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State determines wastewater from gas drilling contaminated drinking water in Westmoreland County



The state Department of Environmental Protection has officially determined that drinking water at a third residence is contaminated by WPX Appalachia LLC’s leaky Marcellus Shale gas drilling wastewater impoundment near Stahlstown, Westmoreland County.

Whether that gets any of the three families living along rural Route 711 south of Ligonier any closer to a permanent replacement water supply is another matter.

The DEP last week ordered WPX to restore or replace the water supply at the home of Ken and Mildred Geary, both in their 80s, who first complained that their water had a foul, chemical smell and taste a year ago. The order came down two years after the DEP first received a complaint about possible ground water contamination from the impoundment at WPX’s Kelp shale gas drilling pad.

The DEP made the contamination determination based on tests done in June, that showed the well water contained higher concentrations of chloride, barium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, strontium and total dissolved solids than it did prior to November 2011 when WPX drilled the Kelp well. 

“In February, I believe the data was already there to show contamination,” said Nick Kennedy, an attorney with the Mountain Watershed Association, a local environmental advocacy group that has worked with the families. “This determination and order should have been made months ago.”

That’s when the DEP issued a determination that the water well used by Joseph and Sonja Latin, who live next door to the Gearys, had been contaminated by WPX and ordered the company to start the process of permanently replacing their water.

WPX appealed that order to the state Environmental Hearing Board. It has 30 days to appeal the Gearys’ order.

The third family, the Browns, filed a water quality complaint with the DEP in September 2012 and in July of last year the department ordered the company to permanently replace their water supply. A year later, the Browns are still drawing water from a 2,500-gallon plastic water tank, and have filed a lawsuit against the company and its subcontractors alleging damages to their property value.

Susan Oliver, A WPX spokeswoman, said she doesn’t know if the company plans to appeal the DEP order to replace the Geary’s water, but added that water tests are continuing and “until that’s done and finalized a determination on replacing the supplies can’t be made.”

John Poister, a DEP spokesman, said the process of permanently restoring water supplies for the families, though delayed by legal appeals and complications, is moving forward.

“DEP has determined that WPX’s activity has impacted these water supplies and have issued a unilateral order to permanently replace the three water supplies,” he said in a written response to questions. “We realize that this is a serious issue for these homeowners. If WPX fails to comply with this order it will result in enforcement actions, which could include an immediate permitting freeze until the issue is addressed.”

Mr. Poister said that while WPX has provided the affected families with bottled water and other temporary water sources, “it’s not a replacement for clean running water in the home.”

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

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