Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rally participant offers first-hand account

By Vincent M. Pedre, MD
Integrative Medicine Physician

On a balmy night for this time of year, Saturday, December 11th, members of the historical Pennsylvania Society met at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City for their grand ball – a culmination of a weekend of events where politicians rub elbows with their corporate benefactors and other campaign contributors. It is estimated that the Waldorf party was sponsored by 30 corporations, including Aetna Health and Accenture LLP, about 1/3 of which hold PA state contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

This was the 112th year for this event, where politicians can make contacts and meet fundraisers. Of note, the culminating after-dinner party was sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

While the festivities got underway indoors, representatives from organizations that have been vocally working against fracking in PA and NY got together outside the Waldorf to express their views.

Party attendees in evening gowns and black ties were greeted as they entered the Waldorf by protesters also dressed up in fancy dresses and black ties. One of the rally co-organizers explained, “We dressed up because we wanted to break down the stereotypes that are normally associated with these issues.” She added, “People aren’t expecting this. It helps to break down barriers, allowing people to connect with this important issue, and it shows that we are all the same.”

In total, about 100 protesters rallied outside of the Waldorf-Astoria with signs while chanting: “Governor Corbett, hear us say, no fracking way.”

A rally attendant stated, “As a concerned mother, I want people to know that this is more than just an environmental issue, this is a matter of public health and the health of our children.” Another protester added, “We need a sensible policy for renewable energy in Pennsylvania, and to move away from fracking.”

Several protesters approached guests at the PA Society event, attempting to create dialogue. When queried about their concern for the health of fellow Pennsylvanians, one guest simply said, “I don’t care,” while another replied, “We should just extract as much gas as possible.”

But there were also positive responses from some attendees of Corbett’s party. The lady of one arriving couple in tux and gown made a point of thanking the protesters. She said she would talk personally to the Governor-Elect later that evening, and she would press the protesters’ message upon him.

The rally was sponsored by over 14 grassroots organizations from both NY and PA, including Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, United for Action, Frack Action, Protecting our Waters, and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy. The purpose for this rally was to show unity between organizations in the two states in regards to this issue on the heels of the DRBC release of proposed regulations this past week, NY Governor Paterson’s veto of the moratorium bill in NY state replaced by a more lenient executive order, and the fast-track pro-drilling stance of Pennsylvania’s Governor-elect Tom Corbett.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Children Reflect on Dimock, PA

Children from the Homestead School in Glen Spey, New York traveled to Dimock, Pennsylvania for a firsthand look at what life is like for those who live in the increasingly industrialized landscapes where gas drilling is occurring. They met with homeowners whose water wells have been contaminated and talked with children to gain their perspective. The River Reporter covered their trip (see The following reflections were penned by the students cited below.

Is Natural Gas Drilling So Natural?
By Ayden Gann--6th Grade Homestead School

I would like to inform you that there is a crisis that is affecting our area and all over the country. Gas drilling is a way to get natural gas from the ground using a process called hydraulic fracturing. The question is how natural is natural gas? First gas drillers must make a 2 acre pad where they are about to drill using tons and tons of gravel. The next step is to build the drill rig involving using giant trucks to transport the parts over local roads that may not be able to hold the sufficient amount of weight. Then they drill the hole past the water table into the Marcellus shale. Then they send down explosives to break the Marcellus shale. Thus sending down millions of gallons of water and sand and millions of gallons of fracking fluid into the ground to make the gas flow out. The complication is that 30% to 70% of this dangerous substance is left in the ground. There are even more difficulties. Fracking fluids contain more than 500 chemicals. Fracking fluids can seep in to the water table and pollute water sources such as the reservoirs that support water for the New York City area. Fracking machines release carbon-dioxide vapor which is partly toxic. Fracking fluid tanks contain large amounts of fracking fluid but sometimes can crack or fall over and the deadly mixture can leak out almost killing anything in its path. Sludge ponds are caused by the used and wasted fracking fluid. Unfortunately it can’t be disposed of and just sits in ponds of toxic waste which can splash out and naturally leak out. Hydraulic fluids are highly toxic and release poisonous and toxic chemicals.

