The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 28, 2013

From the fountains of Mother Earth

Anything that's natural has to be safe, right? Maybe not

By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer

MERCER COUNTY — Some of us have been filling jugs and jerry cans with local spring water for decades. Others won’t touch it because they don’t know if the water is safe to drink, no matter how good it tastes with a ham sandwich or as a thirst quencher during a long bike ride.

Who’s right? Maybe both to some degree, but there are risks associated with drinking untreated ground water.

Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does not regulate private homeowner wells or springs, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection website.

What’s in your well water or spring water is your business. And your responsibility, at your risk.

Neither Gov. Tom Corbett nor the current slate of state legislators has made the safety of private water sources a high legislative priority as the pace of Marcellus Shale gas and oil drilling moves into high gear.

As a result, many people who jug it and lug it are taking spring water safety on faith, luck and tradition unless they have paid for a test done by a laboratory looking for a range of problems.

Mercer County has numerous springs, some known more widely than others, where people collect water.

The spring along New Castle Road just south of West Middlesex gets a steady stream of visitors.

No one was home Thursday at the adjoining old farmhouse along state Route 18 to talk about the water flowing out of an old springhouse. Its water flows through a black plastic tube that spills water into jugs. The water splashes into a gutter made from stainless steel that empties into a drain under the road.

Gary Stockman stopped by with nine gallon jugs.

“My wife prefers this to tap water for coffee,” the Pulaski man said, adding that he stops year-round about every week or so.

Stockman says part of the attraction for him is that the water doesn’t have the price tag of water sold by retailers as bottled spring water.

The spring water he collects tastes better than his Heritage Hills well water, Stockman said.

In the last year or so, Kypa Enterprises LLC Bulk Water Services installed a pumping station that pulls water from the Shenango River on the other side of the road and less than a quarter-mile from the spring.

“Authorized Personnel Only” reads the sign at the site. “Hazard training required beyond this point.”

Its equipment includes storage tanks on wheels and numbered pumping stations with large hoses for handling river water used by gas and oil drillers.

Melissa Beveridge, 35, a West Middlesex native, comes to the spring for water that she uses for coffee and occasionally for cooking.

“Half a glass of city water tastes like poison to me,” she said.

She hesitated for a moment when asked if the recently installed industrial pumping station just up the road made her worry about the safety of the spring water.

Ms. Beveridge said neither she nor any others she knows who have been drinking the spring water for years has gotten sick.

“People have always used springwater. My parents always came here, too,” said the MCAR aide who helps the agency’s clients learn the skills they need to live in the community.

Whatever incidents of illness there may be at the West Middlesex spring or others, neither local hospitals nor the state Department of Health track such cases that may be tied to drinking contaminated spring water.

One such bug could be giardiasis, an intestinal illness caused by giardia cysts found in the guts of mammals and which can be found in spring water.

“Our emergency departments have not recently treated anyone with giardia infections in Mercer County,” said Erin Palko, public relations manager for UPMC Horizon hospitals in Greenville and Farrell.

At Sharon Regional Health System, Ed Newmeyer, marketing manager, said spring and summer – the seasons of greater camping – do seem to bring an increase in intestinal illness.

However, linking them to a cause as specific as drinking spring water wouldn’t be easy.

“Isolated instances are difficult to track,” Newmeyer said. “We would only become aware if an entire family became ill or people within a designated ... group exhibited symptoms.

An artesian well whose naturally pressurized water flows near Fredonia has some documented history that it has supplied local water collectors for 80 years.

A 1988 story in The Herald quoted Albert Kashner saying it was drilled in about 1933 by gas well drillers.

The sweet water they encountered about 30 feet down on land owned by Fred Wasser tasted better than water from nearby wells. The company agreed to leave the pipe in place if Wasser paid for it.

The well is on the border of Jefferson and Delaware townships at the intersection Line and Bower roads, about 1è miles east of state Route 58.

“It’s a miserable, cold day when there isn’t a steady stream of visitors to the well,” said Jim Sunderlin, who grew up drinking the water on bike rides from the family farm nearby.

An engineer, Sunderlin laughs about the memory of a visit to the well years ago during a deer hunting trip with his father and uncle.

In those days, the well casing had an opening cut to let the water flow at about shin level from the waist-high pipe.

The old-timers got wet kneeling down to get a drink and Sunderlin showed some of his technical turn of mind at an early age.

“I put my hand over the hole and the pressure pushed the water right out of the top of the pipe,” said the former Fredonia councilman and Reynolds Area School District director. “I took a drink just like you would at a water fountain.”

The well’s pipe had deteriorated by about 1977. So Art Shelhamer, a welder who lived nearby, installed a replacement that still serves visitors willing to drink the water.

Even with 25-year-old shallow gas wells drilled to about 3,000 feet in recent years on nearby farms, and with the prospect of Marcellus Shale gas development in the area, Sunderlin said he isn’t worried about the safety of the water from the artesian well.

The product engineer who retired from Werner Co. said he’s satisfied that the water is safe.

Occasional tests by Chatfield Drilling Inc., Delaware Township, have found the water to be safe, Sunderlin said.

“I’m not making any recommendations,” he said. “But I don’t have any safety concerns about drinking the water.”