James Gillin was at his home in the hamlet of New Freeport when a neighbor came looking for him.
“He came down because he knows I work for the gas company. And he found a geyser in his yard,” Gillin said. The geyser was 15 feet high, coming out of an abandoned gas well.
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Gillin is a supervisor in Freeport Township, and he’s also a pipeline inspector who works for a contractor of EQT, which is fracking nearby. The neighbor, who also works in the gas industry, suspected the geyser was due to a drilling accident called a ‘frac-out’ — where liquids used in the fracking process to unlock gas in dense rocks escape the well casing meant to contain it and gets into a nearby well.
“He just asked if I knew anything about what happens when you get a frac out,” Gillin said. “And I was like, ‘I never seen one.’ So we kind of investigated together and had just common knowledge of the industry. I kind of had an idea what it was and I contacted EQT as quick as possible.”
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EQT shut down a nearby fracking operation called the Lumber well. Then it restarted the operation to see if the liquids it was using there were surfacing at the abandoned well. The results were immediate, said Gillin, who’s worked in the gas industry for 25 years.
“You could just hear it roaring through the hole and then you could see the gas coming out and you could see the water,” he said. “By the time they got it shut down, it receded to nothing there.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says EQT confirmed that fracking liquids used at the Lumber Well were ‘communicating with’ — or getting into — the abandoned well. Despite this, EQT publicly says it’s not sure if the two wells were connected.
“A communication is suspected based on initial observations at the abandoned well, but at this time we do not have enough data or evidence to confirm a communication,” a company spokeswoman said in a July 15 email. “The investigation into whether and how there may be a relationship between the two is ongoing.”
People who live there, though, are calling the event a frac-out.
Groundwater problems tied to oil and gas are nothing new in Pennsylvania. There have been nearly 400 confirmed cases of pollution or damage to underground drinking water from unconventional shale gas since 2007.
Abandoned wells are a particular hazard in Pennsylvania, where there are hundreds of thousands of historic wells, many of them unrecorded. That’s why companies must document historic wells near their drilling sites.
Gillin says the frac-out affected his neighbor’s well water, though his own appears to be fine. Others nearby have reported strange odors in their water, and pets refusing to drink it.
Elizabeth Pebley lives across a small valley from the Lumber pad.
After the frac-out, she started noticing a strange odor to her water. “Like a musty, rust smell,” she said.
Pebley hasn’t drunk well water since she developed health problems while living near fracking in West Virginia more than a decade ago. But she still cooks and bathes with it.
She’s upset she read about the frac-out on Facebook and that EQT didn’t tell her, though state law only requires it to notify DEP. Some of her neighbors are buying water rather than drinking out of their wells. If it turns out her water is contaminated, she wants the company to fix it.
“And for the people in New Freeport, that (were) like right there beside the frac-out, they should be doing stuff for them right now. They shouldn’t be waiting until they get the results back,” she said. “They know that there’s something wrong.”
EQT said its own sampling has shown “no other areas of concern at this time.“ But some neighbors have their doubts.
A ‘percolating’ abandoned well
Down a forested hillside, Tom Bussoletti bushwhacks to an abandoned well near his home. It’s a waist-high metal pipe, sticking vertically out of the ground.
Bussoletti took an EQT surveyor here about two years ago before the company drilled the Lumber pad. His recollection is that back then, the abandoned well had a pool of water in the middle, completely still.
Now there’s gas bubbling out of the ground, percolating through the water.
The abandoned well might be from the 1920s or ’30s, predating Bussoletti’s tenure on this hilltop, when he came here in 1980.
After the frac-out, he says he came to check on the well to see if there was any visible damage.
“As I walked up, I said, well, no change. But then, when I looked down in, it was percolating. That, to me, is a change. So the question is, is that change caused by the fracking or not?”
(Bussoletti has an unrelated lawsuit against EQM, EQT’s spinoff pipeline company, over the use of the private road he lives on.)
He said a DEP inspector who visited the site on July 19 confirmed the gas was methane.
The agency said it couldn’t say whether this well was affected by the frac-out. But it has issued several violations to EQT, and it said it’s still investigating.
For now, there is no fracking at the Lumber pad, but there are still plenty of workers in the area, building pipelines.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.