A Pennsylvania landowner is suing an energy company for polluting his soil and water by a natural gas drilling technique.
George Zimmermann, the owner of 480 acres in Washington County, southwest Pennsylvania, says Atlas Energy Inc. ruined his land with toxic chemicals used in or released there by hydraulic fracturing.
Water tests at three locations by gas wells on Zimmermann’s property — one is 1,500 feet from his home — found seven potentially carcinogenic chemicals above “screening levels” set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Zimmermann says he has evidence that chemicals used by Atlas contaminated his land.
Atlas is exploiting the Marcellus Shale, a vast gas reserve that underlies about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia, Ohio and New York State.
The gas is being extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced a mile or more underground at high pressure, fracturing the shale and causing the release of natural gas.
In June, water tests found arsenic at 2,600 times acceptable levels, benzene at 44 times above limits and naphthalene five times the federal standard. Soil samples detected mercury and selenium above official limits, as well as ethylbenzene, a chemical used in drilling, and trichloroethene, a naturally occurring but toxic chemical that can be brought to the surface by gas drilling.
Zimmermann’s suit, filed in September in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas, follows claims by residents in many gas-drilling areas of the United States that fracking pollutes private water wells with toxic chemicals and threatens widespread contamination of aquifers from which many rural households draw drinking water.
Although communities as far apart as Pennsylvania and Wyoming complain that their water has become unusable, they have been unable to prove a link to gas drilling. Energy companies refuse to say what chemicals are used in so-called fracking fluid, saying the mixture is proprietary.
Companies are not required to disclose the composition of the fluid because of an exemption to a federal clean water law granted to the oil and gas industry in 2005.
Many local residents have been deterred from fighting the gas companies by the expense of legal action and water testing. Zimmermann says he has spent about $15,000 on water tests and will spend whatever it takes to prove his case.
Rural residents who live near gas drilling say their water has become discolored, foul-smelling, or even flammable because methane from disturbed gas deposits has migrated into water wells.
Farmers in southwest Pennsylvania blame cattle deaths and mutations on local fracking. Other complaints attributed to tainted water include children’s sickness, skin rashes and neurological disorders.
The industry says the chemicals used in fracking are injected through layers of steel and concrete thousands of feet below aquifers, and so pose no threat to drinking water.
Zimmermann’s suit says his land has become “virtually valueless” because it is permanently contaminated with toxic chemicals as a result of the 10 wells that Atlas has drilled.
The suit accuses Atlas — which is able to drill on the land because it acquired the mineral rights from a previous owner — of negligence. It is seeking an injunction against further drilling, and unspecified financial damages.
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