Home Local News MYSTERY OF SICK FOALS: Was fracking to blame on PA farm?

MYSTERY OF SICK FOALS: Was fracking to blame on PA farm?

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Foals in distress Thomas LaBarbera / Staff photo

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From a mile away, Allerage Farm’s magnificent barn can be seen amid rail fences, rolling pastures and red and white outbuildings on a hill rising some 1,500 feet from the Susquehanna River basin.

Drawing near, the Bradford County, Pennsylvania postcard comes to life. Foals gambol near watchful mares. Staff, dressed smartly in black polo shirts, lead their equine charges to assigned stables and pastures. At the very top of the hill sits a gabled manor from which the farm’s owner — real estate and racetrack magnate Jeff Gural — can take it all in.

Yet for all its beauty, Gural’s horse-breeding farm holds a disturbing mystery health experts and the federal government are working hard to solve. For three years, the mares have been bearing foals with dysphagia — a rare, life-threatening condition preventing them from swallowing properly.

Although researchers have yet to pinpoint a cause, a Cornell University veterinary team that saved 17 of Gural’s standardbred foals has identified a primary suspect — a gas well drilled directly next to the farm by Chesapeake Appalachia LLC.

An investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection confirmed the farm’s water was contaminated. However, it concluded Chesapeake operations was not the cause.

Big money, land rights and health hazards have been salient story lines in Pennsylvania’s shale gas bonanza. The mystery on Gural’s farm, however, represents a new twist in the power play between landowners, regulators and the gas industry.

For years, farmers have been dealing with water contamination and illnesses that common sense tells them is caused by nearby shale gas operations. But they generally face a burden of proof requiring legal and scientific resources beyond their means. Regulators, industry and health officials, meanwhile, often explain problems like polluted water wells as resulting from natural and pre-existing phenomenon.

But Allerage is not your average farm, and the foals are not your typical animals.

With some horses potentially worth six figures, Gural wants answers. His lawyers have filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board demanding state regulators conduct a more thorough investigation of his farm’s water.

“We are protecting our interests,” Gural said. “If you don’t respond now, it’s hard to come back a year later and say there was a problem.”

The farm, which opened in Pennsylvania in 2007, is more than an investment for Gural. It’s a passion. The name, Allerage, is a combination of the names of his three children: Aileen, Eric and Roger.

Gural’s veterinary team at Cornell has been conducting its own study funded by a $240,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the nation’s medical research agency.

This study involves not only water chemistry, but a search for compounds in the soil, air and forage as well as in the blood and tissue of the horses themselves.

Gural arguably could be one of the most influential part-time farmers in the Northeast. His breeding operations include more than 100 horses distributed between Sayre and a second farm in Dutchess County, N.Y.

Allerage Farm is a quick 6-mile drive south over the state border from his Tioga Downs Casino Racing & Entertainment complex in Nichols, N.Y. — a facility this year due to explode into a full-scale casino with table games. A big part of the current operation is the Tioga harness racetrack.

In addition to real estate operations in New York and New Jersey, he also operates Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey and Vernon Downs in Oneida County.

At the heart of the mystery of the foal’s illnesses at Allerage is the proximity of gas wells. The foals on the Dutchess County farm, where there is no drilling, all have been healthy. But 17 foals on the farm in Bradford County near the Chesapeake well have been stricken at birth over the past three years.

Although all the sick foals have been cured with treatment at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the problem has posed a life-and-death struggle during the first weeks of their lives.

The most recent victim was Flash, a bay beauty with an impressive pedigree. His father, Yankee Glide, was a dominant trotting champion winning more than $500,000 in purses in two years of racing. His mother won more than $150,000.

Flash seemed perfectly healthy when he dropped into the world in late March. But, within hours, as he stood on his spindly legs and began nursing, his handlers recognized the telltale signs. Milky froth bubbled out his nostrils. Later, a rattling noise developed in his chest.

The hungry foal was aspirating his mother’s milk. Without emergency care, he would die of pneumonia.

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    When treatment is required, the foals, accompanied by their anxious mothers’ handlers, are guided into a trailer for the 50-mile back-road trip to Cornell. There, clinicians usher the team into a medically-equipped stable, insert a catheter to administer sedatives and antibiotics and a tube down the foal’s esophagus for nourishment.

    Each foal has been cured after treatment, with the regimen lasting from a week to a month and costing between $5,000 and $10,000.

    “We’re lucky to have the resources,” said Ashleigh Bennett, the farm manager. “If it wasn’t for Jeff, these foals would be euthanized.”

    Gas drilling supporter

    Five of 10 foals born on Gural’s Pennsylvania farm were afflicted with dysphagia in 2014 and 10 of 11 in 2015. Although mares are sometimes moved between the New York and Pennsylvania farms, mothers of the sick foals share one obvious connection — they drank water at the Pennsylvania farm during their pregnancy.

    Some mares have also had problems with their reproductive cycles, a major concern on a breeding farm.

