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Story spurs state inquiry, inspires donations of water to residents
The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced that Erich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have won the September Sidney Award for “Fouled Waters,” a three-month investigation into a mysterious blight on the water supply of the Woodlands, a small Pennsylvania town surrounded by natural gas wells.
Three weeks after gas rigs started drilling nearby, also known as hydrofracturing or “fracking,” Janet McIntyre said the water in her house started to make her vomit. When she showered in it, she got rashes. According to Schwartzel and Rendleman’s report, the gas company, Rex Energy, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested the water, but found nothing to link contaminants in the water to the fracking.
That was two years ago, and McIntyre and her neighbors have since learned to live without running water: showering outside, forgoing indoor toilets and paying to fill storage tanks with water trucked in from outside sources.
Reporter Schwartzel and photographer Rendleman spent three months visiting the Woodlands, interviewing scientists testing the water and examining state policy on water well quality. After the front page story ran, the state Public Utility Commission launched an investigation and a generous reader donated $3,000 to supply residents with water through the Christmas holidays.
While fracking has been widely covered, Schwartzel and Rendleman’s story put a human face on the issue. Rendleman got the idea when she was “on a routine fracking story,” covering “fracktivists” who were petitioning legislators. They complained that they were tired of coverage that depicted them as “people with signs complaining.” That is when one of the fracktivists mentioned that people were living without water in the Woodlands and relying on a church water drive. “At the time I thought, great, I can get pictures of the water drive,” Rendleman said. “But really in the end, the water drive was just the beginning of the story.”