I recently went on a trip to Dimock, Pennsylvania where gas drilling is taken to action. I met a few townsfolk whose neighbors have signed leases. Life for them was tough with gas drilling going on. Trucks are going back and forth at two in the morning. One of their neighbors that live a mile down the road had their well blow up because of the gas drilling that was happening nearby. They are living with many kids and use this affected water everyday. Even though whenever they drink their water they get sick the gas company (Cabot Gas) does not give them a supply of water. They are living a very hard life because of gas drilling.

There is also a big problem with the water, the millions of gallons that are pumped under ground. There is another problem. Road Dumping the “produced water” will just make it seep into the ground and ruin the soil. There are some alternatives to gas drilling like geothermal. The word geothermal comes from the Greek words geo (earth) and therme (heat). So, geothermal energy is heat from within the Earth. We can recover this heat as steam or hot water and use it to heat buildings or generate electricity. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source because the heat is continuously produced inside the Earth. Wind Energy is like old fashioned windmills. Today’s wind machines (also called wind turbines) use rotating blades to collect the wind’s kinetic energy. The wind flows over the blades creating lift, like the effect on airplane wings, which causes them to turn. The blades are connected to a drive shaft that turns an electric generator to produce electricity. With the new wind machines, there is still the problem of what to do when the wind isn't blowing. At those times, other types of power plants must be used to make electricity.
Tidal energy is all about understanding the water cycle and is important to understanding hydropower. There is another alternative of gas drilling called solar energy. When converted to thermal (or heat) energy, solar energy can be used to:

Heat water for use in homes, buildings, or swimming pools.
Heat spaces for use inside homes, greenhouses, and other buildings.
Solar energy can also be converted to electricity

Two drawbacks of solar energy are:

The amount of sunlight that arrives at the Earth's surface is not constant. It depends on location, time of day, time of year, and weather conditions.

Because the sun doesn't deliver that much energy to any one place at any one time, a large surface area is required to collect the energy at a useful rate.

Which one would you choose to heat and power your house? With all of these alternatives, why should we bother using gas fracking? We need help fighting gas drilling for a greener and better future.

Gas Drilling

By Catherine Nicholson—Grade 6 Homestead School

I personally believe that gas drilling is partly harmful but if it could be commenced in a safer manner it would be fine. For example if they made it so less wells would be contaminated it would be a lot better and more money would be made and our economy would skyrocket.

One of the problems with gas drilling is the fact that some of the wells are contaminated so the people in Dimock, PA have to have water delivered in big containers called water buffaloes. Dimock citizens also have the amazing ability that Cabot Gas gave them which is to light their water on fire. Doesn't that sound fun? The children in Dimock have gotten sick by drinking the water which includes vomiting and rashes. Other than contaminated water, fracking can also kill the wildlife.

Gas drilling has many problems including methane leaks, drilling cement slides, and frack fluid spills. A house in Dimock, PA, had a drilling cement slide which leaked all over the road. Somewhere in Pennsylvania 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid leaked into a stream and killed all of the wildlife. Also near the gas drilling pads, taps in houses started bubbling methane. Other than chemical problems there are also problems with noise pollution.

Fracking causes thousands of trucks to drive past each week. The children in Dimock told us it was hard to sleep at night because of the lights and the noise of the trucks driving past. Have you ever noticed that it easier to drive at night than during the day because there are less cars so it is easier for them to drive to the drilling rig? Some of the trucks have weight problems so it is better for them to drive at night when there are no cops.

I believe that drilling is fine as long as it is done safer. There is a certain per cent chance that water will be contaminated. The gas companies should try to make that 0%. Instead of using gas we could focus on wind, solar, tidal, and bio diesel. The gas companies should also work on keeping methane out of the air! Over all gas drilling is not such a bad thing but it could be better.

Gas drilling needs to become safer and regulated in the states of Pennsylvania and New York. It is important to protect our wildlife and people. With gas drilling I think it should be regulated so we can find out what is in the fracking fluid. I say gas drilling has to be regulated and made safer so it becomes a clean energy.

Gas Fracking

By Ella Sherwood—Grade 6 Homestead School

Gas Fracking to get energy is not necessary, because as a human species, we have plenty of other resources that we could use to make energy. We could use solar, wind, tidal energy, and much, much more. Another reason we shouldn’t use gas is because someday it will run out, so we should try to use some resources that will never run out like wind. Some people don’t realize that gas will eventually run out and also after they drill on your property they have to come back a few years later to do it again, and get anymore gas out of the ground.

