Some people think that I'm such a shill that I ignore bad news. It isn't that I ignore it, it is genuinely hard to find genuine, i.e. not allegations, innuendo or outright falsehood examples of negative experiences. Almost every incident of  "controversial" shale "pollution" sounds at first sight truly awful. But then...

What I do try, is to put the bad in context. Those who seek a risk free life should stay in bed, bearing in mind that as the 2010 Mortality Statistics shows 2 males and 3 females accidentally suffocated in bed, all risk is relative.

An example came late last week when a very rare event occurred.

Three northeastern Pennsylvania families have reached a $1.6 million settlement with a gas drilling company over contaminated water wells.

But Jared McMicken of Wyalusing said the agreement reached Thursday provides little comfort since his drinking water was ruined by nearby drilling, and his family must move.

Last year the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Chesapeake just over $1 million for contaminating the water supplies of 16 families in the area, including McMicken's. A transcript of expert testimony in the settlement showed that experts from DEP agreed that faulty cement casings on the wells allowed gas and other substances to migrate from deep underground and pollute the water wells.

Where we need the context is asking how damaging, how permanent and how often. There have been over 7000 wells drilled and some 2900 violations, but there are violations and there are violations.The case above seems serious, but  46 violations such as

Failure to install, in a permanent manner, the permit number on a completed well

don't strike me as good reason to forego hundreds of billion of dollars of economic benefit.On the other hand, the 44 violations for improper casing to protect groundwater gives a failure rate of  gives the same failure rate of .6 of one per cent. Going back to the external causes of  morbidity index, 3.8% of accidental deaths involved falling down stairs for context's sake.

But seriously, the small failure rate has to be looked at in the Pennsylvania context not appropriate to Europe. The wells which were contaminated, for however long a  period were individual drinking water wells, a very uncommon source in Europe. The disagreement in PA lies in how serious it was.  The troubling part here is that the three families have to give up their homes to Chesapeake as part of the settlement. To have an accidental poisoning is one thing that over time effects a small amount of people a small amount, but to lose one's home, albeit getting compensated for several times market value sounds extreme. But a further report from the Philadelphia Inquirer points towards a more voluntary leaving of the homes

 Chesapeake installed treatment systems for the water wells, but the owners of the three homes were unsatisfied. "The company believes there is no permanent damage that would prevent a future sale, enabling Chesapeake Appalachia to recoup a significant portion of the settlement," the company said in a statement Friday.

Further investigation at the local paper 

 "A difficult aspect of this investigation has been the lack of pre-drill water testing on some of the water sources," the statement read. "The PA Department of Environmental Protection currently recommends pre-drill testing within a 2,500-foot radius of any oil or gas drilling operation, and Chesapeake meets or exceeds that recommendation with its testing.

 "All of these water sources are beyond that testing radius, and thus Chesapeake had not collected pre-drill data for the water sources."

 According to the company's statement, test data that was obtained from nearby homes within the 2,500 foot radius show methane levels before Chesapeake had begun operations on the well pad.

 "The pre-drill testing that we do have in the area shows that a significant percentage of the residential wells had measurable methane levels prior to any Chesapeake drilling activity in the area," the statement continued. "Furthermore, many wells exceeded at least one of the drinking water standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with arsenic, iron and manganese being common findings.

Suddenly the smoking gun of this case seems to simply smoulder. This is certainly no proof that shale gas drilling assures water contamination no matter how much some will try. This is a classic case of needing to dig a little bit below the headlines, something that most journalists and more than a few antis are unwilling to do. When you are absolutely convinced of your case, who needs to look below the headlines?

It will be interesting to see the future value of the homes. It sounds hard to believe but one can actually get homes in this area that many New Yorkers could put on  a credit card, so the settlement value of over $500K each should be put in context. An enticing option would be to move into the featured listing here for $219K for example and drink bottled water for several years.



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