By CAITLIN COOK
BEAVER FALLS, PA.
Most mornings, patrons at Matty Goffe’s Cafe in Beaver Falls sip their coffee and share the latest news.
What they aren’t talking about is how much of the 250,000 gallons of suspected fracking wastewater dumped in Youngstown might have gotten into their cup of joe.
The city gets its water from the Beaver River, which is formed at the confluence of the Mahoning and Shenango rivers.
It isn’t the only one.
The Beaver Falls Munic- ipal Authority supplies water for 17,000 customers in 22 area communities. The treatment facility is 40 miles downstream from where the wastewater entered the river. It’s the first community to draw water from the river for its municipal supply.
Goffe, 65, and other residents learned about the wastewater well after most of it already was dumped.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said the wastewater, which included brine, brine residue and mud, was dumped into a storm drain multiple times before an employee of Hardrock Excavating was caught Jan. 31. At the time, the employee, Michael P. Guesman, said he was told to dump the waste by Ben W. Lupo, chief executive of D&L Energy, which owns Hardrock. Both have been charged and pleaded not guilty.
Had Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection been promptly notified, it could have warned Beaver Falls to temporarily stop its water intake from the Beaver River, said John Poister, a spokesman for the DEP’s Southwest Regional Office.
“Beaver Falls noticed some problems, and they increased their charcoal purification at the plant,” said Poister. “The incident in Youngstown probably had just a minor effect. We can’t just say, when they saw some increase in the tri-chloromethane levels and some other problems there, that it was just because of Youngstown.’”
Jim Riggo, plant manager for the municipal authority, declined to comment, saying the board of directors decided to stop providing interviews because they “do not want to scare their customers.”
However, residents in Beaver Falls are used to jokes about their water.
John Haine, who’s known as the “muffin man” to regulars at Goffe’s Cafe, said when people in Ellwood City learn someone is from Beaver Falls, they tell him he’s drinking their sewage.
It may be a running joke, but Goffe takes it seriously, using filtered water at his cafe. He’s not sure what else he can do to protect his drinking water.
“It’s an important issue, but no one will talk about it,” Goffe said. “They [politicians] are not going to be transparent. I don’t think it has to do with anything new — politics is politics.”
Arthur Rose, professor of geochemistry at Pennsylvania State University, and his students studied the flow-back water from horizontal fracking. They found the initial water that comes out of a fracked Marcellus well site is mostly the same water and chemicals the drilling company had pumped in.
“Then rather rapidly it begins to become much more salty. It’s not uncommon to have five times or more the salinity in the flow-back water,” Rose said.
These characteristics could be somewhat hazardous. When the flow-back gets into a stream, it will be diluted quite a bit, but it will still retain higher salt levels than normal water.
“The thing I’m more concerned about is that it has very high levels of barium and radium — radium is a radioactive element,” Rose said. “It has values that are more than several hundred times the drinking water limits for barium and radium.”
In general, Rose said the saltier the flow-back water, the more these other contaminates are present.
Short-term exposure to high levels of radium can cause anemia, teeth fractures and cataracts. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer. Short exposure to barium may result in difficulty breathing, stomach aches, muscle weakness and more.
After the Youngstown incident, Poister said steps were taken to improve communication between Ohio and Pennsylvania so if another emergency happens, the notification process will be more direct.
“Any water-treatment plant that pulls water from a river, anywhere, is prepared as best as they can be for problems,” he said. “And really, Beaver Falls has been able to do that. The incident in Youngstown — they reacted without even knowing what was going on.”
As drilling activity on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania line continues to increase, more waste inevitably will be produced for disposal. Some of that again may be introduced into rivers.
“I don’t think we’re worried; we’re just alert,” said Poister.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, University of Akron and professional media outlets including WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator, The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio, both of Akron.