There are safer ways to get gas out of the ground. It may take longer than it does now but it is a lot safer for people and for animals. It is a little more expensive but it is better to be safe then sorry. Some gas companies drill safely but most of the companies just do it the fastest way so they can keep on going. For example, Cabot gas in Dimock didn’t really care that people’s water was contaminated, and when hundreds of people complained Cabot gas only gave fresh water to very few people.

Gas Fracking is not good for any human or animal. “Processed” water is not good because it has certain chemicals in it that can kill people and even animals, and it does. Not only does gas Fracking pollute the Earth but it also pollutes the air and water. Another thing is that once they drill into the Earth there is no way to put the Earth back the way it was. No amount of money could pay for the loss of a beautiful Earth.

Sadly, some people don’t realize how bad gas drilling is not only for people and animals but for the Earth as well. Why would you want to give your great grandchildren a ruined Earth to live on? What is also not good is that the gas rigs take millions of gallons of fresh water and make it unable to drink. Only one percent of the water on Earth is drinkable the rest is salt water. Once the gas rigs use the water and make it undrinkable where will they put all of the millions of gallons of bad water? Also if you let gas companies drill they have to drill under other people’s property. So why would you want to pollute your neighbors water. They don’t get paid anything if they won’t let them drill. When the gas companies finish drilling your taxes will go up to fix the roads, because the heavy trucks break the roads.

Do you want to stop gas drilling? Well here are some ways to stop it. We could all stop using gas then the gas people wouldn’t have a reason to drill. We could change to another resource like solar or wind. One thing you could do is tell people not to let them drill. It poisons the Earth, and it kills animals. There are so many ways to stop gas Fracking but it will take more than one person to stop it.

Gas Fracking in Dimock
By Marina March--Grade 6 Homestead School

Gas Fracking in Dimock is a devastating, beastly, despicable crime. Drilling should be stopped right as we are speaking. We have to take good care of Earth, then Earth will take care of us. Right now, we are letting all our good water, air, and everything else get ruined.

Contamination in Dimock happened in many places. There were kids vomiting, rashes, “Processed Water,” and malodorous smells. When I went to Dimock, I saw and asked kids some questions. They said that when the drilling process was going on, they were drinking their water. At first they would get stomach aches, and their mother thought that they had the stomach virus. She was wrong. The fracking fluids had leaked out into her well. Cabot company didn’t even give her water, she had to buy water! I felt so disconsolate, getting sick from drinking the stuff that keeps you living, that’s what really made me distraught. The woman also said that her daughters were getting embarrassed from rashes that the gas would give. Getting embarrassed about taking a shower because your skin breaks out, that sounds horrible. The kids also said that the sounds are boisterous. The trucks even drive at night with no license plates.

Gas Fracking also affects animals in the same way as humans. Sometimes the consequences are better than when the humans do, and so sometimes it can be even worse! Have you heard about the oil spill? Well, that’s what can happen, maybe not as bad as the animals caught in the spill, but still pretty bad. The animals suffocate, and even drink the horrible water.

Guess what? We can go solar! Gas will run out soon, but solar will never run out. The sun is natural, and right in front of us, we don’t need to get a tube and stick it the ground to get the sunlight. Going solar is probably even less labor. Instead of spending so much time making something that will soon run out, why don’t we use that time for something that will always be right in front of us.

Well, that is some of my information I have to share with you. So with everything I said, I hope you get some thoughts on Gas Fracking. The alternatives to gas drilling are that we should go solar, tidal, and use wind power.

Hydraulic Fracturing

By Parker Hamill—Grade 6 Homestead School

Gas fracking is rocking the nation in an attempt to bring natural gas from the ground. How is it going to affect the people? What dangerous chemicals are being used in hydraulic fracturing fluid, if not what chemicals, labeled harmless, mix and become toxic? These and other questions will be answered in this review.

Hydraulic fracturing is the process when water and chemicals are shot 10,000 feet in the ground to collect natural gas. The question is, what chemicals are being used? The natural gas companies are not revealing this. Could they be highly toxic? We don’t know the answer.

Dimock is a town already ravaged by gas drilling. Many of the people have polluted water. The gas companies have given water to many of the people but not all of the ones with chemical sludge for water. Families have trouble taking showers because the chemicals hurts their skin. One teenage girl has a stomach ulcer after drinking from her families polluted well. The gas company, Cabot, denies that this is their doing and says the water was naturally filled with toxins.

