Residents of Hickory, about 15 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, called for intensive study of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and told a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency panel that their well water turned foul after drilling began nearby in the last few years.
Darrell Smitsky said five of his goats died mysteriously and, even though state regulators told him the water was safe, his own test showed sky-high levels of manganese and iron. When he blamed the drilling company, he said, it responded, "Can you prove it?"
Stephanie Hallowitch said her family's well water is no longer safe to even allow her children to run through the sprinklers.
"I urge the EPA to help my family and other families living near drilling to get answers to their questions," she said. The research, she continued, must be done "to protect other families before it is too late and they are in our situation."
In fracking, drilling crews pump millions of gallons of sand- and chemical-laced water deep into the earth to break up dense rock to free the natural gas. Some of that water returns as a briny, chemical- and metal-laden brew and is usually stored in open pits until it's trucked to treatment plants or underground injection wells.
The oil and gas industry steadfastly defends the fracking process as having been proven safe over many years and says it is a crucial tool if the country is going to be able to harvest its gas reserves. With many speakers calling for a moratorium on fracking or tough federal regulation, industry representatives contended that states are already doing that job.
The EPA has begun a new look at fracking as gas drillers swarm to the lucrative Marcellus Shale region and blast into other shale reserves around the country. The process is currently exempt from federal regulation, and instead states apply their own rules to it.
Shale drilling is being viewed as so lucrative that international exploration companies are investing billions of dollars in the pursuit.
James Erb, of the American Petroleum Institute, which represents major oil and gas producers, told the EPA that the group is aware of substantial public concern over fracking and that it supports the EPA's review.
API, he said, is confident that the sound application of fracking causes no significant risk to human health, drinking water sources or the environment.
Lou D'Amico, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, made up of hundreds of businesses, said that no example exists of fracking having polluted ground water and that the EPA study should include a review of complaints lodged to state-level agencies and how they were investigated.
"The controversy is one based on media-generated public hysteria and perception, not science, fact or evidence," he said.
Thursday's hearing began in the evening and was expected to last until late at night.
Canonsburg is at the heart of hundreds of Marcellus Shale wells that began to be drilled in earnest in 2008. Some geologists say the vast Marcellus Shale region primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio could become the nation's largest natural gas field.
Already, about 1,500 Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in barely two years, and thousands more are expected, transforming areas of the state. Numerous landowners are getting paid to lease their land for drilling or are receiving royalty checks from producing wells. Meanwhile, many industries such as steel pipe makers and haulers are seeing huge new demand from drilling companies.
But many landowners are coming forward to tell stories about spoiled well water.
The EPA's $1.9 million study is expected to yield preliminary results by the end of 2012, Fred Hauchman, director of the EPA's Office of Science Policy, told attendees at the outset.
Hauchman promised to reach out to experts and study a wide variety of water sources, and he said an advisory board of scientists has told the agency to focus on the impact on water quality and quantity.