A Visit With Some Folks in Fracking Land

Part two — the view from the grassroots.

Last week I led a group of Nicholas School colleagues on an “eco fact-finding” trip to learn about fracking in Pennsylvania. We spent the first half of the trip (covered last week) touring facilities and getting a bird’s eye view of what’s going on with the landscape. Today I’m writing about the second half, which was devoted to hearing from people in the Keystone State.

What Do the Montrosians Have to Say?

Montrose, located about 40 miles north of Scranton, is the county seat of Susquehanna County. With a population under 2,000, the seemingly sleepy, former manufacturing borough is overwhelmingly high school-educated and white with a median household income in the neighborhood of $38,000 per year.

On our helicopter tour from Pittsburgh to Scranton, Montrose seemed like a good place to touch down, hop out, and stroll about to find folks to speak with. With no heliport in sight, we made an impromptu landing in a baseball field. Turned out to be a great strategy for engagement: as soon as we disembarked, a crowd gathered around to find out what were doing.

Fracking may be happening all around Montrose, but the people living there were generally nonplussed. They knew that fracking was controversial and divisive — that people were strongly opposed to or strongly in favor of it — but virtually all the Montrosians we heard from thought fracking was, to quote one resident, “probably a good thing.” They mentioned the economy, jobs, and out-of-town workers eating in their restaurants.

Of the few voices of concern, two stood out. One woman talked about gas company people coming into town and grabbing the good places to live, forcing others out, but she didn’t resent their success. Another woman said her daughter, who lived outside Montrose and was having her well water tested, was worried.

The blasé attitude of the people of Montrose surprised me. We got a very different vibe from the next group.

Group from Northern Wayne County

Moving east to neighboring Wayne County, which borders the Delaware River to the east and New York State beyond, we dined with some residents who belong to the Northern Wayne County Property Owners Alliance.

The alliance came about because property owners in Wayne and Susquehanna Counties decided to join forces before signing leases to ensure they got the best deal possible while also protecting their land. According to its website, the group has more than 1,300 members and represents more than 100,000 acres of land. Eventually the alliance signed a contract to go forward on fracking but not before doing their homework. This is how it’s put on the group’s website:

“Over the course of more than four years, [we] collected data and experiences from across the country; … took tours of active drilling sites; and listened carefully to the arguments presented by drilling opponents. This cumulative research equated to over 10 years and several 1,000’s of emails of in-depth education on geology, natural gas, gas drilling, and leasing. Our members committed to signing a lease if surface waters and the aquifer were protected. We have concluded that gas drilling could be conducted safely with a responsible energy company as our partner.”

We dined with a group of about 20 from the alliance. And they were upset and angry. They said the contract they signed is a model for partnering with gas companies drilling on private land. Among other things, it allows for continuous water testing and other environmental safeguards.

But their plans were frustrated by a temporary fracking moratorium in the Delaware River watershed by the Delaware River Basin Commission while it studies the impacts, a move the alliance is none too happy about. According to our dinner guests, they felt they were being deprived of much needed income by fracking opponents who were, at best, “uninformed.”

The group’s website claims that “the safety of hydraulic fracturing is well documented, with zero confirmed cases of groundwater contamination in 1 million applications over 60 years.” I guess the accuracy of that statement depends upon what you mean by “confirmed.” More on that later, but that attitude set up an interesting dynamic at dinner. You see, some of our faculty, including one in our group, had recently published a paper on groundwater contamination near fracking sites in Pennsylvania. The folks from the alliance knew about the Duke study (one even brought a copy with him) and they were none too happy about it. One of the folks at the dinner opined that the paper was an affront to their community and before we published papers like it we should first consider its impact on people. Another allowed that that was all water under the bridge but he hoped that we would be more responsible about what we write in our future science papers.

I can tell you that I bristled at this as well as the notion that anyone who opposed fracking is “uninformed” and I am sure I was not the only one. But our mantra on these kinds of trips is that we come to listen and not debate. We let it be.

The alliance’s fundamental position is that it’s their land, they did their due diligence to protect themselves and the environment, they’re in line to earn significant amounts of money, and no one should be allowed to prevent them from going ahead. It’s a position with merit, after all it is their land. But property rights only go so far. If fracking on their land pollutes the Delaware, which a whole lot of people downriver depend upon, then I’d say they don’t have the right to frack.

