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

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.

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