    With the water a prime suspect, Gural added a $40,000 upgrade to the Pennsylvania farm’s water filtration system in October.

    Meanwhile, farm staff awaited the birth this spring of three foals whose mothers had been exposed to the water prior to the upgrade. The foals arrived in March. Two of them — Flash and Oscar — developed the telltale rattle in their chest within a day of their deliveries.

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    Allerage Farm’s water filtration system Tom LaBarbera / Correspondent Video

    The babies will be given race names when they grow into competitors. Their “barn names” typically reflect the circumstances of their birth. Flash was a quick delivery that came a week early. Oscar was born during the Academy Awards, and Ester, a biblical name, was born over Easter weekend.

    Like puppies or kittens, foals have distinct personalities and a universal cuteness. When Flash gets riled, he bucks and kicks in jerky sideways movements to show his machismo — a display comical in a foal but intimidating in a colt. It’s a drill the colts on the farm are always practicing against each other while loose in the corrals.

    Gural and his team are counting on the new water filter to put an end to the problem, but with the equine gestation period lasting 11 to 12 months the results won’t be known until later this year and early next.

    Though wary, Gural is not rushing to judgment about the nearby gas well. He is on record as a supporter of shale gas development — a position he emphasized in a recent interview at the farm.

    “It created jobs in Pennsylvania, and look what it’s done for the price of gas,” said Gural, noting oil and gas prices have dropped to the lowest levels in recent memory. “It’s been a boom for the economy.”

    Roughnecks and roustabouts, pioneers in developing northern Pennsylvania gas fields, were frequent and welcome customers at Tioga Downs, less than an hour’s drive for many of them. So were landowners receiving royalty payments who might have spent some of it at Gural’s casino complex.

    Gural said he would entertain the idea of putting a shale gas well on his Tioga Downs property if fracking were approved in New York. But he does not unconditionally hold the industry blameless, making it clear he doesn’t approve of some of Chesapeake’s business practices.

    Mostly though, his support for shale gas development is tempered by skepticism about regulation in Pennsylvania and a lack of oversight. “The way they do this in Pennsylvania is loosey-goosey,” he said. “I believe they would do a better job in New York.”

    Gural, candid and approachable, was dressed in jeans, work shirt and a cap bearing the name of a feed company. With casual exchanges with his barn staff, he conveyed an impression more of a farmer than a real estate/casino tycoon.

    He walked toward a stall where Flash, recently returned from Cornell, lay resting in the hay near his mother. Gural reported his wife, Paula, feels strongly the dysphagia was unrelated to shale gas development.

    The conversation turned to a federal exemption — commonly known as the “Haliburton loophole” — allowing the fracking industry to withhold specifics about chemicals injected into the ground to stimulate gas production.

    “That they don’t have to tell you what chemicals they are using is ridiculous,” Gural said. “I haven’t met a politician yet who thinks that’s a good idea. Yet it shows you what kind of lobby they [the gas and oil industry] have.”

    The complaint over secrecy is at the center of his appeal to the Pennsylvania hearing board reviewing his case against the state environmental agency.

    Testing has shown Allerage Farm’s well water is contaminated with levels of manganese, iron, aluminum and turbidity exceeding state standards. Before installing the new filter system in October, the farm used a sediment filter, which was effective until problems began cropping up with increasing frequency in 2014.

    The nearby gas well in question, Struble 5H, was drilled in March, 2011 about 300 feet from the farm’s southern property line. Production began after it was fracked in 2012. The Pennsylvania DEP, taking into consideration samples prior to drilling, reported water quality on the farm “does not appear to have changed appreciably from before the commencement of oil and gas activities.”

    Gural’s lawyer, Martin Siegel, says the scope of the tests — covering only two dozen fundamental compounds — was too narrow.

    According to the appeal, the DEP failed to request or even consider information from Chesapeake regarding hundreds of substances used or possibly spilled at the well pad, let alone test for them. “Substances used by Chesapeake but not sampled for could be … the cause of the health problems suffered by the foals,” states the appeal, filed with the hearing board in February.

    In other words, the DEP results won’t show an offending chemical if it was never part of the test. “You have to know what you are looking for to figure out what’s causing it,” Bennett said. “You have to find the needle in the haystack, if it’s even in the haystack.”

    Suspicion about the water represents “the needle in the haystack” for which Gural and his breeders are looking. If the source of the mystery isn’t the water, a solution can be far more complicated.

    “Water, we can fix,” Bennett said. “If it’s in the ground or in the air, that’s a different problem.”

    On the farm

    Drilling has been known to compound existing water problems. Gas wells also produce air emissions from methane and other constituents rising from a mile below the ground. These impurities are bled off at wellheads and compressor stations or escape through leaks in the system.

    In addition to the gas well adjacent to Gural’s farm property, 10 other sites operate within 5 miles of the farm. Their emissions are invisible but potent.

    While the exact recipes for millions of gallons of solutions and fluids injected into and produced from the sites are proprietary, studies put the number of chemical compounds at 632. Of these, 353 cause illnesses to people or animals exposed to enough of them.

