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U.S. Energy says levels of gas in local tap water are not harmful to health … but Brant family says issues are far from finalized
Western New Yorkers watched closely as Gino Brant lit his tap water on fire on WIVB-TV July 14 and many local residents wondered, and even checked to see, if there was methane in their own drinking water.
The Brant family is concerned about the natural gas wells surrounding their home on Route 39 in Collins and believe those may have contributed to recent illnesses among their nine children. Mom Natalie Brant said, “My kids are all getting sick; they have viruses that are all new to the doctor.” She said she and her husband recently watched an HBO documentary, “Gasland,” which HBO says “exposes the possible hazards of domestic natural gas drilling.” Natalie said that’s what prompted her husband to check their well water. “The gas levels are very high,” she says. “You can actually see it in the water. My dog can’t even drink this.”
U.S. Energy, which operates the wells, was called to the residence and, according to President Doug Walch, brought in the Department of Environmental Conservation and a water treatment contractor to inspect the well while the family was put up in a local hotel for the night. Walch said, “There are no standards for methane in water in New York state that we can find,” adding, “We had water tests done and there is some methane in [the Brants’] water, but the range that is in the water is fine.” The Waterway Water Treatment Contractor Dave West, who inspected the Brants’ well, said there are no known health hazards to ingesting this amount of methane.
Conversely, Natalie says the Department of Health told her not to let the children stay under the tap water for more than a minute. “You can blow up if it’s in a confined area,” she said. “You have to have everything ventilated.”
Walch explained that his company drills for natural gas, which is what lights gas stoves. This type of gas is made up of 90-plus percent methane. The Brants’ well is between 100 and 150 feet deep; U.S. Energy is drawing their gas from approximately 3,000 feet below the surface. “The gas they found in their water has nothing to do with what we’re doing down 3,000 feet,” Walch said. “There’s a half-mile of rock between what we’re doing and their well. The gas in their water is just naturally there.” He added that area residents have been complaining about gas in their water for much longer than his company has been drilling in the area. “This is more a function of the near surface geology and rocks near the wells,” he said.
Natalie said the family has lived at their home in Collins for eight years, but says the problem with the water began just two years ago, when U.S. Energy began drilling. “Now everything has started to come together,” she said. “They’re supposed to have big water containers that they release the chemicals into and there aren’t any of those around here. The gas is just being released into the air.”
West explained, “In the ground here in WNY we have what they call shale gas. In the Brants’ water they had more like a shale gas with methane in it then straight methane gas.” He said that water with methane in it comes out of the faucet looking cloudy and will usually have a slight aftertaste. “But if you leave it sit in the glass for maybe a minute the gas and the taste will dissipate,” he added.
Systems to remove gas from well water are available from companies like The Waterway, but “most people just put up with it,” West said. “I don’t see any real danger to it so people shouldn’t think they’re dealing with a dangerous issue. But there are ways to take care of it if it annoys you.”
According to Walch, U.S. Energy paid between $1,000 and $2,000 to install what West referred to as a temporary, 2,000-gallon water separation system on the Brants’ rented property. U.S. Energy decided to have the system put in “as a good neighbor and to help the landowner out,” Walch said. The Brants’ landlord opted not to have a permanent system installed because, as he told West, the water hadn’t given him any problems and he didn’t think a permanent system was necessary.
“What should happen is that people should vent their wells,” Walch said. “If the landlord vents that well he won’t have the issue that he’s having. But we can’t make changes to his well.” To find out if well water contains methane without lighting it on fire, evaluations are available through a water testing laboratory.
Although Walch did not know the exact number of wells his company operates in the area, he did say it’s “a fair number.” The company pays school taxes; additionally, landlords with gas wells on their property receive free gas and royalties. “It’s beneficial to many people because it’s a source of money they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” said Walch. Landowners typically sign a waiver before gas wells are installed on their property; however, Walch said, “[The Brants] are renters and they didn’t have to sign anything. If anything had to be signed it would’ve been signed by the landlord.”
Natalie said she was initially pleased to hear that U.S. Energy was going to begin drilling near her home. “I was excited about getting natural gas because propane is expensive,” she said. “They tell people, ‘We’ll give you free gas,’ but they don’t tell the people about the danger.”
The family is back in their home after spending just one night in a hotel. The temporary water separation system is up and running on their property. The Brants and several of their neighbors have hired an environmental lawyer to represent them. The family is planning to move. “I’m trying to get out of here and I can’t find a new place fast enough,” Natalie said. “You would never believe what’s coming out of this system.” The family has switched to purchasing bottled water. “This is just the beginning,” Natalie added.
Visit www.hbo.com/documentaries/gasland for more information about HBO’s documentary.