Out west, in states like Utah, gas drilling has forced people to move out of their homes. It has been kept quiet because the companies give millions of dollars for people to live somewhere else. Who knows what problems occurred out there?

The Earth is the most important thing of human civilization. This great resource is being ruined because of gas fracking. Water, ground, noise, and light pollution are the result of fracking. Water is filled with dangerous chemicals. The ground is becoming barren because of the placement of drilling rigs. While fracking is taking place the noise is deafening and lights are on all night. Would you want this to happen to you? Do you think this is healthy for your family? Could you actually sleep in these conditions? In conclusion I think that green energy could be used to fill the country’s needs. The gas companies have plenty enough money to become solar companies but it would be a better investment to use wind energy. Tidal and geothermal would also work well. Whatever the solution hydraulic fracturing isn’t safe.

My Opinions on Gas Fracking
By Taylor Jaffe

Gas Fracking is a devastating, unsafe, and unattractive way of extracting gas out of the Marcellus shale to be used for energy.

Gas Fracking is not good for our health, thus not making it not good for humanity. People who have drunk the processed water such as Rachel and her brother William, have become sick vomiting, and doubled over in pain. People who do not have access to clean drinking water like Rachel and William also have to pay for clean drinking water, and shower in the poisonous results of gas fracking. When they told me this, it was just so horrible, showering in poisons and toxins, when showers are supposed to clean you off, and not to mention the dizziness they got sometimes after a long shower. Also, all of the diesel trucks used in the operation create air pollution, and make people dizzy. Not to mention, clean air and water are less available to us and the other creatures of earth.

Because of the loss of some clean water, gas fracking is also bad for animals. House pets have gotten sick from drinking the processed water as well as humans. Wild animals that don’t have owners to supply clean water have no clean drinking water. Vegetation needed for some herbivores could die out because of water and air loss, and then the food chain would start to fall apart. Animals and humans alike are negatively affected by the pollution produced by gas fracking.

Gas Fracking is a majorway of polluting. Ultimately, water is in a big cycle, and if one part of the cycle gets heavily polluted continually, so will the rest of it. The air becomes contaminated by diesel trucks that work for the drilling companies, and also by gas that escapes the earth before the drillers are ready for it. Excess gas from the Marcellus shale seeps up into an underground water supply, and into the soil, destroying both qualities. Also, the pollution inflicted by gas fracking is unsafe to the earth.

The earth and all of its inhabitants are being harmed by gas fracking. The three most basic things that earth supplies, and all life forms need are being depleted because of gas fracking. Those three major things are water, air and land. Without these three basic building blocks, all of the earth’s inhabitants will die out. I feel dumb-struck by the time in the past that I had no clue about gas drilling, and by the fact that some people still don’t know, even with horrible things happening to places like Dimock. Also by the fact that some of the people who know, still don’t know that much about the details of this dilemma, and are being delayed in finding the facts they want to know, or even some solutions that they may be willing to try out. However, instead of focusing our time, money, and labor on gas fracking, we should switch over to clean and renewable energy sources.

Alternatives to gas fracking are solar, wind, and tidal energy. If we use safe, and renewable energy, we can save ourselves, the earth, and have a new, better, and clean source of energy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Youth Voice: Rethinking our relationship to technology


My high school teachers assign summer work. One assignment included reading an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s collection of essays, “What are People For?” In this excerpt, Berry, writer and environmental activist, claims technology has had a negative impact on the world because the reason for technology—making life easier for mankind—has made us lazy and greedy. The assignment was to analyze the argument.

At first, Berry’s argument seemed polemic—technology is bad and has ruined the natural world. But as I read more deeply, I realized Berry wasn’t criticizing technology itself. He was talking about the ethics of our relationship to technology.

In America, we value convenience. We value having our own cars, so we haven’t focused our technological know-how around better, more efficient public transportation, even though we realize how much pollution and carbon that contributes to global warming would be reduced if we did. As teenagers, our general mentality is we deserve the newest and best technology. Advertisements constantly hammer that idea into our heads. We “need” cell phones; if a teenager doesn’t have a cell phone, he or she feels deprived. But we don’t generally consider what impact all those phones have on the earth when they’re made, and when we dump them for upgrades.

TRR photo by Sandy Long
Bill McKibben and Marygrace Kennedy

Don’t get me wrong—like Berry, I’m not trying to say technology is bad. We are not going to get out of the environmental mess we’re in without it. I’m just saying we need to think more about our relationship with technology.