Next up: discussions with some of those supposedly uninformed folks.

A Failing Dairy Farm

Until recently, the Fallon family dairy farm, located in the town of Kingsley in Susquehanna County, was a 300-cow operation. Shortly after drilling began in the area, a black sediment appeared in their well water. Tests showed the stuff to be manganese oxide, produced when dissolved manganese comes into contact with the air and forms an insoluble oxide.

Apparently something happened at the same time the drilling began that caused a huge spike in the well water’s manganese levels. And this didn’t happen to just the Fallons. Many neighbors experienced similar problems at about the same time.

Shortly after the black sediment arrived, people and animals at the Fallons’ farm began to get sick. Bringing in outside drinking water solved the people part of the problem, but buying water for the animals was not affordable. Eventually the family was forced to sell their cows and shutter operations. Without income from the farm, the family is in danger of losing the land they’ve lived on for generations.

Despite rumors that the gas company working in the area had been cited twice for violations (in the casings used to prevent contamination and improper preparation for drilling through the aquifer), nothing can be done for the Fallons or their neighbors according to state officials since manganese is a natural component of groundwater. (Actually, I suspect drilling could still be at fault as it’s possible that that’s what opened pathways that allowed elevated concentrations of the manganese to move into the aquifer.) Pauline Fallon said her neighbors have banded together to sue the gas company, but she and her husband have decided not to sue.

Methane in Silver Creek

About 10 miles north of the Fallons is a property in Franklin Forks with a chicken coop in the back and a creek running along its edge. This is the Mannings’ home near Salt Springs where methane naturally bubbles to the surface.

Around the time that drilling began around Franklin Forks, the Mannings and their neighbors began experiencing water troubles — gray water issuing from taps, water faucets blowing off their stems, and ultimately water spewing out the well pump tops. (See video.) The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began monitoring the Mannings’ well water, and over the course of about a week found an alarming rise in methane concentrations in the head space. Fearing an explosion, the DEP disconnected and vented their well, installed a “water buffalo” beside their house for washing, and advised them to purchase or get water for drinking and cooking.

What caused the methane contamination? According to Tammy Manning, DEP said that the salt spring had apparently migrated. Did local drilling cause the migration? The DEP says there’s no way of knowing, and the gas company says it is not responsible — although it is supplying water for the Mannings’ water buffalo.

In this case, the Mannings have a lawyer and are suing the gas company. Their neighbors are not.

A Dinner Back in Montrose

We spent our last night in Pennsylvania having dinner with some people from Dimock — most were unhappy with the fracking rush, but one couple supported it.

Many of the unhappy folks had experiences similar to the Fallons’ and Mannings’. Others expressed disappointment with the appropriation of their land for the gas companies’ noisy compressor stations and crisscrossing pipelines. Even the supporters of fracking at the dinner complained about venting compressors sounding like a jet engine in the middle of the night and ever increasing feet of pipelines installed on their property.

However, even the unhappy and upset folks were not necessarily anti-fracking. If fracking is in the cards, so be it, they said, but the companies need to be responsible and accountable, and that in far too many cases they have not been and that the state government was not stepping in as it should.

Path Forward?

My own opinion is that we have a lot to learn about fracking. Since natural gas is not going anywhere, why not take the time needed to make sure that the environmental impacts are minimized and that really unacceptable impacts — such as polluting the watershed that serves New York City or Delaware — never happen.

As for those who claim that you just cannot document that drilling and fracking have contaminated people’s well water, I maintain that they’re either intentionally or unknowingly sticking their heads in the sand. I have a hard time believing that all the water problems I heard about during my visit were either coincidence with nothing to do with drilling or were made up by people trying to make a fraudulent buck. It’s pretty clear to me that at least sometimes — perhaps because of mistakes and/or carelessness — fracking leads to water contamination that can really set a family or a community back.

Imagine what life would be like, having, like the Mannings, to bring your drinking water into the house daily by the jug-full. Imagine the effects to your property value and your economic well-being.

Whether you believe in big government or small government, free markets or regulated markets, what’s right is right. If we’re going to continue to move forward with fracking, there has to be some mechanism for making the people who get run over by the process whole.

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