LITTLE ROCK For 10 years, the well on Rebecca and Jerry Cockrell's property delivered clean, clear water.
In December 2006, the water from the Cockrells' well suddenly turned murky. The color varied between orange and gray. Toilets looked filthy. A film developed on a glass of tap water and stone particles settled to the bottom.
The well water turned muddy just as a natural-gas company drilled a well a few hundred feet from their house.
The Cockrells had been excited when Southwestern Energy Co. started drilling. The couple owned the mineral rights to their land and stood to make money from any natural-gas production.
"Well, the next morning I got up," Jerry Cockrell said, "and I ran water in my sink to wash my face, and it was just gray as slate. Whoa!"
After Southwestern drilled a second well nearby, the Cockrells' water problems worsened.
"The sulfur smell was so bad, you could not stay in the house," Cockrell said. "When you'd take a shower, you just had to hold your breath."
The Cockrells' initial excitement turned to frustration as they installed a series of expensive water filters. They also asked Southwestern, which does business in Arkansas as SEECO Inc., to take responsibility for the change in the couple's well-water quality.
The Cockrells are among at least a dozen residents in the Fayetteville Shale natural-gas drilling area who have complained about private well-water problems in the wake of drilling activity.
No one keeps tabs on how many Arkansas water-well owners living near gas wells have complaints about decreased water quality, because private water wells are not regulated.
Public health officials test well water only for bacterial contamination, and wells are exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Other state agencies with regulatory authority over water have no direct responsibility for private water wells.
Studies in other states, including Alabama, Ohio, Colorado and Wyoming, indicate that some private well-water issues could be connected to natural-gas drilling.
But natural-gas drilling companies and some experts say there's no proof that drilling activity is a direct cause of subsequent water well problems.
The companies say they take steps to protect drinking-water aquifers and they note that the gas-containing shale lies much deeper than the aquifer.
Drilling in the Fayetteville Shale, which stretches across north-central Arkansas, started after Southwestern announced its first successful test well in 2004. Other exploration companies scrambled to grab up land and mineral rights soon after.
Today there are more than 1,300 natural-gas wells in the shale zone, with more being drilled every day.
About 21,000 residents in that seven-county area use private wells. Public water systems serve the rest of the 300,000 people in Cleburne, Conway, Faulkner, Pope, Van Buren, White and Woodruff counties.
Administrators for seven of the area's public systems said they know of residents who have connected to public utilities after claiming that the quality of their well water declined after nearby natural-gas drilling.
Private well owners have complained about water problems in connection with natural-gas drilling activity to all four Arkansas agencies with some water-quality oversight - the Oil and Gas Commission, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Health and the Natural Resources Commission.
But tests on complainants' water found no traces of the chemicals used in the drilling fluids, officials said.
Dick Cassat, chief lab supervisor at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, said that water he's tested after residents complained about nearby gas drilling was simply higher in iron and manganese, two naturally occurring substances in Arkansas groundwater sources.
Fracturing fluids can contain acetone, arsenic, benzene, cyanide, mercury, lead, uranium and zinc, as well as oil, grease and chloride.
During the fracturing process, the driller blasts perforations into the horizontal bore hole in the shale and shoots millions of gallons of a mixture of sand, water and chemicals at extremely high pressure to open up cracks in the rock, which then allows the natural gas to be captured.
"The fluids weren't there" in inspections of water wells, said state Oil and Gas Commission Director Larry Bengal, "but there may have been a disruption of that near-surface water due to mechanical influences of the operation."
It's possible that natural-gas drilling disturbs the quality of well water as the drill bit cuts through the aquifer, Bengal said, but "there's no way of proving that because there's nothing you can measure, other than the circumstantial evidence."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied complaints of well-water contamination related to natural-gas drilling in Wyoming, Montana, Alabama,Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico in 2004.
In Alabama, one water well "contained a milky white substance and had strong odors shortly after a fracturing event," according to the study. After six months, the water smelled worse and occasionally had black coal particles.
But the Alabama Oil and Gas Commission said groundwater from the region often contained high concentrations of iron-reducing bacteria, "which can sometimes result in such water having an unpleasant taste or odor, or containing a white or red-brown, stringy, gelatinous material."
