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Tioga County man blames nearby gas drilling for polluting his well


Candor, NY -- Fred Mayer holds a lighter to his faucet, lets the water run, and — pow — the flow ignites into a small fireball. “I can wash my dishes and poach an egg at the same time,” he joked.

But it’s no laughing matter. Mayer’s faucets spew natural gas. The gas has polluted his water supply, forcing Mayer to buy bottled water to drink. If enough gas builds up in his faucets or walls, scientists warn, Mayer’s house could explode.

Outside, the stream where Mayer once caught trout, minnows and crayfish bubbles and spurts, Mayer said. The stream is belching gas. The fish are mostly dead, he said.

Mayer, 59, a disabled Vietnam veteran, lives in Candor, a rural town in Tioga County, between Ithaca and Binghamton. He has lived in the same house since 1962. He has used the same drinking water well since 1966. The problems with his water started about three years ago, he said.

Mayer blames his flammable faucet on natural gas drilling near his home. Fortuna Energy Inc., the largest natural-gas company in New York, began drilling in Tioga County in late 2003, company lawyer and spokesman Mark Scheuerman said.

“I never had a problem,” Mayer said. “The gas wasn’t here before. Then all of a sudden the drilling starts happening and wham, bam.”

Fortuna denies any link between Mayer’s water problems and the company’s drilling. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, although it never visited Mayer’s home, concluded the gas was naturally occurring and decided no investigation was needed. Independent scientists say the cause of the gas might never be known.

Natural gas trapped in shale formations buried deep underground can seep into pipes and homes naturally, said William Kappel, a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. But there have been documented cases where drilling has released gas that has migrated into wells and bodies of water miles away, he said.

“There’s no smoking gun either way on this,” Kappel said. “It’s very difficult to assess cause and effect. The potential for gas migration (from drilling) is generally pretty small ... but it’s not impossible.”

There’s no drilling on Mayer’s property or even next door. The closest gas wells are 5 and 7 miles away, according to the DEC. The one 7 miles away has not yielded any gas since it was drilled in 2006, said Yancey Roy, who speaks for the DEC. “It is highly improbable that other wells located more than 7 miles away caused Mr. Mayer’s problem,” Roy said.

Scheuerman said Fortuna operated “many successful wells” near Mayer’s home from 2004 to 2008, including in the Spencer and Owego areas. Spencer is about 8 miles west of Candor; Owego is about 10 miles south.

All of the wells tapped into the Trenton-Black River Formation. Scheuerman said his company used horizontal drilling to unleash the gas, but the DEC said no hydrofracking was used in the two wells closest to Mayer’s house. Fortuna has since stopped drilling in Spencer and into the Trenton-Black River Formation. No more wells are planned, Scheuerman said. “We are focused exclusively on development of the Marcellus Shale,” he said.

The DEC has prohibited drilling in the Marcellus Shale until an environmental review is complete. That is likely to be months away. But environmental advocates fear that without strict regulations on gas drilling and enough regulators to oversee the process, incidents like Mayer’s will become more common.

“I think he is an indication of the shortcomings of the regulatory situation,” said Walter Hang, of Toxics Targeting, an environmental group based in Ithaca. “When people report these problems, they don’t get the response the public would normally expect.”

Mayer called the DEC to report his ignitable water Jan. 26, 2009. He told agency officials he was concerned about natural gas drilling taking place near his home, according to a DEC report. The DEC told him to vent his well, the report says.

Mayer said the DEC never came to his house to investigate. Roy said the agency decided no investigation was needed because of the distance between Mayer’s house and the drilling, the timing of the complaint and the fact that no other residents closer to the drilling reported well contamination.

Roy said the DEC received a complaint about gas in a water well in Newark Valley, about 8 miles east of Candor, in July 1999. There was no natural-gas drilling taking place then in Tioga County or neighboring Broome County, he said. “This could indicate that the methane occurrence in Mr. Mayer’s well is not unique to his property or area,” Roy said. “Natural gas in water wells commonly occurs throughout the state.”

Roy said the DEC has received no other reports of gas contamination in the area of Mayer’s home, although he noted that the DEC would be aware of problems only if residents report them.

Officials with the Tioga County Health Department said they have received no complaints about well contamination.

The group Tioga Investigates Natural Gas — made up of representatives from the county Legislature, Council of Governments and several other civic, business and environmental agencies — notes on its Web site that “there is a community concern that private wells may be affected by the natural gas drilling.”

Kappel, of the USGS, said it’s possible for different wells to react differently to natural gas because of geology and water levels across an aquifer. Gas could seep into one well, while keeping clear of a neighboring well, he said. He also pointed out that changing water levels could cause more gas to evolve than when a well was drilled, leaving the door open to the possibility that Mayer’s gas problem is naturally occurring.

Mayer said he also complained to Fortuna. The company referred him to the DEC, he said.

Scheuerman said Fortuna records show that Mayer called in January but complained about lease payments, not water quality. Mayer’s father had signed a drilling lease with Fortuna before he died.

There has been no drilling on Mayer’s 97-acre property, but Mayer receives rental payments from Fortuna. Mayer said he renegotiated the terms in January to bump his payments from about $400 a year to about $57,000 a year.

Mayer said he was trying only to secure payments that fall in line with his neighbors’. He insists he complained to Fortuna about his water, as well.

Without spending thousands of dollars to fingerprint the gas in his well, Mayer will likely never find where it came from. But even answers, he said, wouldn’t calm his frustration and anger. “It’s very disheartening to me,” Mayer said, “knowing that the environment that I grew up in is going to pieces.”