PA DEP Sides with Homeowner Against Atlas in Well Water Issue

In 2008, a homeowner located near gas wells drilled in Westmoreland County, PA by Atlas Energy says his well water turned muddy immediately after drilling was done. At the time, Atlas told him to stop drinking the water and supplied him with a water buffalo, making fresh water deliveries ever since. That is, until two weeks ago when Atlas says that after re-testing the water is now safe to drink, so they ended the water deliveries. The homeowner disagrees and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is siding with the homeowner in this case.

For more than three years, Walter Sowa says a natural gas company told him not to drink his well water after it drilled near his Westmoreland County home.

"The water was so bad, they said not to wash my hands in it or use it for anything," recalled Sowa, 60, of Sewickley Township.

Now, according to Sowa, Atlas Energy LP is telling him the water is OK to use again — and stopped trucking clean water to his home for free more than two weeks ago.

"I do not want to use that (water)," Sowa said. "I don’t even let my dogs drink it."

Brian Begley, Atlas Energy’s vice president of investor relations, said the company tested the water and believes it is safe enough to consume.

"We feel like this is something that has improved substantially over time," he said.

A state Department of Environmental Protection official told the Tribune-Review that the agency is backing Sowa because the company set a precedent in supplying him with water and promised a permanent solution, and because the agency’s own testing was inconclusive.

"If there are questions or there is contamination, we’re going to employ the resources of whatever is necessary to make sure the people who are affected are made whole," DEP spokesman John Poister said.

Sowa said the company also offered him one of two permanent solutions of his choice: installation of a filtration system in his home or connection of his home to a city water system. Atlas never followed through with the permanent fixes, he said, and it stopped filling the water buffalo more than two weeks ago.

Begley said the solutions are no longer needed because the water quality has improved over time.*

The DEP says that because Atlas provided water and promised two permanent solutions, they are still liable to provide a permanent solution. The DEP prefers to talk first and try to reach a settlement with Atlas, resorting to an order only if necessary.

*Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Jan 26, 2012) – Gas driller ends free water deal for Sewickley Township family