Changes in water quality, appearance or water flow can also happen suddenly, even if water was previously of a high quality or quantity, Alabama regulators told the EPA.
The EPA found that some of the changes in water quality and quantity, such as those reported to Alabama authorities, "might be associated with some of the production activities," such as "surface discharge of fracturing and production fluids, aquifer/formation de-watering, water withdrawal from production wells, methane migration through conduits created by drilling and fracturing practices, or any combination of these."
Residents in Texas' Barnett Shale region have seen similar problems to those found in Arkansas, according to interviews with residents and officials from the area.
But the EPA concluded that the complaints had no connection to natural-gas fracturing fluids. The EPA subsequently exempted fracturing fluids from federal safe-drinking-water standards.
Activists, such as the Oil & Gas Accountability Project, say the problems mentioned in the study raised enough questions that the EPA should have required further study before the exemption. The project works with people to protect their property and the environment from the "devastating impacts of oil and gas development," according to its Web site, www.earthworksaction.org.
An investigation by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces public-interest journalism at propublica.org, found that the EPA ignored evidence that showed that the fracturing process might contaminate water and found that the agency negotiated directly with the oil and gas industry before making its decision.
CAUSE AND EFFECT
Charlene Parish, 70, said her well water had been perfect for 30 years until a natural-gas company started working near her property in Bee Branch.
First, there were small disturbances when the company did seismic work nearby, causing her water to cloud up for a few days. Then in December, "the whole house shook," she said. "And ever since then, it's just been muddy.
"I kid you not, it scared the daylights out of us whenever we were sitting here and that boom went off and the house shook like it had," Parish said.
Several neighbors felt the same boom, she said, but they are all on city water.
Southwestern Energy was fracturing a well that day.
Parish is convinced that's what ruined her well and the well of her tenant, whose water smelled so badly of sulfur that he could no longer drink it. Her water was yellow, and her toilets filled with silt after the water settled overnight. She drank bottled water for months until she gave in and spent $8,700 connecting the two houses to the public water system.
Parish asked Southwestern to pay for the connection fee, but the company denied all responsibility, she said.
The gas companies have "helped the community a lot," Parish said. "But when they make a mistake, if they'd correct it and stand behind what they say they would do, I think they'd be a lot better off."
Alan Stubblefield, senior vice president of Southwestern Energy over Arkansas operations, said there's no way the company's drilling would cause the kinds of water-well problems experienced by Parish and the Cockrells.
There's no documentation that the water problems are related to drilling, he said. If the drilling process affects the water wells, he added, "they'd be producing gas, instead of just muddied up.
"I don't have an answer for you," he said. "I don't know what the reason is for the water wells having trouble. I'm not an expert there by any means."
Stubblefield added that Southwestern goes beyond what's required to protect water sources - drilling the first portion of the surface hole with air rather than drilling mud, for example.
On top of that, the process that breaks up the shale and releases the natural gas occurs so far below the surface - between 1,500 and 6,500 feet - that it would take hundreds or thousands of years for drilling fluids to migrate from that depth back up to the surface, he said.
The company also monitors the well bores and investigates anything out of the ordinary during the process, he said.
"There's no indication to us that we're causing problems with the water wells," he said. "And we have protocol to try to handle and make sure that we don't."
Jim Malcolm, with environmental engineering and consulting firm FTN Associates Ltd., has tested for Southwestern some of the water wells that have gone turbid after drilling.
"We're not seeing any contamination" by drilling chemicals, he said.
Malcolm added that shaking and big equipment can cause problems for drinking-water wells in the area.
Chesapeake Energy Corp., another major shale driller, declined to comment on the issue.
Ralph Davis, chairman of the University of Arkansas' geosciences department, said it shouldn't be possible for natural gas drilling to mess up drinking water sources if the companies are doing everything according to regulations set by the Oil and Gas Commission to protect the land and groundwater.
"If indeed they are doing that, then there shouldn't be a direct impact from the drilling on the shallow water zone," Davis said.
Well water can change in turbidity, color and smell for many reasons, Davis said.
The drilling area in the Fayetteville Shale has shallow water sources, for the most part.
