Detritus of Pennsylvania's Shale Gas Boom
By Edward Humes
Meanwhile, it's ruining Ron Gulla's life. "They destroyed my farm," the 56-year-old Washington County heavy construction equipment salesman says. "They destroyed my dreams."
Gulla is a rugged, intense farmer whose once-easy smile has been replaced by permanent frown lines. He leased his 140-acre farm's gas rights in 2002 to Great Lakes Energy (acquired by Range Resources in 2004). At the time, there was no talk of fracking or honeypots; Gulla was told to expect a simple vertical dry gas well, the main payoff for which would be free gas for his home and farm in the small town of Hickory.
Instead, Gulla's pastoral property—with its broad, fertile pastures and well-stocked pond—ended up launching the Marcellus boom. What was only the second horizontal shale well in Washington County turned out to be wildly successful. Range Resources had stumbled on a fortune.
But the process, Gulla says, contaminated his 2.5-acre cattle pond, killing its fish and plant life. His fields were torn up by construction crews. Murky fluid boiled up near one of the four wellheads on his property, eroded his driveway, and poisoned his soil.
Range Resources denied doing anything worse than making a muddy mess on the farm, pointing to state inspections that revealed no fracking contamination of the pond. Nevertheless, the company eventually paid Gulla $1.5 million for the farm, then sued to get him off the property after he accused the company of reneging on a land swap that would have provided him with a comparable property elsewhere in Washington County. He became a local activist, bitter and angry over his experience.
"I had a dream here, something I worked seven days a week to build," Gulla says. "I never would have leased my farm if they had told me what was coming. I was lied to and used, but the gas companies have been elevated above the law. Their wells and their profits have been deemed more important than good food and clean water. And where does that leave me? I had to move in with my mother because my own place was unlivable."
In the Washington County hamlet of Daisytown, cattle rancher Terry Greenwood never wanted drilling on his land, but found to his dismay that Dominion Gas crews could force their way onto his 59 acres and start drilling under a "never ending" lease that a previous landowner had signed in 1921. After new wells went in four years ago, his drinking water turned brown and unpotable. "It looked like iced tea," Greenwood says.
On top of that, he says, the spring-fed water supply for his cattle, which had run clear for 18 years, also became contaminated in 2008. That same year, 10 out of 19 calves born to his herd were stillborn or had severe birth defects. He had to get a new bull, and the gas company brought in a water trailer for his cattle. To keep his farm afloat, the 64-year-old has had to dip into his retirement savings, and his wife, a town postmaster, has had to postpone retirement. He says his royalty payments, which total about $38,000 thus far, do not cover his losses.
The most infamous case of water contamination near fracking operations occurred in Dimock Township in Central Pennsylvania's Bradford County, a heavily drilled dry gas region with more wells than anywhere else in the state. Fifteen families there have been relying on bottled water for more than two years, claiming that methane and other chemicals poisoned their water after fracking began. The homeowners have sued Cabot Oil and Gas in federal court.
Air quality is a major concern for Chris and Stephanie Hallowich and their two young children. The couple watched the dream home they built in 2007 on 10 acres in Mount Pleasant Township become surrounded by an industrial compound consisting of four fracked wells, a cryogenic gas processing plant, a compressor station, pipelines, a three-acre holding pond, and a gravel road frequented by heavy trucks. Like Greenwood, they had inherited a lease they knew little about until the drilling rigs arrived. Range Resources spokesman Pitzarella called this incursion a "nuisance" that would be cleaned up when the drilling was done. The Hallowich children, meanwhile, coughed and complained of headaches and burning eyes from the constant fumes. When carcinogenic volatile organic compounds were found in both the Hallowiches' water well and the air around their house, the family sued. The water was contaminated with acrylonitrile, toluene, ethyl benzene, and styrene—"things that should never be in water," Stephanie Hallowich said in a 2010 video statement to PennEnvironment.
