When Aqua America Inc. bought a 12.5-acre waterfront site in Lycoming County in February, the Bryn Mawr company acquired more than a $550,000 property to build a water project to serve Marcellus Shale natural gas interests.
It also acquired a public relations migraine.
The previous owner of the land had neglected to inform the occupants — the residents of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park — about the impending sale. On Feb. 23, the owner gave the 32 tenants a month's notice to move off the land along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, near the Borough of Jersey Shore.
"The guy was supposed to have sold us a clean piece of property," said Nick DeBenedictis, Aqua's chairman and chief executive, who now appears to be landlord to a trailer park filled with unhappy people who say they can't afford to move their mobile homes.
Aqua is building a $24 million pipeline, in partnership with Penn Virginia Resource Partners L.P. of Radnor, to pump up to three million gallons of water a day to drillers for use in hydraulic-fracturing operations. It wants to build a pumping station on the riverfront land where the trailer park is located.
The joint venture, Aqua-PVR Water Services L.L.C., offered the residents $2,500 each to move out by June 1. It also is not collecting $200 monthly rents or utility costs from the residents.
But a number of anti-drilling organizations have latched on to the issue — 18 groups were listed on a release this week denouncing Aqua for arrogance, corporate greed, and "evicting families for fracking profits." About 20 protesters demonstrated Wednesday outside Aqua's corporate headquarters in Bryn Mawr, chanting, "Shame, shame."
"What Aqua America is doing to the residents is a travesty," said Iris Marie Bloom, head of Protecting Our Waters, a Philadelphia anti-drilling group that organized the demonstration.
No residents from Riverdale attended the protest. Kevin June, 51, a disabled auto-body mechanic and a leader of the residents, said in a telephone interview Monday that a lawyer had advised him it would be counterproductive to picket the water company.
"I am not going to protest against Aqua America," he said. "They were not the ones who caused all this."
June said his main grievance is with the previous owner of the trailer park, the Leonard family, who he said had led residents to believe they could continue to live on the land even if it were sold.
He added that he has no real complaint about natural gas development or hydraulic fracturing, although June said he is unhappy with the traffic that has inundated the roadways in north-central Pennsylvania since the shale-gas boom began four years ago.
Ironically, Aqua says one of the benefits of its water-pipeline project is to reduce traffic associated with trucks hauling water to drilling sites.
The Aqua-PVR project calls for an 18-mile-long pipeline to carry water from the river to upland drilling areas, where companies such as Range Resources Corp. would store the water in impoundments for use in drilling operations. Right now, each well requires about 1,000 truckloads of water for hydraulic fracturing.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which manages water use in the region, approved the plan to tap into the West Branch of the Susquehanna because it reduces the need for drilling companies to draw on smaller, more sensitive headwater streams.
Several other exploration companies are building similar infrastructure projects to serve drilling operations that are expected to continue for decades.
Aqua's DeBenedictis said the company had been negotiating to buy the property for a year. The land is zoned for light-industrial use and is along a deep part of the river, which allows for easier withdrawals.
Richard A. "Rick" Leonard Jr., the son of the former owners, said the Riverdale park had been marked with a "for sale" sign for many years. Since the land is in a floodplain — some trailers have been damaged or lost in floods — authorities would not allow a new owner to continue to operate it as a mobile-home park.
Leonard said he complied with state law by giving the residents a 30-day notice that their leases would be terminated. He said the buyers were being generous by offering assistance: "These people offered them $2,500 to help them. They didn't have to offer them anything."
Anti-drilling activists outside Aqua's headquarters Wednesday cast the water company as the villain.
"We're not talking legality here," said Nathan Sooy, representing Clean Water Action from Harrisburg. "We're talking justice."
So far, four residents have moved and about half have indicated they plan to move, DeBenedictis said.
Aqua was prepared to talk with the protesters, he said, though a company spokeswoman said the demonstrators had made no such request.
"I'd rather not have had the attention, but as long as they're reasonable, we'll explain what we're doing," DeBenedictis said.