I recently traveled to Europe, and spent 10 days touring Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Solar panels were everywhere, windmills lined the hills, everyone recycled, and in the heat of summer, people rode bikes instead of driving cars. In these countries, people were embracing technology that was designed specifically to help the environment, even if it made life a little less convenient. It seemed that the Europeans were more committed to doing something about the harm human technologies have caused the earth.

About a month after I returned, I was given another tremendous opportunity. At Barnfest, a fundraising event for Catskill Mountainkeeper hosted by actor Mark Ruffalo, I heard famed environmentalist Bill McKibben speak. I later met McKibben to ask him some questions. I spoke to him about Wendell Berry and told him about my observations in Europe. I asked him why he thought our country was falling behind the rest of the world in the effort to stop global warming. He told me that after WWII, our country kept gas prices low and failed to consider the consequences. In America, we seem to focus on instant gratification, without thinking about how our now affects everyone else’s future.

As a nation, we need to reevaluate our relationship to technology. If we have the ability to harness the wind and sun, why has the Gulf of Mexico been turned black? If we have hybrid technology, why do people still feel the need to drive an army vehicle to pick up groceries? McKibben is working hard to unite the world in an effort to stop global warming. Through his program he has brought together 181 countries. All around the world, people are making serious efforts to get their politicians to make climate change a number-one issue. But, in the United States, the public has let climate legislation die on the Senate table.

McKibben told me that coming to understand our environmental problems and making the changes necessary to our way of relating to technology would be a naturally slow, gradual process. The only problem: we don’t have that kind of time. We need to join the rest of the world in a campaign to reduce the effects of global warming now. We will need technology to end our dependency on fossil fuels, but we will also need to learn to value our planet, not just our cell phones.

[Marygrace Kennedy will be a junior at Delaware Valley High School in Milford, PA].

An issue worth acting on


Natural gas drilling. Those words are everywhere in Northeast PA. In newspapers, in community meetings, in conversations taking place in local businesses. The issue surrounds me as a citizen of this region, but I hadn’t thought about it deeply enough until I saw the movie, “Gasland.” This documentary, made by Milanville, PA native Josh Fox, brought the sheer magnitude of the “natural gas issue” into focus for me.

“Gasland” wasn’t made by some big-time director, written by a team of award-winning writers, or laced with special effects. “Gasland” was made by a guy with a movie camera. A young person who, like me, has lived here his entire life and who is passionate about conserving his home—the land he loves. He is devoted to illuminating what natural gas drilling means to the communities who are experiencing it.

Fox was one of hundreds of landowners offered a large sum of money to sign a gas lease that would enable gas exploration and drilling on his land. He was informed it was a low-risk procedure; gas drilling would not disrupt his life or his land. But before signing the lease, Fox did what many others didn’t do. He decided to investigate natural gas drilling where it had been occurring already. What he discovered was astonishing.

Fox traveled across the United States interviewing different people who have been negatively affected by natural gas drilling. He found that the process called hydraulic fracturing—“fracking”—was not clean or safe or low-risk as the gas companies claimed. Fracking does so much more than destroy the landscape. The chemicals used in this process pollute the ground water and air. These pollutants are capable of making not only animals sick, but people also.

I saw “Gasland” at my high school, Delaware Valley. A panel of experts was there to discuss the film, and Fox himself attended to take questions. The auditorium was full, but few teenagers were in attendance. Our world is technological. We have the Internet, cell phones and Facebook. We’re caught up in reality TV, but we ignore reality. More and more people—young and old—neglect their physical world. Maybe we don’t care. Maybe we are intimidated or scared of problems that seem too huge or too inconvenient to think about.

When I left the auditorium, I felt scared. Scared of what might happen to these Pennsylvania lands I love. I don’t like imagining the tremendous impact that gas drilling will have on the life of my community. But worse than imagining these effects would be ignoring them. This is not a nightmare that will disappear if I just tune it out. This is an issue that needs to be acted on now.

