WETZEL COUNTY, W.Va - When the horses stopped drinking, residents here became convinced of their worst suspicions. The water had gone bad.
Bonnie Hall's eight horses take a lot of water. Fifteen gallons a day, each. Hall was puzzled the November 2008 day the horses left their water bucket untouched.
Hall, who has lived on this isolated mountainside plot for 21 years, figured the horses would eventually drink, and left them alone. It wasn't until the next day, when she came to check on them, that she realized their water was dark.
Now, the horses' drinking water -- drawn from a 300-foot well -- smells like an industrial-strength cleaning solvent.
Hall has shipped in water for her horses ever since, though she's continued to drink water from a much shallower, 30-foot well that inexplicably has remained unaffected. This shallow well frequently goes dry, and cannot provide enough water for the horses, Hall said. Overwhelmed with the burden of shipping water, she's given up two horses and plans to give up two more this winter.
Neighbors had suffered declining health during the fall of 2008. After hearing about Hall's horses, they became convinced that newfound natural gas drilling within about a mile of her property was poisoning their water. Hall and others in this isolated mountain county want drilling companies to fix the water that wasn't bad until the drilling began earlier that summer, they say.
At the center of their grievance is a natural gas-drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." It uses millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, to blast open underground rock formations that contain natural gas.
Drilling companies insist that the fluids they use stay securely underground or are captured cleanly when they come back up through the well. But Hall and her neighbors are convinced otherwise.
They live in rural Wetzel County, ground zero for fracking. Located at the southern base of West Virginia's panhandle, Wetzel County sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich rock formation stretching from New York to West Virginia. Records show the county hosts 1,126 active wells, many of them frack wells drilled against the wishes of local residents.
But it's unclear whether frack wells are actually to blame for Hall's bad water. As landowners with bad water like Hall around the nation try to build cases against the companies that drill the wells near them, they're struggling to prove the connection.
Meantime, they face an industry that's not forthcoming about what chemicals they're pumping underground. The drilling industry says it is reluctant to share information because of its proprietary value, but frack critics say the chemicals are kept secret because of how toxic they are.
Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas company based in Oklahoma City which drilled three wells near Hall's property, denies responsibility for the contamination, and says that Hall first complained of bad water before the company began the fracking stage of its three wells.
"Protecting underground sources of water is a top priority and we take every concern very seriously," said Matt Sheppard, Chesapeake's senior director of corporate development in a written statement to Scripps on Nov. 2. "After careful analysis and investigation, we believe the data clearly shows we are not responsible for Mrs. Hall's water well quality."
State-commissioned testing concluded the contamination was from leaked gasoline -- not fracking fluids -- even though Hall said there are no gasoline tanks near her property. Gene Smith, regulatory compliance manager for the state's Department of Environmental Protection, investigated the contamination. He did not return a call to comment.
Each well near Hall's property was blasted with an average of 4.05 million gallons of frack fluid, according to Sheppard. He declined to say exactly what the chemicals were used during fracking, instead pointing to a general fact sheet that included some but not all details about the frack fluid ingredient list.
The longstanding battle to disclose exactly what's in fracking fluids intensified Nov. 9. That's when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it issued a subpoena to Halliburton, demanding that the Houston-based drilling services giant report the chemical composition of their frack fluids, according to the federal agency. On Nov. 15, Halliburton said it would provide more information about the ingredients.
Multiple rounds of testing were conducted from April 2009 to May of 2010 by Hall's neighbors and fellow frack-opponents, Marilyn and Robert Hunt, who had access to technical equipment through his employer, Bayer MaterialScience. Because the testing was not done under strict conditions, it's not admissible in court, they admit.
It showed that Hall's water worsened four months after the second well was fracked, in October 2009. Water samples showed dramatic increases in toxic chemicals including acrylonitrile, benzene, and styrene.