    Some, such as xylene, toluene and benzene, can move through the ground and air and cross into placentas and cause fetal exposure. Others, including phthalates, bisphenol A and ethylene glycol, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals and neurotoxins that can affect reproductive cycles and fetal and early childhood development.

    That assessment is from the Cornell veterinary team and relevant because it is the foundation of a hypothesis driving the $240,000 effort, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to track exactly what is happening at Gural’s Pennsylvania farm.

    The two-year study, which began in January, is integrated with workaday bustle of farm life.

    After steadying an anxious foal while it’s mother got her hooves filed on a recent spring afternoon, Bennett made a call to track a critical delivery needed to inseminate a mare. Then she walked to the pasture where four of the colts affected in 2014, Henry, Joker, Mulligan and Curly, vied for her attention.

    Gural’s horses are perhaps the most thoroughly studied farm animals in the state. On one of the animal’s halters, Bennett pointed to a filter designed to capture samples of the air the horse breaths. The Cornell research team also routinely samples the soil, forage and feed.

    Back in the small barn office, crowded with computers, monitors, a graphic of a mare’s reproductive system and sticky notes, Bennett keeps a log of testing for more than a thousand compounds in mares’ and foals’ placentas, blood, urine, hair and meconium. The results will be compiled and cross-referenced with the health history of each horse.

    All this information will be compared to sampling and analysis under the same protocol at the New York farm, which has had none of the problems. The goal, according to the study is “to accurately define the dynamics of environmental exposure to chemicals to which the animals and farm personnel are routinely exposed.”

    The study won’t be complete for another year, but noteworthy preliminary results show air concentration of diisobutyl phthalate, a known neuro and reproductive toxin, was 20-fold higher at the Pennsylvania farm.

    For all the law and science aimed at getting to the root of the problem at Gural’s farm, the Cornell study carries implications that go far beyond the 100-acre stretch of pastures and woodland.

    The working hypothesis is that the foals’ illnesses are signs — or “sentinels” — of a broader health issue impacting people who live around shale gas wells, even in the absence of spills, dumping or accidents.

    Horses are especially well-suited as an animal model for human diseases. Therefore, according to the study, “the results and conclusions … have relevance to individuals living or working in close proximity to [shale gas] operations.”

    A big question being studied: Could shale wells cast chemical fallout on nearby soil, air and water that causes sickness in the general population?

    The question so far has been hard to answer without scientific consensus, more data and transparency. However it remains critical to perceptions that allowed the shale gas boom to flourish in Pennsylvania while preventing it in New York.

    In justifying a fracking ban in New York in late 2014, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker cited a study that showed higher rates of heart and nervous system defects in babies born to mothers who lived near gas wells in Colorado. Though this and other compelling studies Zucker cited were not strong enough to prove or disprove health claims, they raised serious questions that dissuaded Gov. Andrew Cuomo from approving fracking until more is known.

    In contrast, Pennsylvania policymakers trusted the industry’s assertion that fracking was safe. The burden of proof fell to those who felt it was not.

    As with many aspects of the shale gas story, disclosure remains a prevailing issue. Sources most in the position to shed light on the Gural farm case, for example, were least willing to talk. Representatives from both Chesapeake and the Pennsylvania DEP declined comment for this story.

    Similarly, Dr. Dorothy Ainsworth, a project lead at Cornell, said the university’s lawyers advised her from talking about the study— even though Gural gave her permission and the study itself is funded by federal tax money and a matter of public record.

    Regardless, the idea that farm animals may offer important insight into the effects of shale gas development on public health has support within the veterinary field.

    “If you want to look at the reproductive effects — it would be hard to find 100 pregnant women near gas wells,” said Robert Oswald, a Cornell veterinary scholar who has done work cited in Ainsworth project. “But pregnant heifers near gas wells are very common.”

    Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine, coauthored a report that cited 24 cases where animals were potentially affected by gas drilling in Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. His study looked at individual cases — some of which included animals exposed to chemicals in holding ponds.

    “It showed what could happen, but not the prevalence,” Oswald said. “A number of cases had strong evidence, and some others were really hard to prove.” More baseline information about what the drillers use in their formulas would be helpful in designing studies, he added.

    While the body of scientific knowledge advances in the farm fields of northern Pennsylvania, so does case law. Gural’s appeal to Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, unlike a claim in civil court, is intended to push Pennsylvania regulators to be more thorough in their investigation. But it also sets the stage for further legal action against Chesapeake and the DEP.

    “You can’t rule anything out,” said Siegel. “Jeff wants to get to the bottom of what’s causing the problems.”

    The parties are now preparing for discovery, a legal process that gives each access to the other’s records, expected later this year.

    While the breeders hope the water filtration system will finally fix the problem, many issues will remain in play for another year, at least, and maybe much longer.

    “Next year should be a bigger test,” Gural said. “I’m not interested in Chesapeake’s money,” he added. “I want to make sure they’re doing it right.”

    Follow Tom Wilber on Twitter at @Wilberwrites

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