What does action mean? We can’t just say “not in my backyard.” We use too many fossil fuels; until that changes, they will always need to drill in someone’s backyard. So in one sense, action means what it always has: learning about an issue and getting involved with others to make your voice heard. But action has to mean something else; it has to mean self-reflection. We have to ask ourselves why does living so often go hand in hand with destroying? Why aren’t we inspired enough, even as we witness everyday the damage fossil fuels do to the earth, to do what it takes to turn to renewable energy? Conserving, simply living with less, like smaller cars, smaller houses, less stuff, less running around, doesn’t have to be synonymous with sacrificing. It could actually mean living fuller lives more connected to the rich, beautiful planet that supports us. Action means changing our thinking. When we do, we will transform the world.

[Marygrace Kennedy will be a junior at Delaware Valley High School in Milford PA.]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gas trip ignites desire to change

By Savannah Lust

When I open my computer’s desktop window, there is an Internet page about buying new shoes, several blogs based on design, a recipe for Mediterranean pizza pie and a half-finished chemistry lab. This seems like a decent portrait of my interests; fashion, design, cooking and of course, school. With this in mind, it seems unlikely for me to be writing a reflection about natural gas drilling.

Although an interest about the welfare of our planet and sustainability has always been entwined with my life, I have never been one to go out of my way to make a statement about the environment. I have been a vegetarian for about two years and an avid recycler, turn-off-the-water conservationist, but have not gone much further. But, for what I saw on the trip to Bradford County, I am willing to change.

Whether or not natural gas drilling is the right thing, or a healthy thing for the environment, more conversations need to be started; not with my parents' generation, but with my generation. Prior to the trip, I didn't know the first thing about gas drilling. Today, most of it still goes over my head, but I am beginning to understand some of the adverse affects of it.

I am sure that most of my classmates have not even begun to think about whether gas drilling even needs to be discussed; it’s just there. This should be a problem, because the main effects of drilling might not be seen for five or 10 years from now, when people my age might be starting families.

Besides the unseen effects of natural gas drilling, such as the potential contamination to the water supply or the chemicals used for fracking, the most obvious is the seen effects. The footprint of drilling on the landscape is clear if you look at Bradford County. The picturesque landscape is partially destroyed by the drilling pads, heavy equipment, and holding ponds for the water. In one location where the natural gas companies set up, I could almost picture what it had looked like before. Rolling hills, a farmhouse, some cattle grazing. Maybe the picture that I saw in my head was a romanticized version of farm life, but it was destroyed by the reality of drilling. My pastoral picture of farming and the present day picture cannot coexist.

When most of the topics in high school revolve around things that matter today, shouldn't at least some of the things we talk about focus on what is going to matter tomorrow? The media directs topics of environmental issues not to me, but to my parents. But the blame should not be placed solely on my elders, or news stations, but some on me. I don't always listen to talks about the future. With so much of my life wrapped up in today, I do not always think that tomorrow is another day, and a day that I should, and could, be protecting. If the trip to Bradford County taught me anything, it’s that if nothing else changes, I, alone, should be aware and active.

[Savannah Lust is a high school student at Eldred Central School in Eldred, NY. She joined members of The River Reporter staff on their recent trip to Bradford County, PA and reflects on her experience here. We encourage youth commentary on any topics of interest].

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gas Boom Dominates Bradford County

by Pete Comstock

Mike Lovegreen has no ax to grind. He just tells it like he sees it. And see it he has. A Bradford County (PA) Conservation District staffer doing his job day after day for over 25 years, Lovegreen has become intimately familiar with every acre of the rolling hills, forests, and abundant dairy farms some 60 miles northwest of Scranton. With thick mustache, mutton chops, and unruly hair, he does not look the part of someone charged as District Manager with stewarding the natural resources of Pennsylvania’s second largest county—and the one with the first and most numerous natural gas wells using hydro-fracturing in the state.

I met him last week tagging along on this newspaper’s fact finding journey up the Susquehanna River. In our six hours and endless miles touring with him, Lovegreen guided us through the good, the bad, and the ugly of gas drilling with little editorializing and few hints of emotion.

The good: We saw booming restaurants, motels, and retail stores; met farmers and landowners now out of debt; and observed restored gas line rights-of-way. The bad: We heard about the huge influx of workers, a big increase in 911 calls, and about skyrocketing rents forcing people on fixed incomes to leave the area. We crawled through traffic jams in Troy, PA, population 1,457; and we witnessed paved state roads that had been reduced to mud by gas production activity. (“Expect bad roads for the next fifty years,” said Lovegreen. “That comes from a gas official, not me.”)

