GRANGER TWP.: A federal health agency says potentially explosive levels of natural gas at two houses in eastern Medina County are a public health threat.
The problems in the two drinking water wells appear linked to the nearby drilling of two natural gas wells in 2008, says the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That news contradicts repeated statements from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources on the connection between the drilling and problems at the two houses at State and Remsen roads.
“We are the victims of fracking… and natural gas drilling gone wrong,” said Mark Mangan, one of the affected homeowners.
On Sept. 29, 2008, Mangan and wife, Sandy, found that their drinking water well had gone dry at the same time that a company was drilling for natural gas at Allardale Park about a half mile away.
When the water returned to the Mangans’ well in five days, it had an unpleasant taste and a rotten-egg scent. It was salty. It bubbled. It contained methane gas and a gray slurry of cement.
The Mangans could ignite the gas bubbles in the water from their kitchen sink, similar to what happened in the anti-fracking documentary Gasland.
“Yes, we got water back, but it wasn’t our water,” said the 49-year-old Mangan. “Our water was gone.”
Neighbors William and Stephanie Boggs had similar well problems that began one day after the Mangans’. They told federal officials they continue to use the well water.
The Granger Township case is one of a small but growing number of cases in the United States where contamination problems have been linked by a federal agency to natural gas drilling.
In a Dec. 22 letter to the U.S. EPA, the CDC agency said both families are still at risk from potentially dangerous natural gas levels. The agency concluded that “the current conditions are likely to pose a public health threat.”
The agency looked at natural gas levels detected last November by the Granger Township Fire Department.
The levels of explosivity were 34.7 and 47.4 percent at wells at the two houses, the agency said. Hazardous conditions exist when levels surpass 10 percent, the health agency said.
The gas levels in and around the Mangans’ house have been so high that firefighters were called several times. Columbia Gas shut off service for a time because of the likelihood of an explosion.
“We are constantly in danger,” Mangan said. “Our house was a bomb waiting to go off.”
He said the explosivity levels inside the house have been as high as 20 percent, far above the federal guideline of 1 percent.
The healthy agency intends to work with the Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health to address the problem.
Those steps include:
• Getting Natural Resources to immediately seal an older, abandoned natural gas well that also appears to be contributing to the problem.
• Working with the Ohio Department of Health and local health agencies to vent wellheads and enclosed space in the homes where water is used.
•Encouraging Natural Resources or the drillers to conduct gas tests in the two houses when water is in use, such as shower and laundry times.
• Conducting additional water testing at the two houses and a house near the older leaking well, and surveying other nearby homes.
The health agency said it intends to meet with Ohio agency officials soon to discuss the findings that were released to the Mangans and Boggses last week.
Said U.S. EPA spokesman Jeffrey McDonald in an email: “We think their [Natural Resource’s] continued attention to this issue is still needed.”
The federal involvement surfaced at a Jan. 9 health conference on drilling safety in Alexandria, Va.
Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at the National Center for Environmental Health, part of the federal CDC, said in a presentation that his agency has been investigating gas levels from drilling problems in Medina County.
He told reporters he was not authorized to provide additional information.
Cement problems noted
The two Allardale Park gas wells were drilled by Wildcat Drilling LLC for Landmark 4 LLC, another firm. The county park is east of the Mangans’ house and near the Bath Township border.
The wells, about 1,500 feet apart, were being drilled to a depth of 3,700 feet and cemented on the outside for environmental protection at the time that the Mangans’ problems surfaced. The vertical wells were then fracked.
The federal health agency noted: “Problems in cementing the well casings were recorded in the drilling logs provided to ODNR, indicating the loss of a significant amount of cement somewhere in the drilled formation.”
Wildcat Drilling is affiliated with Ohio Valley Energy, a firm that drew headlines in 2007, after a house exploded east of Cleveland in Geauga County.
A casing failure on a well resulted in explosive methane gas migrating through the aquifer and into drinking water wells. One house exploded and 19 others were evacuated. The company said the problem was caused by a construction error.
Initially, the Mangans and Boggses were reportedly told by a state investigator that they were too far away from the drilling.
An investigator explained that the drilling could be responsible if their wells produced water again within five days. If that didn’t happen, drilling was not involved, they said they were told.
Their water returned, but with the smell, discoloration and gases.
The Mangans switched to bottled water for drinking. They initially used the well water only for showers and flushing. They hauled water via tank trucks. A filter was added. Later they took out a second mortgage to buy a $15,000 cistern to provide clean drinking water.
Their well is also producing less water than it used to. Production dropped from 30 gallons a minute to two or three gallons a minute.
Mangan said he wished he had evidence of the water quality from his 245-foot-deep well before the 2008 drilling, but he had never seen the need for such testing.
The Mangans remain angry at what they perceive to be the lack of help from the state agency. “The Ohio Department of Natural Resources did nothing for us. They said the gas company did nothing,” Mark Mangan said.
ODNR says differently
Natural Resources disagrees that the local drilling was responsible for the couple’s problems.
In 2009 letters, the agency said it had investigated the Mangans’ complaint and found “no evidence” that nearby drilling for natural gas had caused their well problems.
In January 2009, the state agency’s Division of Mineral Resources Management sent the Mangans a four-page letter that largely dismissed their complaint. Geologist Ahmed Hawari said a mild drought was responsible for the water loss from the’ well.
In March 2009, a top agency official upheld the Hawari’s conclusions. Scott Kell, then-deputy chief, indicated that the salt contamination probably came from road salt, not drilling wastes.
In October 2009, the state agency reported that a new source of contamination had been discovered: an abandoned well nearby.
The state had put a video camera down the Mangans’ water well and discovered evidence of a natural gas well on a neighbor’s property leaking into the Mangans’ aquifer, state spokesman Tom Tomastik said in a letter.
No action has been taken to reseal that well, sealed once in 1966, because the landowner refused to grant permission, officials said.
Meanwhile, authorities said there may be another source of gas infiltrating the Mangans’ water supply at a depth of 196 feet, but it has not been identified.
Family is stressed
The ordeal has taken a toll on both Mark, a millwright and volunteer firefighter, and Sandy, a real-estate agent.
“We’re very stressed,” said 48-year-old Sandy Mangan. “That’s the biggest thing. We’re not sure how this has affected our health. We have to live here. We can’t afford to walk away.”
Her husband added: “We’ve eaten, lived and slept with this for three years. It affects everything you do. It just eats away at you.”
The long-simmering dispute is likely to end up in court again. The Mangans and Boggses sued in 2010 in Medina County Common Pleas Court, but the suit was later withdrawn. It may be filed again before a March deadline.
The Mangans said they have also contacted federal and state agencies to investigate Natural Resources’ actions. The agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Inspector General’s office.
The EPA got the federal health agency involved. Spokesmen for the two other agencies said they cannot comment about possible investigations.
Mark Mangan said he does not feel vindicated by the federal health agency’s findings.
“I’m something of a pit bull and I’m not giving up or letting go,” he said. “I just want justice now. Because of everything we’ve been through, I do not believe that ODNR is capable or even interested in protecting Ohioans. Its only interest is helping and protecting the drillers. And that’s wrong.”
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Updates on the drilling industry can be found on the Utica Shale blog at http://drilling.ohio.com/.