Alarm bells sound for Karoo residents after US farmer’s water supply ruined

Guy Rogers

DESPITE assurances by Shell that fracking in the Karoo will not affect the region’s water supply, shocking details have emerged in the United States of how shale drilling by the giant petroleum company has wiped out a farm’s pristine water supply.

An investigation by The Herald has revealed that the spring water supply on a small farm in Pennsylvania, once the pride of the state, is now unfit for human consumption, and the farmer and his family must now drink from supplies trucked in by Shell.

Owned by Jerry and Denise Gee, the water on the farm near Wellsboro in Tioga County bursts into flames when lit with a match, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has found Shell responsible for the migration of methane into the supply aquifer.

Although this case has been unfolding in the US for the past year, Shell South Africa’s Jan Willem Eggink said in Port Elizabeth last month that shale gas extraction drilling was safe, and that they were unaware of any case anywhere around the world where a Shell operation of this kind had been implicated in water pollution. One of the key issues in the US case is that the groundwater supply was contaminated before controversial hydraulic rock fracturing (fracking) even began.

Jeremiah Gee, 34, the Gees’ son, who is a PhD student at Penn State University but still lives on the family farm, said that while Shell had not been able to explain how this could have happened, the company’s own tests had revealed there were naturally occurring fissures running directly from its well pad adjacent to the farm, down to the spring and a large natural pond.

“It appears that the gas was disturbed either by the initial sinking of the shaft or by the perforating procedure. It then migrated up and along these fissures and into our water.”

Gee said the farm had been in the family for four generations, and the water in the pond had been “so good municipalities would pay to have it”.

Pre-drilling tests were done on this water by the fracking company East Resources, before it established itself on an adjoining property less than 100m above the pond. East Resources was then bought out by Shell. These quality tests clearly showed no presence of methane in the Gees’ water.

The trouble started last year with a diesel spill from the well pad which ran down into the pond. Then, in March, Shell constructed an additional pad, with no added erosion controls. “Spring came, the snow melted and washed tons of sediment into the pond.

“A test by the Pennsylvania DEP showed a dip in the water quality. There was a die-off of salamanders, fish and frogs.”

This situation had been left improperly addressed for months, despite a notice of violation sent by the DEP to Shell, he said.

At the same time, the taps inside the house had begun to splutter. The water coming out turned a milky colour and fizzed with bubbles. On April 6 this year the Gees were able for the first time to set this water on fire, revealing what they already suspected: it was full of gas.

In a May 20 letter to Shell, a copy of which is in The Herald’s possession, the DEP said the company had violated the Oil and Gas Act through its “failure to prevent the migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh water”.

“Our investigation revealed Shell has caused or allowed gas from lower formations to enter fresh groundwater.”

The department then wrote to the Gees, noting that “evidence such as isotopic data [chemical DNA] indicates one or more of the gas wells on Shell’s nearby well pad are the likely source of this methane… Our conclusion is that your water supply has been affected by gas drilling.”

Little life is left in the Gees’ pond. Most recently it has been “cross-contaminated” by bacteria introduced, as Shell has admitted, by equipment it has used to monitor not only the adjacent well but also others.

“Shell has given us a report that says the fracking fluid could follow the same route into our water as the methane has done,” Gee noted. Shell has in the meanwhile been working on finding and closing off the gas migration route from the well pad.

This does not seem to be working, however, as the DEP took another water sample at the beginning of this month and the methane content was even higher than before this work started, he noted.

The department has so far, however, taken no further action against Shell.

Gee said while his family did not want to attack Shell unreasonably, “people around the world, including your residents in the Karoo, need to know the inherent dangers of shale gas drilling and that, once the damage has happened, their promises may mean nothing, and you may be left with the mess”.

“The damage cannot be reversed. Our peace is gone, our privacy is gone, our summer is gone. The way you live your life changes forever when you must rely on a global corporation to restore your property and bring water to your family. There is no end in sight.

“Before South Africa agrees to exploratory or experimental drilling, it should understand how dangerous it is for agriculture, for ecology, and for public health and safety.”

Graaff-Reinet lawyer Derek Light, who is representing more than 200 farmers and other parties opposing Shell’s Karoo fracking plans, said yesterday the Gee case was directly pertinent for what was being proposed by Shell in South Africa.

“This is first-hand experience of exactly the scenario that faces South Africa if the Shell applications here are approved.”

He said the groundwater contamination danger was multiplied in the Karoo because of the reliance of the residents on groundwater, and the complete lack of knowledge on just how far the aquifers and the underground fracture complex extended, and how the different parts connected.

Responding to questions, Shell SA spokesman Kim Bye Bruun said Shell had been notified in April of “the presence of methane in a water well…. north-east of Wellsboro”, and it immediately investigated.

“The investigation included sampling the home-owners’ water well and water wells in the surrounding area,” he said.

“Shell also inspected and sampled each of the gas wells on its well pad.

“To date, although there are some similarities, there is no conclusive link between the methane found in the water well and Shell’s operations.

“Shell is working together with the home-owners in question, and the DEP, and is continuing to investigate by conducting additional analysis of the gas sample,” he said.

Shell has furthermore, “as a precautionary measure” disconnected the groundwater supply from the Gees’ home and is supplying the family with alternative potable water, he said.

Asked about the statement in Port Elizabeth last month by Shell SA’s Jan Willem Eggink that he was not aware of any shale gas drilling contamination of ground water anywhere in the word – Bruun said Eggink had been referring to hydraulic fracturing in particular, and the well in question has not been fracked yet, only drilled.

“We are not aware of any cases of ground water contamination due to fracking.”

Bruun was lastly asked what guarantees Shell SA could give that the same or worse contamination will not happen in the Karoo, if the company goes ahead with shale gas drilling there.

He did not respond to this question.



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