As for the ugly: We learned that the local residents should anticipate an average of 3000 tanker truck trips per drill pad meaning some 8-9 million truck trips over the duration of the gas play in that region alone. We toured a scenic countryside now blanketed with a spider web of gas lines, access roads and a patchwork of 4-5 acre drilling pads and 2 acre containment ponds (full of fresh water for the fracking process). We rode past crop after abundant crop of survey ribbons sprouting in virtually every field signaling the drilling to come.

“Eighty five, probably 90% of the land in this county has been leased to the gas companies,” said Lovegreen. “The DEP is so busy now, all they have time for is administrative approval in an office somewhere—just so long as the gas company’s engineer has stamped the papers. Some wells have never had an inspection.”

Reflecting upon his day-to-day job, Lovegreen said, “I feel bad making some little guy jump through hoops for six months or more just to put a tiny pond behind the house. The gas companies can apply for a 2-3 acre containment pond on one day and have it built 12 days later.”

Terry Lutz, Supervisor of Troy, met up with us for lunch at the Edgewood Family Restaurant on Elmira Street. Business was brisk for a Wednesday. “There’s only 200 wells now and we got nonstop truck traffic and beat up roads,” he said, “but just wait until all the main lines and connecting lines are in place. There will be thousands (of wells) and these guys are going to be here in a big way for a long, long time.”

Lutz cited the 17 year life of a well which can then be refracked. He also rattled off the names of gas bearing shales deeper than the Marcellus—the Oriskany, the Utica, and the Black River Formations—which could be tapped in time with existing and improved technology. “We’re looking at our children’s generation and beyond,” he concluded.

Lovegreen agreed. “This gas play is all tied up with national security and energy issues,” he said. “The Energy Policy Act exempted them from regulation under the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. They pretty much can do anything they want. We’re just a throw away zone.”

“National sacrifice zone” is the term that West Virginians apply to their region under assault for decades by poorly regulated coal extraction and now mountaintop removal mining. The gas industry points out that their own production does not alter the environment nearly as much as strip mining; and the land can be made to look much the same as it did before drilling ever began. In theory, the thousands of well pads in field after field could be scraped of their millions of cubic yards of gravel and graded back to match the contour of the land (albeit not the soil’s original fertility). Pipelines buried in fields are already indistinguishable from the surrounding pasture (although those going through forestland will always be an unnatural straight swath of grass).

Lovegreen and Lutz held out the probability that the massive presence of the gas industry in Bradford County would subside in time. Though the statistics, they said, are stacked against them regarding any happy outcome from a boom and bust era (studies show that a region is usually worse off after the boom than it was before) life could return to normal—but not for several generations.

Heading home back down the Susquehanna, I kept trying to take the measure of 60 years. Depending upon your perspective, those decades might seem a tolerable sacrifice for “homegrown energy” and for the wealth that will come to some. Unless, of course, you would prefer not to live in a region wholly dominated by an industry in boom mode. And unless, of course, the fracking fluids—benzene, toluene, and their sister chemicals—have contaminated an entire aquifer—in which case, 60 years becomes forever.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In resignation, we survive?

April 29, 2010

We drove on dirt roads that were once paved. The surfaces were rough and torn, with patches of gravel. Here and there was a remnant of a double yellow line. We passed gravel pits that were being reestablished and our guide, Mike Lovegreen, the Bradford County Conservation District Manager, said that the gas-drilling industry was hauling in stone from three counties over, and whole mountains were disappearing, fodder for the sinking roads. We, a van of 13 people, which included the newspaper’s editorial staff, the new National Park Service superintendent, some interested teens, the headmaster of a environmentally active Montessori School and a couple of parents, had traveled to the Pennsylvania Northern Tier county, where gas drilling has been going on for about two years.

Mike told us that the chief industries, before gas drilling, in a county of about 60,000 people, were agriculture and tourism. With the Susquehanna River flowing through its center, the county currently has 1,400 farms, 450 of them being dairy farms, and supports a large fishing economy.

He said that about 85 percent of the land was leased.

In the van was John Sullivan, a Conservation District Board member, a county commissioner, a farmer and a leaseholder. He said the mineral rights of his family’s farm had always been leased, and when it was time for renewal a couple of years ago, he signed the standard lease for $85 an acre. At the time, he had no idea that natural gas drilling was on the horizon. And when he knew things would be different, he said, he imagined that the wells the company would build would be in some backfield. The first map he was shown had the well placed 300 feet from his house. When he inquired whether it could be moved, he was told “no” and that the distance from the house was within the law. Nearby neighbors were offered over $2,500 an acre as a sign-on bonus and he said he still has a visceral reaction every time he see the landwoman (the gas company contractor who negotiated the lease) because she took advantage of his ignorance.