"It's open to rapid recharge from the surface," he said. "So if you get an influx of recharge water - rain water or snow melt - it may be infiltrating into the system and it could carry a flux of surface contaminants with it."
William Prior, geologist supervisor with the Arkansas Geological Survey, said his office has heard complaints about well water going bad after nearby drilling, although the agency hasn't kept track of the number.
Water in the Fayetteville Shale area comes from a number of shallow crevices, fractures and holes, he said, not from a uniform aquifer as in other parts of the state.
"They may hit into the same fracture system that may be supplying somebody's nearby well," he said. "When they do that, it's just like putting another spigot in there, and sometimes it drains that fracture system or something, since it encounters that."
Any kind of major disturbance can affect the groundwater in that region, he said, including something like major construction or building a freeway.
"I don't have the answers as to provability as far as cause and effect," he said.
Both the state environmental quality agency and the Oil and Gas Commission declared the water in the Cockrells' well water "drinkable."
But the Cockrells argue that no one should have to drink smelly, muddy water.
"Does this look 'drinkable' to you?" Jerry Cockrell asked, as he turned on a faucet in his yard still connected to his water well. The water was murky and developed a filmy, soap-like layer on top.
Jars of water samples the couple had taken sat in the garage, with layers of gravel and dirt at the bottom.
It took about eight months of complaints from the Cockrells for Southwestern Energy to test their water, and that was around the same time inspectors from the Oil and Gas Commission and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality came out.
The Cockrells spent about $12,000 putting in city water, on top of the $2,000 spent on softener and a peroxide injector to try to clean up the dirty water, as well as the expense of lots of bottled water.
Southwestern eventually sold the drilling section to XTO Energy. Cockrell told an XTO representative about the water problems and that he'd hired an attorney to sue the natural-gas companies for damages.
A few days later, XTO offered the Cockrells $6,000.
"I was just dumbfounded," Cockrell said.
In return, he and his wife signed a letter saying they wouldn't hold XTO or any previous parties liable for the water problems.
But it's important to solve this issue and hold the companies responsible, they said.
"This is Arkansas," Cockrell said. "We don't want it polluted."Water-well problems Former Pangburn resident Jeff Graetz said his well went muddy after Southwestern Energy Co.
fractured about 600 feet away in September 2007. The morning Southwestern started fracing its gas well, his daughter went out to fill up a bucket to water her rabbits.
"She could not even see the bottom of the bucket," he said. "It wasn't clear anymore." The water contained particles that were "very light and kind of slick" and resembled pieces of leather.
"You'd get it by the spoonful, just by sorting the particles out with a coffee filter." Representatives of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission and the Department of Environmental Quality told him not to drink the water after they tested it, but they said Southwestern wasn't responsible.
Graetz said a neighbor's well pump burned up after becoming clogged with sediment.
Graetz said his water quality got better: "When they stopped fracing, it eventually cleared up." Although he owns his mineral rights, meaning he got paid both a leasing bonus and for natural gas production, he said that did not make up for losing his water.
"I can't drink mineral rights," he said. "Which is more important, gas or water?" He sold his property and his mineral rights and moved to Oxford.
"It's not what you call home sweet home anymore."Additional problems include:Tom Osborn of Judsonia and his daughter's family ended up connecting to a public water system after their wells turned muddy after nearby drilling.
Gary Stark of Formosa and three neighbors said their wells dried up for the most part when a few natural-gas wells were drilled nearby. What water came out was muddy and had an almost oily film on it, he said.
Travis Fisher of Rose Bud said his water turned rusty and started running low after drilling. "That's all you hear around town, is how people's water has gone to crap."SOURCE: Democrat-Gazette reporting Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Private water-well regulation Arkansas has four state agencies that play a role in regulating Arkansas waters.
The Oil and Gas Commission regulates water only when an oil or natural-gas company violates drilling regulations.
The Department of Environmental Quality regulates surface waters.
The Health Department regulates public water systems.
The Natural Resources Commission regulates aquifers and some private wells.
But none of those agencies directly regulates private well water. As long as tested water contains no chemicals demonstrating that it was contaminated by natural-gas drilling, water-well owners have no recourse if their wells fail.
SOURCE: Democrat-Gazette reporting Arkansas Democrat-Gazette