Neighbors of U.S. gas well blowout fear the worst

LEROY, Pennsylvania Thu Apr 21, 2011 5:01pm EDT

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LEROY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Dairy farmer Christine Pepper's worst fears were realized when a natural gas drill 3 miles from her home blew out, spilling toxic fluid into a creek.

A 25-year-old native of rural Bradford County in northern Pennsylvania, Pepper said she was against the boom in drilling by hydraulic fracturing ever since wells started popping up a few years ago, surrounding her livestock and family, fearful that safety would be overlooked.

"I was crying when I heard about it (the blowout)," Pepper said on Thursday, a day and a half after the accident at the Chesapeake Energy well in the town of LeRoy. "They're taking the county and taking our livelihoods."

Chesapeake suspended hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" operations in Pennsylvania and said it was working to plug the well while investigating the cause of the blowout.

A theoretical debate about the environmental safety of fracking drilling for natural gas burst into real life for the people of Bradford County with the blowout late Tuesday. Similar debates are taking place in other states and Washington, where President Barack Obama has identified natural gas as crucial to U.S. energy needs.

The industry has brought jobs and income to Bradford County -- some land was leased to drillers for as high as $6,000 an acre according to a county commissioner -- but even people more supportive of the industry have concerns.

Harold Shedden, 75, grades roads in LeRoy Township and has had steady work from gas companies repairing roads of the damage caused by their trucks.

"I think Chesapeake is all right," Shedden said. "Whatever need fixing, they fix 'em."

Yet he wonders what will happen when the land leases expire and the drilling companies leave.

"There have been a lot of jobs in the community but in the long run it's going to hurt us," Shedden said.

Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said he was confident local government and industry could strike the proper balance between the economic benefits and environmental concerns.

"Get it right for Bradford County and you can get it right for the rest of the state," McLinko said. "The economic benefits are incredible. If you want to work, you can find a job. It has been a life-saver for a lot of mom and pops.

"There's a lot of good in this, but with the good comes bad. They (Chesapeake) should take responsibility and fix the problem."

NY SUSPENDS DRILLING

Just across the state border in New York, officials have halted all horizontal, high-volume hydraulic fracturing at least until July, ruling that no such drilling take place until environmental regulators deem it safe.

Fracking requires blasting chemicals, water and sand into shale, creating fissures to free gas trapped in the rock. Environmentalists fear chemical spills are polluting water supplies. The shale gas industry says the process is proven safe.

"How can this not have a major impact? This accident exposes the myth that this kind of high-volume drilling can be done safely," said New York Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a Democrat from Ithaca.

"Chesapeake has been one of the biggest actors, and they say they're working like crazy to make this safe and they're clearly not there. They undercut their credibility as we continue to look at this," Lifton said.

(Reporting by Dave Warner; Additional reporting by Dan Wiessner in Albany; Writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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