“The other night,” he said, “When I was sitting in my living room, I counted 26 trucks that went by in an hour.”

The roads are crawling with heavy oversized vehicles, hauling water, chemicals, steel pipe, backhoes, and exotic equipment of all varieties. Mike said he didn’t know what some of it was and that he was going to suggest that the gas companies put out a picture book illustrating all of the equipment they employ. John says it used to take him five minutes to get from the courthouse in Towanda to his home in Wysok. Now, it takes him 25.

At lunch, we were joined by Terry Lutz, a township supervisor, a farmer and a leaseholder. We asked him if the quality of life was higher before or after the gas industry arrived and he shrugged and said, “It depends on how you define quality of life. If you don’t mind the traffic and you don’t care about the dust, which gets into everything and sometimes becomes a dust storm, I guess it’s better now.”

One of the parents remarked, “That doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement.” Terry again shrugged his shoulders. He said that he thought that 20 percent of the county’s population would benefit financially and that he is in that group.

We talked about other social implications. Our hosts agreed that housing was a real problem and Mike said that there were no hotel rooms available, as they were filled with “roughnecks” from southern states. They said they had no idea what that would do to the tourist industry. Social services had no emergency housing and with rents going up 400 percent, long-time resident seniors were being forced out of their homes. He said that the Council of Churches was meeting to see what they could do to support these people in their transition of being moved out of the county and that there were two sociologists that were beginning to study the area and compare it to other boom-and-bust areas.

“We imagine that this activity will go on for 50 years,” Mike said. “And then it will be a ghost town.”

Fortunately, they all agreed, there had been no outright environmental damage, although John added that with 1,600 above-ground joints, that carry the millions of gallons of clean water with thousands of pounds of chemicals added, during the fracking operation, there were bound to be leaks. With 70 percent of that substance staying deep underground, all of the produced water—the frack water which picks of heavy metals and salt in its underground travels—is now recycled and used on the next job, they said. The companies have found that it is economical to build water retention ponds, each holding six million gallons of clean water, and using over-ground pipes to carry it to surrounding wells. It cuts down on the road usage and repairs and there are currently about a dozen of these impoundments being built a month, Mike said.

Covering an area of about three acres, the ponds, Terry said, are a new land use that was not covered in leases, and that these new requests for land is a constant occurrence to the leaseholder. “I keep a list of all of the things that need to be fixed, and when they come to me wanting to do something new, we go over that list and I get some of the things fixed before granting them permission for what they want.”

When roads got so bad this spring so that they were impassable and school buses could not get through, he said that he officially closed the road and the next morning there were 15 tractor trailer trucks lined up with gravel. “The operation at each well costs about $50,000 a day, so if we close the road, they respond.”

Mike said he learned at the Chesapeake Citizens Advisory meeting on Monday night that the company had spent $7 million on road repairs that spring. He said that it would be easy to get into an emotional downward spiral and be totally consumed by the situation but that he’d rather work from the inside “to see if it’s possible to have things go better.”

At the Upper Delaware Unitarian Universalist Fellowship this past Sunday, we listened to a Holocaust scholar who spoke about how easy it was at the time to become a bystander to evil. In relation to the Holocaust, some people, he said, were doing what they were told and others were somehow convinced that the ethnic cleansing was necessary for the good of the society. Others were simply made numb by the shear immensity of the operation. Incrementally, and with an ever building force, there was an energy released that was so large, so ever-present, that the only defense was to become numb, to hunker down, to become silent. The lesson that we needed to learn to come to terms with now, he said, is our identification with the perpetrator and not the victim.

It’s a lesson that we could project onto gas drilling.

Our Bradford County hosts said that there was no organized opposition to the activity that was consuming the landscape.

“There’s no stopping it,” Mike said, “the only thing we can do is try to plan for what might come after.”

“This is the hand we have been dealt,” John said. “And there’s nothing to do but make the best of it.”

“This is our life now,” Terry said, “This is what we’re facing.”

As we drove through the beautiful rolling hills of the Susquehanna River Valley back to the Upper Delaware, we were all a bit stunned by the enormity of what we too are facing.