal conclusions." Its investigation is ongoing and it is seeking additional air quality monitoring and evaluation in the area.

The EPA confirmed that the Yeager drill site is one of three sites in Pennsylvania and seven nationwide that are part of a Congressionally mandated $1.9 million study assessing the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. That study will be finished in 2014.

Separate from the study's work, the EPA sampled an intermittent stream near Range's 3 million gallon fracking wastewater impoundment in 2011, and reviewed private well water test data, but took no action. In March of this year, the EPA asked residents for permission to conduct a second round of water quality tests.

Those tests detected nitrate levels in concentrations more than twice as high as allowed by federal drinking water standards in the Voyles' well water, and the EPA told the family about the problem in April.

Small children can be sickened by drinking water with nitrate levels that high and infants drinking water or formula with high nitrate levels can die from "blue baby syndrome."

Nitrates in groundwater come from runoff from fertilizer use, leaking septic systems and erosion of natural deposits, according to the EPA. Several studies show they can also be found in flowback water from shale gas fracking.

According to a laboratory analysis done for Range, nitrates were present in measurable quantities in the flowback fluids tested in the Yeager impoundment in November 2010.

EPA and toxic substances registry spokesmen refused to comment on the source of the nitrates found in groundwater on the Voyles property.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, issued a statement saying the federal and state agencies are properly responding to citizen concerns, but the company believes any new tests will confirm previous test results that show no health impacts associated with Range activities.

"Hopefully these fact-based reports will provide the residents with greater peace of mind," Mr. Pitzarella wrote. "There may very well be some red flags with air or water, which is not uncommon in Western Pennsylvania, but that doesn't mean it has anything to do with responsible gas development."

Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman, said the federal investigations are separate from DEP's reviews of water contamination complaints, which "have not found any impacts attributable to oil and gas development" in private water wells at homes owned by the Voyles and Kiskaddens.

The plaintiffs allege that in September 2011 Range provided incomplete drinking water test results to the DEP that omitted findings showing a high concentration of nitrate -- which can cause cancer -- plus fracking fluid, flowback water, uranium and silicon. Today, both the Voyles and Haney properties are receiving replacement water supplied by Range.

Don Hopey:  dhopey@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1983.