Bubbling Crude But No Millionaires

Melissa Bentley holds a sample of crude that came from the water well in her yard at Dorton, Ky., Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003. Bentley and her husband found just enough of the petroleum to foul their only source of potable water and enough natural gas to cause their well house to burst into flames. AP

When Rodger and Melissa Bentley noticed that the well at their Kentucky home was filled with a bubbling crude, they didn't exactly run off to tell relatives they had struck it rich.

That is because they found just enough of the oil to foul their only source of drinking water and enough natural gas to cause their well house to explode in flames.

"I don't want an oil well," moaned Melissa Bentley. "All I want is water for my family."

Such stories have become all too familiar in central Appalachia, where a myriad of holes have been drilled deep beneath the mountains to extract oil and natural gas. Some residents say the oil and gas have seeped into their water wells, ruining them and creating the risk of an explosion.

"This is just so outrageous," said Gary Johnson, a Pikeville lawyer. "There are thousands of wells in eastern Kentucky that way. It's a problem that there is no end to, basically."

The lawyer represented an eastern Kentucky man who was severely burned three years ago when his well house exploded.

Fairon Johnson of Dema sued Equitable Resources of Pittsburgh, Pa., and its subsidiary Kentucky West Virginia Gas, which had natural gas wells near his home. Last year, he was awarded $270 million, the biggest jury verdict ever in Kentucky. The companies appealed and later settled for an undisclosed amount.

Fairon Johnson claimed that the explosive gas traveled through an underground aquifer and seeped into his well. When he flipped a switch to turn his pump on, the gas exploded. He suffered second-degree burns and spent eight days in a hospital burn unit.

Jeff Eshelman, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America which represents oil and natural gas drillers, said it does not make sense that natural gas could find its way horizontally through rock layers into a water well.

"Because we drill straight down to reach natural gas, there would seem logically to be no connection between gas wells and water wells," he said.

Equitable Resources and Kentucky West Virginia Gas contended in court that the explosion in Fairon Johnson's water well house in 2000 was caused by naturally occurring gas and was not related to the nearby gas well.

Gary Johnson said natural gas can seep into water wells when companies remove steel casing from their wells. That, he said, allows waste gas and crude to travel between the rock layers.

State environmental regulators have recommended safety precautions for rural residents who have water wells. Those precautions include installing ventilation ports in well houses to prevent the accumulation of gases.

The potential for explosions and fires in well houses is not unique to the Appalachians, and the danger has been there for generations.

Gary Johnson said the problem may be worse in Kentucky and in the rest of the central Appalachian region, which also includes southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia, because so many people rely on wells for water. Municipal water lines have not yet found their way into the Appalachians' most remote hills and hollows.

Adding to the problem, exploration companies routinely drill oil and natural gas wells near residential areas in the region.

Gary Johnson said the explosion that burned Fairon Johnson, no relation, merely focused attention on the danger.

The Bentley family has been unable to use their well water since petroleum and gas were discovered in June. They have been drinking bottled water. For laundry, they have connected lines to a temporary tank that the fire department refills once a week.

Melissa Bentley said she has not been able to place blame on a particular company for her water problems. She said several companies have oil and gas wells near her home.

"I don't care who's at fault," she said. "I just want water."

By Roger Alford
  • Lloyd Vries

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