Grand jury will be asked to look into drilling damages

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Ruined water wells, muddy roads draw ire of Little Cowan residents

Residents of Little Cowan submitted this photograph which shows runoff associated with a natural gas drilling operation flowing into Little Cowan Creek. Officials says employees of Kinzer Drilling of Floyd County are working this week to clean up mud they left on and beside KY 2035. A Letcher County grand jury is expected to look into the matter. Residents of Little Cowan submitted this photograph which shows runoff associated with a natural gas drilling operation flowing into Little Cowan Creek. Officials says employees of Kinzer Drilling of Floyd County are working this week to clean up mud they left on and beside KY 2035. A Letcher County grand jury is expected to look into the matter. A natural gas drilling company based in Floyd County has already "made some progress" toward cleaning up a thick layer of mud its employees caused to be placed on a state highway at Little Cowan and is expected to do more cleanup work this week, officials say.

"Our permits department has been working with Kinzer Drilling for a few weeks now," said Kevin E. Damron, chief district engineer with the Department of Highways' District 12 office in Pikeville. "This is one of the reasons why this situation has improved. They (are) planning to go back to continue trying to get all of this resolved."

Meanwhile, Letcher Commonwealth's Attorney Edison G. Banks II said he will ask the Letcher County Grand Jury to investigate why the road (KY 2035) ous in the first place. Banks said he will also ask the grand jury to look into other instances of damage to public and private property which have occurred at Little Cowan since Kinzer and two other natural gas companies began drilling gas wells there last summer.

Banks, a resident of Little Cowan, said Kinzer employees refused before this week to take any significant steps to clean up the once-picturesque highway even though they had been warned by police officers to take action "before someone was seriously injured or worse."

"The actions — or in this case lack of action — by the gas companies are not only irresponsible, but also illegal in my opinion," said Banks "I fully intend to ask that this matter be looked into by the grand jury." Banks said caused at least one traffic accident, was just the latest nuisance Little Cowan residents have had to endure since drilling got underway there. The community is located near Whitesburg at the base of Pine Mountain.

In an earlier incident, an underground explosion designed to boost gas well production left some homeowners with dry water wells while others now have artesian wells that spew streams of groundwater around the clock.

Banks is among those left with an artesian well after a gas well near his home was "fracked" in September. Banks said the blast involved in the fracking process, in which deep rock formations are fractured to speed up the flow of gas, was so powerful it caused the cap of his water well to blow off and blew the roof off a pump house belonging to his sister who lives next door.

"On the very day the gas company set of a widely felt underground explosion, water wells on the creek suddenly went dry," Banks said. "In my case, our water turned a dark brown and began constantly flowing out of our well."

Banks said as a result of the blast, his family and others were ordered by state environmental officials not to drink the water for six weeks. He said streams of water still spurt from his well and his sister's well, and that their yards would stay flooded if they hadn't been able to divert the water elsewhere.

Banks said his family's experiences with the damaged water wells and mudcovered road were made even more frustrating by the amount of effort it took trying to find a state regulatory agency willing to look into the situation.

"You don't know where to call or who to call," said Banks. "Along with my wife, my neighbors, and several police officers, I have complained to the state highway department, the state Department for Environmental Protection, and the state Natural Resources Cabinet. The complaints apparently fell on deaf ears."

Little Cowan property owner Helen Roberts said she also called multiple state agencies to complain about Kinzer Drilling, but got a response from only one state employee, Division of Water inspector Ronnie Klopp of Hazard.

"I called everybody I could call and the only response I got was from him," Roberts said. "He did come and he did make (Kinzer) put up a plastic barrier to help keep mud out of the creek, but it hasn't done a bit of good."

Roberts, whose husband and son work in the coal industry, believes that natural gas drilling companies should be regulated as strongly as coal companies when it comes to environmental protection and reclamation.

"The law needs to be as tough on them as it is on the strip mines," she said. "This looks like somebody just stripped the sides of the hills off. I call it the devastation of Little Cowan."

Roberts said she would like to see environmental groups start to pay much attention to damage caused by natural gas companies as they do to issues related to coal mining.

"Where does Kentuckians for the Commonwealth stand on this stuff?" she asked.

Roberts said Kinzer official A.C. Rogers met with her on Monday and told her that if she and other Little Cowan residents didn't stop complaining the company would abandon its drilling operations in Letcher County.

"I told him to go ahead and leave," Roberts said. "If they don't drill it someone else will. They're not going to leave all that money behind. They're making a fortune and they need to be responsible."

She said Rogers also told her that people who live out in the country "ought to expect to have to live in some mud."

Banks said he "respects the rights of my neighbors to have gas wells drilled on their property," but said he also "expects the gas companies who reap the large profits from these operations to respect the rights of the citizens who live in the area."

"They don't have the right to destroy our highways and water and everything else in the process," Banks said.

Letcher County Judge/ Executive Jim Ward said he has been to Little Cowan and understands why many of the residents there are upset.

"I don't blame them," Ward said. "If that had happened on a county road they would have been shut down."

2009-02-11 / Front Page

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