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The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating what could be the first case of water well contamination from natural gas drilling in Allegheny County since the fracking boom began in Pennsylvania.

The case began shortly after a company drilled and fracked the Midas well in Plum Borough last year. It was the first unconventional shale gas well project ever in the borough.

About a month after fracking at the “Midas 8M” well was completed, a neighboring landowner reported that their water well nearly dried up, its filtration system was clogged with sediment and debris, and a “foul” smell was emanating from drains inside a house, according to a complaint lodged with the DEP.

LISTEN: “DEP Investigating Gas Well for Water Supply Complaint in Pittsburgh Suburb”

Lauren Fraley, a DEP spokeswoman, said that the company is automatically assumed to be at fault under state law, if the water problems occur within 12 months of drilling and within 2,500 feet of the well.

“If it’s within that timeframe and within that distance, then that that presumption automatically applies,” Fraley said. This case met those criteria, she said, so the agency ruled the gas well was “presumed to be the cause” of the pollution.

DEP documents also show the agency conducted water tests at the property and found elevated levels of iron and other metals in the water, over and above “pre-drill, expected” levels.

Huntley & Huntley Energy Exploration, the Monroeville-based company that owns the well, is refuting the DEP’s finding, and the agency is investigating materials the company has provided.

“We’re still reviewing that and we consider it an ongoing investigation and have not made any final determinations on this water supply complaint,” Fraley said.

If the agency finds against the company, it will have to provide a replacement source of water to the landowner. No timetable for the review has been set, Fraley said.

Kimberly Price, a spokeswoman for Huntley & Huntley Energy Exploration, said in an email, “PA DEP has not yet filed a determination on this water well complaint; however, (Huntley & Huntley) has been working closely with Department officials to investigate the water well in question.”

The case could mark a first for the fracking industry in Allegheny County. The DEP lists over 300 water supply determination letters on its website, for cases where the agency “determined that a private water supply was impacted by oil and gas activities.”

But until the determination in Plum, there were no cases from activity in densely populated Allegheny County, which has been largely bypassed by the drilling boom.

Allegheny County has only 146 fracked, unconventional wells, compared to nearly 1,700 in neighboring Washington County, according to DEP data.

But companies are trying to fit more wells in to the suburban and exurban communities that surround Pittsburgh, including Plum, to get at the large amounts of gas in the Marcellus shale.

In 2017, the 29-square mile borough, with a population of about 27,000, decided to allow drilling in about one-third of the municipality, over the objections of some who live there. And in 2018, Huntley & Huntley began drilling its first site there, the Midas well, on Coxcomb Hill Road.

Borough manager Michael Thomas said the Midas well would not have been permitted under Plum’s 2017 zoning ordinance, because it’s in an area where unconventional gas drilling is not allowed.

Councilman Dave Majernik said he would like to see the results of the DEP investigation before passing judgement on whether the council’s drilling ordinance was wise or not.

“I’m still not sorry we did that — there’s a lot of landowners here who stand to make some income — we’re always talking about economic development in our municipality,” said Majernik, who said he had not spoken with the property owner. “At this point I think we should reserve judgement until it’s fully investigated and (then) take proper action.”

Shortly after drilling began, a neighbor began experiencing problems with their water supply, according to an August 2018 DEP complaint obtained by the Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania.

According to the complaint, the landowner, whose name was withheld by the DEP, reported low water volumes because “dirt/debris” was clogging the water well and its filtration system. The landowner also specified “foul odor coming from drains.” The landowner said they first noticed the change two months earlier and that the well was producing less water in the days before they called the DEP.

A separate complaint, logged by a DEP staffer in Pittsburgh, states that the landowner rents out a property in Plum whose tenants were experiencing water supply problems:

“THE TENENTS {sic} HAVE LITTLE TO NO WATER,” the complaint log says. “THERE IS FRACKING VERY NEAR AND COMPLAINANT FEELS THIS MAY BE THE REASON FOR THE WATER LOSS.”

After taking the complaint, the DEP tested the water supply. In an Oct. 12 letter, Daniel F. Counahan, the DEP’s regional oil and gas manager, told the landowner that “oil and gas activities are presumed to be the cause of the pollution of your water supply.”

In a subsequent letter to Huntley & Huntley, Counahan told the company that the water well suffered from reduced water and higher levels of iron, manganese, turbidity and zinc than would be anticipated based on “pre-drill, expected levels” in the water. The letter indicates that Huntley’s Midas 8M well, which was drilled and fracked from May to July 2018, was the presumed cause of the pollution.

State law gives the company the right to rebut, or refute the “presumption of liability.” Huntley & Huntley issued its rebuttal in November 2018, said Fraley, and has subsequently provided additional materials backing up its case.

As required by state law, Huntley & Huntley is providing the landowner with a temporary water supply while the DEP makes a final determination as to what caused the damage to the water well, Fraley said.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.