Energy. Environment. Economy.

Burning Questions: Quarantined Cows Give Birth to Dead Calves

Kim Paynter / WHYY/

Cows graze within sight of a drill rig in Lycoming County.

This is part of an ongoing StateIm­pact series answer­ing reader-submitted burn­ing ques­tions about nat­ural gas drilling. Last week, we tack­led water test­ing, whether or not frack­ing can lead to earthquakes, the status of the state’s deep injection wells, and all things water. Today we’re following up to a story covered heavily by the press more than a year ago.

In late April 2010, drilling waste water from a large storage pond leaked through its plastic liner and flowed onto a cow pasture in Shippen Township, Tioga County. Farmers Don and Carol Johnson found the leak, along with the hoof prints of 28 beef cattle who had wandered through and possibly drank the contaminated water. The waste water came from a well that had been fracked on their property by East Resources.

When tested, the water contained chloride, iron, sulfate, barium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium and calcium. The spill killed all vegetation in an area 30 feet by 40 feet. In early May, Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture quarantined the cows, worried that the resulting beef could be tainted and make people sick. East Resources objected to the quarantine, saying it was an unnecessary step to take. It was Pennsylvania’s first quarantine resulting from gas drilling.

In this most recent “burning question” we’re looking at what happened to those cows. The question comes from Andy Leahy, and it’s a good one. Leahy is a blogger with NY Shale Gas Now. He asked the question because he says reporters will often seize on a potentially catastrophic headline, but fail to follow-up and report the real impact.

“If the animals got sick and died, I’m sure that would be news,” wrote Leahy in an email.  ”But I have heard no such thing.  And there is a fairly well-placed, hard-working constituency out there, making sure the media finds out these things.”
Leahy says if nothing horrible happens to the cows, the media doesn’t report it, and the end result is biased coverage. There were some news reports published about a year ago that said the cows were happy and healthy. But we tracked down the farmer, Carol Johnson, to find out how they’re doing now. It turns out Johnson is pretty worried about her cows. Although no one actually saw the cows drink the frack water, she says there’s no reason to believe they didn’t.

“Well, you don’t put hoof marks in that water, that deep, without somebody drinking something,” says Johnson.

The water had a high salt content, and Johnson says animals, including cows, like to lick up salt.

Of the original cows, only ten yearlings are still quarantined. But Johnson says of the eleven calves born this spring, only 3 have survived.

“It’s abominable,” says Johnson, who along with her husband Don, has been raising cows on that land for 53 years, after taking over the farm from Don Johnson’s grandfather. “They were born dead or extremely weak. It’s highly unusual,” she said. “I might lose one or two calves a year, but I don’t lose eight out of eleven.”

Johnson says necropsies of two calves have been performed and it lists E. coli bacteria as the cause of death. She says a veterinarian she consulted said if the cows did consume the frack water, that could have compromised their immune system. But the necropsies themselves are inconclusive when it comes to a direct link between the contamination and the weak and stillborn calves.

The cows themselves appear healthy. It’s unclear what the cows ingested or how it impacted them because to test for toxins, they would have to be killed.

The Department of Agriculture confirmed the status of the quarantine. But we have yet to hear back from them on what type of follow-up occurred, and what their own veterinarians concluded about the stillborn calves.

We also contacted the state Department of Environmental Protection, which conducted the initial investigations of the spill. DEP says they have concluded their investigation and fined East Resources more than $36,000. Although we contacted the inspector working for the oil and gas division, we heard back from a press person. The press office told us to contact the Department of Agriculture, and we were also instructed not to contact employees for the oil and gas division because they are too busy to speak to reporters.

Shell Oil and Gas has since taken over East Resources, and now controls the lease. Johnson says she wants Shell to buy her entire herd of cattle and start fresh. And she warns hunters she sees near her property not to eat any of the game they catch. “Deer, grouse, rabbits, they’re up on that [well] pad licking,” she says. “They don’t know what’s in the water….The whole thing has become one big mess.”

We asked Shell if they would be willing to buy the Johnson cows but haven’t yet heard back from them. We’ll let you know when we do. Carol Johnson says she regularly tests her water for contaminants and so far, it’s come up clean.


  • Slhackley

    I think everyone should read this, it’s a domino effect!

  • jet

    He who fracks, should take full responsibility of all damages caused. That liability should extend to include those who allow drilling on their land and are profiting mightily from the fracking.
    Let’s see how eager they are to take such chances with our water supply then!

  • Anonymous

    This is fracking horrible.

  • Rookie

    There’s not enough evidence here to know why these cows died. I think we need to know more about the possible effects of fracking waste on our environment and the creatures (including us) that rely on it, but there are plenty of other disease processes that could cause abortion, stillbirth and weak calves at this high level.

    • labergere

      Man, 8 of 11 calves died ! What more evidence do you need, How many animals or people should die before you dare opening your eyes ?and what gas company are you backing btw?

      • TheProspector

        Remember that the cows weren’t pregnant at the time of the spill. The link to the calves is still pretty fuzzy, especially when tests showed E. coli bacteria as the cause of death. Brine is obviously bad, but it does not transmit E. coli.

  • Meldrick Lewis

    Greed. Pure and simple. It is the problem with the country and the world. The almighty buck is more important than everything else including the ALMIGHTY.

  • Teejayo29

    Did any of those who commented read the article? Do any of you even know what e.coli bacteria is? Having been a farmer and raised cattle, I would first question the conditions under which these cattle were quarantined instead of blaming chemicals in fracking water consumed months before the calves were born. Adding chlorine to water contaminated with e. coli usually is all that is needed for the bacteria to be killed in the water. A bottle of clorox added to well water if water from a treatment plant is not available is sufficient in most cases to make the water safe to drink. E. coli is found in the intestines of cattle, humans, etc. so more than likely these quarantined cattle are drinking contaminated well water or are drinking water from a source with manure in it where they are pastured around the time of birth, not months prior to delivering their calves.

  • Rima Synnestvedt

    We are proud of you, Susan, for doing your job. Thank you. Keep digging……keep being a real reporter.
    Rima Synnestvedt & Mark Schmerling

  • TheProspector

    To me, the interesting (and dangerous) point is that the cows were not pregnant when they drank the water — they were obviously bred sometimes afterwards. It would be odd to have that many stillborn calves and to have them conceived some time after the spill would mean that there was either no connection or that the effects last a long time after ingestion.

    More study on those cows is necessary — and better handling of brine water in the meantime.

  • Kauffman

    Butcher the meat and lets see the defenders of fracking  feed it to there kids!

  • jmw_123

    A storage waste pond leak and fracking are two entirely different things. The expert writing this article should realize that.

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