(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on oil well drilling in the Allegany area. The second installment will be published next week in the Times Herald.)
ALLEGANY — During the Christmas holidays, one of Gail Hammond’s gifts from her daughter was a methane gas detector to hang in her home.
Hammond, who lives across from a home that exploded on West Branch Road in November, as well as other neighbors in the valley, are not only hanging up detectors to test air quality in their homes, but have also had their water wells tested for chemicals that may have leached into the aquifer from nearby oil well drilling by Dimes Energy of Canada and Dallas Morris Drilling of Bradford, Pa.
The neighbors in the West Branch and Four Mile Road valley have had concerns since Ron and Betty Jo Volz’s home at 3699 West Branch Road was leveled. Fortunately, the family wasn’t home at the time of the incident, and they now are staying in another residence in the community, according to friends.
Since that time, residents have attended town meetings, and have met privately to discuss options for safeguarding themselves and their properties from damage they believe may be linked to current and future oil drilling. They also plan to gather at the next town of Allegany meeting, with officials confirming that residents have requested to be placed on the next meeting agenda at 7 p.m. Jan. 28.
As there is uncertainty to the cause of the explosion, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Region 9, based in Buffalo, suspended oil well drilling on Dec. 9 in the immediate area of the explosion. The moratorium continues at present, said Todd Pignataro, public information officer.
In addition, Pignataro said DEC is continuing an investigation with Cattaraugus County and has no new information.
“The investigation continues to review other wells in the immediate area surrounding that address,” Pignataro said.
Officials with Dimes Energy have not returned calls from the Times Herald requesting updates on their drilling operations.
In the meantime, some residents in the valley said the issue of the house explosion is always on their minds. Nancy Shively, a resident of Four Mile Road with her husband, Dale, had voiced concerns about the oil well drilling more than a month before the explosion. She said the Cattaraugus County Department of Health and Dimes each funded testing for a total of 10 water wells at homes in the valley.
“We don’t want to go away (publicity on the issue) or with the community coming forward” to voice concerns, Shively said.
As for her personal situation, Shively said she and her husband now only drink bottled water as a precaution.
“I would drink our water sometimes here, but we’ve gone to all bottled water” since the explosion, Shively remarked.
Hammond, who lives across from the Volzes’ property, said she believes residents have been coming together in their quest for answers and help.
“My biggest complaint is we didn’t know (the oil well drilling) was coming,” Hammond said. “They were well underway before we realized how bad this was going to be … they descended on us like locusts.”
She was referring to drilling that began on the hillsides of the valley last spring. As many as 400 wells are projected to be drilled in the next several years in an area that will include Chipmonk Road and Nichols Run, according to Dimes officials. Property for drilling in the West Branch and Four Mile area has been leased to the company by local landowners who no longer farm the land in the former agricultural valley.
In addition to feeling safe in their homes, Hammond said another concern for residents is their property values.
“I had thoughts of selling my house, but not anymore,” she said with a resigned chuckle.
In addition to drinking bottled water, also as a precaution, Hammond is concerned with the air quality in her home as methane gas can migrate from oil wells to water supplies and homes.
“In fact … I was just trying to put batteries in a methane detector,” Hammond said during comments earlier this week. “I got a methane detector for Christmas, one of my girls got it for me.”
Dimes officials have pointed out that oil well drilling has occurred in the community, which is part of the Bradford Oil Field, for more than a century. In addition, the project is expected to create dozens of jobs for residents in New York state and Pennsylvania.
There are as many as 65 people a day who work with local contractors at the sites, Dimes officials have reported. Oil obtained from the wells is trucked in tankers to the American Refining Group in Bradford.