She had no interest in becoming an environmental activist, but once her kids started drawing pictures of ponds with dead fish and of frowning suns and skies that hate the smell of "the yucky stuff," Stephanie became an outspoken critic of fracking and the gas industry. The Hallowiches and Range Resources eventually settled their lawsuit, and the company bought the 10-acre property—on the condition that the Hallowiches submit to a gag order and stop talking about the case and their experiences. Media attempts to unseal the court records so far have failed.
When Mount Pleasant Township attempted to regulate the gas industry through zoning, hoping to spare others the Hallowiches' experience, Range Resources threatened to pull out of the area. As increasing numbers of communities considered protecting homes and families through zoning, the industry lobbied for and shepherded through a 2012 state law that strips local authority over where oil and gas drilling can occur in exchange for municipalities continuing to receive money through state severance taxes. This was in addition to the now-famous "Halliburton loophole," orchestrated by former vice president Dick Cheney, which relieved the oil and gas industries from having to comply with aspects of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since then, gas drilling has been governed by a patchwork of state regulations.
Keith McDonough, a senior vice president and the CFO of apparel retailer rue21 and a resident of South Fayette Township, just over the Allegheny County line from Mount Pleasant, was outraged by Pennsylvania's new law. McDonough was especially galled by the fact that the law had been championed by Republican governor Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled state legislature. "I'm a lifelong Republican," he says, "and this was a dark day for my party."
To his own surprise, McDonough became a community activist and supported an anti-fracking slate of two Democrats and two Republicans for the town commission. Fracking, it seems, can bridge the political divide, at least at the local level. South Fayette has now joined a growing number of other Pennsylvania communities challenging the constitutionality of the new state law.
"This isn't political to us," McDonough says. "We're protecting our homes and our families from a very dangerous process that should never be near a playground or a school. They are trading away our rights, our future, and the health of our children for a quick buck."
In May, the Obama administration proposed a new federal regulation to require disclosure of the secret formulas for the potentially toxic fracking fluids used for drilling on public lands. The measure would not affect drilling on private land, where more than three-quarters of fracking takes place. And it is a watered-down version of the original proposal, which would have required the disclosure of fracking chemicals 30 days before drilling started. When gas industry leaders objected, the Bureau of Land Management rewrote the proposed regulation to require disclosure only after fracking operations were complete.
Sixty-five miles away, the residents of Carroll County, Ohio, are watching events in Pennsylvania closely, because the shale gas express is headed their way.
Fracked gas wells still number only 69 in Ohio, but the gas industry is already uprooting rigs from less profitable "dry gas" regions of north and central Pennsylvania in favor of eastern Ohio's wet gas shale. Thousands of planned wells are being licensed by a state government eager to join the shale gas club. Washington County may be the honeypot, but Carroll County represents what gas companies call the "triple play," where three separate shale regions—the Marcellus, Utica, and Upper Devonian—are stacked one on top of another, just waiting to be fracked.
So fevered is industry interest there that 95 percent of Carroll County has been leased by gas companies in the past two years, the lion's share by Chesapeake Energy. At the epicenter sits Paul Feezel, with his organic blueberry farm and the retirement home he and his wife built in 1999, when the biggest environmental problem was an overabundance of deer. The gas company "land men" have been at his door continually, seeking to lease the mineral rights beneath his 80-acre spread. Their offers began at $50 an acre two years ago; the going rate is now $5,800 an acre.
Feezel has so far resisted. He's worried, though, because if everyone else around him signs leases, Ohio state law could allow a "forced taking"—a kind of power of eminent domain designed to deal with recalcitrant property owners deemed to be impeding "progress."
"We don't want to be the next Washington County. We moved here to get away from exactly that sort of development," Feezel laments. "We don't want to lose our water. This is farm country, and farmers need water. And 20 years from now, when the drilling is done and the gas companies have moved on, we will be a farming community again. Farmers need three things: dirt, air, and water. If the water's polluted, what then?"
Edward Humes is a frequent contributor to
Sierra and the author, most recently, of
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash (Penguin, 2012).
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Climate Recovery Partnership and Beyond Natural Gas campaign.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | next >>