Community Joins Together to Offer Clean Water to Families Affected by Natural Gas Fracking Pollution

Posted Sept. 10, 2014

MP3 Interview with Rev. Lee Dreyer, pastor of the White Oaks Spring Presbyterian Church in Butler County, Pennsylvania, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

fracking

As the Marcellus shale gas fracking boom in western Pennsylvania continues, more and more residents are finding their formerly pure well water contaminated. Most of the contamination has not been proven to be caused by the gas industry, but residents say their problems started when the gas infrastructure came in wells, processing facilities and compressor stations, along with a huge increase in heavy truck traffic.

One group of affected residents lives in a low-income neighborhood of about 200 homes called the Woodlands, in Butler County, surrounded by 65 wells within a two-mile radius. John Stolz, a researcher from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, interviewed three-quarters of the resident and found 40 percent reported problems with their water. Testing revealed the presence of high amounts of certain chemicals, but none that are among the most toxic. Gas drilling company Rex Energy and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined that residents' well water didn't differ significantly from pre-drill samples taken by the company, although Stolz notes that the wells were not tested when fracking was occurring. Further, the DEP did not test for all chemicals related to the fracking process, and the company has not revealed its pre-drill testing results.

Nine families from the Woodlands filed lawsuits against Rex Energy last year, claiming the company's practices contributed to the decline of their water quality, health and quality of life. The residents were left to deal with the problem on their own, until several area churches got together to set up a clean water bank. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus just completed a reporting trip to the area, where she spoke with many affected residents and Rev. Lee Dreyer, pastor of the White Oaks Spring Presbyterian Church in Butler County, which houses the water bank. Here, he describes how the water bank works, whom it serves, and what kind of resolution the affected families are seeking.

REV. LEE DREYER: Every Monday we alternate between mornings and evenings, for those people who work. We open our back door here for people to pick up cartons or crates of gallon jugs of water. It's depending on the size of the family how much they get, but it's usually 20 to 40 gallons per week per family. We usually get around 300 gallons per week and we distribute, depending on the week, between 300 and 400 gallons of water. When there's a delivery, this room is pretty full.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And how many families participate?

REV. LEE DREYER: Right now, a ballpark figure of approximately 35 families. We started off with 11 about 2.5 years ago, and since that time there's more and more families whose water has been affected by fracking. It was springtime about 2.5 years ago, and I know they were hurting for water at least a year before that, so we're going on 3.5 to 4 years that these people have to deal with tainted, polluted, smelly, discolored water coming out of their spigots and showerheads.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Mike and I just drove through there, and it's really interesting. The roads are terrible. He said they have to maintain the roads. The housing varied; some of it looked fine, and some of it looked pretty poor. It gets pretty expensive to have to buy water – well, they're getting it donated, but whoever's buying it – ongoing, it starts to get expensive.

REV. LEE DREYER: Yeah, it's about a dollar a gallon. We've been blessed with some really good folks, some individuals and churches in the area – mostly Presbyterian – have been really, really gracious. And since we started, we have not run out of money; we've gotten low, but God is good and we get some influx of cash that has helped us out, so we've never had a week that we weren't able to distribute the water.

BETWEEN THE LINES: That's a pretty good record.

REV. LEE DREYER: Not bad at all.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you see down the road, I mean, must more and more families needing the water and ongoing efforts to help them out? Is there any, do you know of any efforts to change the game in a way so people could get their water functioning again in a way they could drink it?

REV. LEE DREYER: Well, the goal was that we would be done with this by this time. We were hoping they would have water piped into their area by the local governments, both county and the township governments. But they have not been very responsive. I think they would wish the people in the Woodlands would just go away and they didn't have to worry about this. You mentioned the condition of the roads. These are tax-paying citizens; they work, they pay their taxes, but they've been completely ignored by the powers that be. There seems to be no end in sight. We hear rumors that money will be provided by the gas companies themselves or by government that they'd be able to get the water pipes laid, and they'd be able to hook up to those water pipes and they'd be able to turn on their faucets and get nice clean, cold water coming out of there, but so far it hasn't happened, so there is no end in sight. We'll keep going as long as we can, as long as we have the money and as long as there's a need.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You said right in the beginning that this water crisis was caused by fracking, but in fact there's no proof of that, isn't that correct? Like the companies say it's not them and I think there's been proof that they're responsible. Is that right? You're smiling...

REV. LEE DREYER: You're talking to the wrong person. Of course, the gas companies are going to deny it, and those who would support them would deny it. I have my suspicions because of just what I've observed. I've seen water the color of apple cider coming out of people's faucets; I have seen water in one case the color of used motor oil coming out of there. And others will say it's not the gas companies' fault; I have my strong suspicions. I also am very much concerned about the air quality, what is spewing forth from the drilling sites. It came home very closely within the past few months because there is a new drilling site less than a quarter-mile from where we live, here in the township, where my wife and two kids live, and I certainly am concerned about the quality of the air also. What I've told lots of people is that I'm all in favor of this, as far as becoming energy independent and all that, and providing jobs for people, I'm all for it, but it has to be safe. It has to be. And thus far I've not seen the proof that it is absolutely, 100 percent safe.

For more information White Oaks Spring Presbyterian Church's clean water program, visit Water in the Woodlands Sites.google.com/site/waterforwoodlands/.

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