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Feds: National Frack Study Being Conducted Near Lawsuit Site

Federal officials have confirmed that two agencies studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are conducting their work in Washington County, PA, near a Marcellus Shale drilling and impoundment site that is the target of a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, inspectors with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have concurrently tested drinking water near the Yeager site, which is located in Amwell Township and is operated for Range Resources Corp.

EPA Region 3 spokeswoman Terri White told NGI's Shale Daily that inspectors with the agency's Office of Research and Development (ORD) have been in Washington County since March 2011 collecting samples for a national retrospective case study on fracking (see Shale Daily, Feb. 22, 2011).

"They're looking at sites where drilling activities are already taking place to see if there are any impacts to drinking water," White said Thursday. "Washington County is a retrospective case study because drilling activities have already been occurring in that area over a number of years prior to when we first went out there."

Separate from the ORD's work, White said Region 3 inspectors visited the Yeager site multiple times to respond to residents' complaints about their drinking water.

"We were out there [near the Yeager impoundment] on a number of occasions for various reasons," White said, adding that in July 2011 inspectors "took samples from an intermittent stream that runs behind the impoundment. But as a result we found that there really wasn't a problem. There was no need to take any action."

Federico Feldstein, spokesman for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that inspectors from that agency were working in Washington County as well.

"ATSDR is not performing tests at the Yeager site," Feldstein told NGI's Shale Daily. "Rather, ATSDR is reviewing environmental and clinical data to understand whether it is possible to determine whether health effects and symptoms being reported by residents could be related to any environmental exposures."

Three families that live near the Yeager site have filed a lawsuit in Washington County Common Pleas Court alleging that activities there contaminated their groundwater supply (see Shale Daily, May 31). The plaintiffs also allege that Microbac Laboratories Inc. and Test America Inc. withheld data collected from water samples taken at their drinking water wells from them and from regulators with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday told NGI's Shale Daily the state agency was conducting its own investigation into the contamination claims, separate from the EPA and ATSDR.

"We've had, near this Range site, well water complaints from landowners alleging that Range has contaminated their water. We've done investigations on all three," Sunday said, adding that a final determination at two of the residences showed "no evidence that any actual or alleged contamination was the result of any oil and gas activity."

Sunday said the final determination for the third residence would be completed in the "near future."

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella told NGI's Shale Daily the EPA was doing its job, but he reiterated that neither federal nor state inspectors have found any link between the company's operations at Yeager and complaints of groundwater or air contamination.

"The EPA was contacted by the residents who filed the lawsuit upwards of 50 separate times," Pitzarella said. "They have also filed complaints on various matters with state regulators. But this isn't anything new; they were out taking samples more than a year ago."

Pitzarella also criticized reporting of the EPA's activities by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, saying the newspaper's reports "make it sound like this a new occurrence [of contamination]."

"This is a situation where on multiple times, agencies have indicated that there is not an issue associated with gas drilling," Pitzarella said. "People continue to file complaints, yet regulators are responsive to that. In the end, we're confident that all of these results are going to continue to yield the exact same outcome: that there may be some issues out there -- whether with air or water -- but they are not related to our activity. In fact, they are pretty typical of the environmental issues in this part of the country."

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