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Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country

There's been warnings for decades that abandoned wells can provide pathways for oil, gas or brine-laden water to contaminate groundwater supplies or to travel up to the surface.

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To prevent that from happening, states require energy companies to post bonds before they begin building their wells. But the bonds are often so low that it can be more economical for a company to forfeit its bond rather than plug its wells. In Pennsylvania, for instance, an energy company can cover hundreds of wells with a single $25,000 bond.

John Hanger, who until January headed Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, called the bonds "scandalously low."

"There are some choices you shouldn't put in front of even good companies," Hanger said. "I'd like to think the companies would do the right thing, but we know that just isn't always the case."

The Birthplace of an Industry

One of Pennsylvania's worst cases of gas migration occurred in the Borough of Versailles, a small, working-class community just outside Pittsburgh. From 1919 through 1921, more than 175 gas wells were drilled in the town. Residents put wells in their backyards to heat their homes, packing them into the 25-by-100-foot lots.

The boom dried up when most of the wells proved unproductive. But in the 1960s, pockets of gas began leaking into homes. Some houses were condemned and demolished, and Versailles eventually became a case study for federal scientists trying to locate old wells.

Researchers studied old maps and walked the grounds with magnetometers, which detect the magnetic field from metal casings in the wells. If casings were never installed or had been removed, they could test the soil for hydrocarbons that might be leaking to the surface.

Some of the old wells were plugged. But more often vents were installed to direct gas away from the homes. Today, dozens of pipes pop out of the ground in yards, behind garages and through houses, slowly leaking methane and hydrogen sulfide so the explosive gases don't accumulate. In 2009 Versailles received a $368,600 federal grant to maintain its aging vents. About 50 methane alarms have also been installed in the town.

The vents and alarms are just part of life in Versailles. The mayor, James Fleckenstein, recently bought a house with two vents on the property and an alarm in the kitchen.

"We've been living with this problem forever," Fleckenstein said. "People would have a vent in their yard burning 24 hours a day all year long, a one-inch pipe sticking out of the ground. People would put a coffee can and light it and it would just burn all the time."

There's no longer enough pressure in the gas formation to make the vents flammable, Fleckenstein said, and the town hasn't had any problems with migrating gas for a couple of years. But that could change at any time, said Fred Baldassare, who for years oversaw gas migration cases for the Department of Environmental Protection and now runs a consulting business. Old wells can deteriorate or become clogged, he said, and conditions underground can change.

In February, gas from an abandoned well caused a small explosion just across the river from Versailles, in West Mifflin, Pa. The gas company evacuated the house where the explosion occurred, as well as the house next door, where Nick Kellington lived with his wife and four children.

"I said 'How long are we packing for?' and he said 'I don't know,'" Kellington said. "Somebody tells you that, what do you do?"

Kellington said the DEP, which declined to comment about the case, used old maps to identify a nearby well that may be the source of the gas. The Kellingtons are renting a townhouse while they wait for a state-hired contractor to fix the problem. Baldassare has been hired as a subcontractor.

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