MDN In-depth: Bradford County, PA Mother Claims Barium Poisoning from Nearby Gas Drilling Activity

The following happened at an anti-gas drilling rally in Harrisburg, PA on Tuesday:

A boisterous anti-gas drilling rally turned quiet Tuesday as Bradford County resident Crystal Stroud described how her family’s health has suffered this spring following the discovery that their water well was contaminated with toxic substances.

Speaking in a soft voice, Stroud, a 29-year-old wife and mother from Granville Summit, said tests by a commercial water analysis firm show the well has been contaminated with barium, strontium and radon. She experienced barium poisoning as a result with classic symptoms of heart palpitations, hair falling out and shortness of breath, she added. Her 4-year-old son has high barium levels too.

Stroud places the responsibility for the well contamination on nearby drilling activities by Chief Oil & Gas Co. The driller has disputed her claim, saying none of the elements she cited were used in drilling a nearby well, which had not been hydraulically fractured.

Stroud criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection and Health Department for inaction after being alerted about the contamination problem. "It sickens me that nothing is being done," she told a crowd of several hundred in the Capitol Rotunda. "Every day, I struggle with the fact we cannot trust our government to protect the people."*

No one could help but be moved by such a story. I know I am. Makes me angry. But it also makes me ask all sorts of questions. Here’s what runs through my mind when I read this:

  • Hydraulic fracturing is the big, bad boogeyman for those who oppose drilling. It is the single thing they focus on: Fracking must stop. But in this case, fracking was not used. So why was this lady and her story appearing at an anti-fracking rally? Seems like apples and oranges.
  • If the nearby gas drilling done by Chief Oil & Gas was not “unconventional” fracking but conventional gas drilling, why haven’t we seen widespread, or even a handful, of cases like this all over the U.S. for the past two generations and hundreds of thousands of gas wells drilled? If conventional gas drilling leads to water poisoning with barium and other heavy metals, why would it “all of sudden” appear?
  • A single, isolated case like this, tragic as it is, proves nothing.
  • Strontium and radon occur naturally in the ground. Radon is common in parts of the Marcellus region and is safe if vented because it readily dissipates in the air. It’s almost a surprise when radon isn’t in someone’s basement—or well water.
  • Barium, on the other hand, does not occur naturally in pure form, but it does occur in nature as a part of certain compounds including barium sulfate and barium carbonate.
  • One of the common uses of barium is in a paste used when drilling oil wells (and one would presume gas wells too). The other common use is in x-rays and imaging of the human gastrointestinal tract.

Bottom line, barium could have gotten into this mother’s well water via drilling activities if it was used during those activities, which Chief denies. Or, barium could  have gotten there as part of a naturally occurring compound. Because this is a rare and unusual case, we should not rush to judgment. If it’s investigated and found that Chief is responsible, they need to be held to strict account. If they are not responsible, that fact should also be made known.

Either way, because of the highly charged nature of the debate, and to either clear (or condemn) Chief, it would best serve the residents of Pennsylvania if the state DEP and Health Dept. were to spend some time and money to figure it out.

*Towanda The Daily Review (Jun 8, 2011) – Bradford County woman addresses gas rally

UPDATE: Just after posting this story, we noticed a reference about it on the Energy in Depth – Northeast Marcellus Initiative website. They point out that there is a toxic dump (the Bell Landfill) on the Superfund list located in Bradford County and that in the past some 800 water wells were tested and found to be contaminated from the Bell Landfill site. MDN is not sure how far away Crystal Stroud’s home is from the landfill, but it’s certainly a distinct possibility that the landfill/toxic dump is at fault since one of the compounds found leaching from it is barium. For more details, click here.