It was no chemistry experiment. I watched Thursday morning as Natalie Brant filled a bottle nearly to the top from her kitchen tap, sparked a lighter and held the flame at the bottle's opening.
Whoosh. The fire was sucked into the bottle, where it burned for a second amidst the gas on the water's surface.
Setting your tap water aflame. It is a nice party trick. But you do not want to successfully try it at home.
Natalie and Geno Brant and their eight kids have lived with flammable well water for two years -- since nearby hydrofracking wells were dug. They stopped showering at home after getting chemical burns from the water. Dozens of gallon jugs of bottled water line the kitchen counter. Their once-healthy kids, ages 4 to 21, suffer splitting headaches and have trouble breathing.
To the Brants and a lot of their Springville neighbors, sickness, heartache and contaminated water compose the high price of hydro-fracking. It is the process of injecting chemically treated water into newly drilled deep wells to capture the natural gas in shale deposits.
"I couldn't understand why my kids were getting sick," said Brant. "Are they going to have health problems for the rest of their lives? I have six girls, will they be able to have children?"
Brant is 45, with long brown hair, an easy smile and a world of worry. The sickness started after U.S. Energy drilled two hydrofracking wells within 1,000 feet of her house. She did not make the wells/illness connection until last summer, after seeing "Gasland," a documentary film on hydrofracking. It transformed her from homemaker to activist.
"I'm just a mom," she said, sitting in the kitchen of her comfortably disheveled roadside home. "But I've got to help my kids. I've got to help other people and their kids."
She is not alone. Her anti-fracking petition has 96 local signatures. Various Southern Tier towns are contemplating anti-fracking laws. I know that many scientists think the fears are exaggerated. If it can be safely extracted, natural gas is a welcome alternative to coal, oil and nuclear power. But there are enough stories of fouled drinking water and toxic wastewater to stop us from rushing blindly into heavy-duty hydrofracking. That is what Pennsylvania did, and the environmental bell is tolling.
Brant has a file thick with medical records, environmental studies and letters from government agencies. She fills five-gallon water jugs at the grocery store. The family showers at a relative's house. Still, Brant says, the released gas seeps into the house.
Brant's teenage son stopped playing hockey and her daughter, 14, quit track because of fatigue.
"The fracking chemicals in the water is why you can set it on fire," said Brant, as her 4-year-old daughter -- who just got a brain scan -- walked past, blue eyes peering from beneath a mop of blond ringlets. "It broke through the clay into the aquifer."
Maybe. Maybe not. Officials for U.S. Energy, which has more than 500 wells in Western New York, say Brant's problem is methane from a nearby septic system. The state's top geologist said the low-volume hydrofracking done in New York does not pollute groundwater. The state DEC is holding back until it finishes an environmental study in two months. At stake is whether New York will OK high-volume hydrofracking, which has been hugely controversial in Pennsylvania.
Natalie Brant is not waiting. She heads to Albany Monday to share her story with legislators. Her kids are sick. Her worries are mounting. And, in a bizarre twist on a rock classic, you can light her water.