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Fractured Lives

Detritus of Pennsylvania's Shale Gas Boom

By Edward Humes

The supple hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, once known for their grassy woodlands, red barns, and one-stoplight villages, bristle with new landmarks these days: drilling rigs, dark green condensate tanks, fields of iron conduits lumped with hissing valves, and long, flat rectangles carved into hilltops like overgrown swimming pools, brimming with umber wastewater. Tall metal methane flaring stacks periodically fill the night with fiery glares and jet engine roars. Roadbeds of crushed rock, guarded by No Trespassing signs, lie like fresh sutures across hayfields, deer trails, and backyards, admitting fleets of tanker trucks to the wellheads of America's latest energy revolution.

This is the new face of Washington County, the leading edge of the nation's breakneck shale gas boom. Natural gas boosters, President Barack Obama among them, have lauded it as a must-have, 100-year supply of clean, cheap energy that we cannot afford to pass up. However, recent data suggest that supplies of shale gas may last for only 11 years and that the extreme measures needed to recover it may make it a dirtier fuel than coal. But that hasn't slowed the dramatic transformation of gas-rich regions from rural Pennsylvania to urban Fort Worth, Texas.

Driving this juggernaut is the amalgam of industrial technologies collectively known as "hydraulic fracturing," or "fracking," which releases the gases (the main component of which is methane) hidden deep within layers of ancient, splintery shale. With five major shale "plays" concentrated in eight states, and more under development, America has been transformed from a net importer of natural gas into a potential exporter.

Perched atop the 7,000-foot-deep Marcellus Shale formation, which undergirds most of Appalachia, Washington County not only boasts enormous reserves of methane but also leads the state in producing far more frack-worthy "wet gas" products: propane, butane, ethane, and other valuable chemicals that can mean the difference between a money pit and a money gusher. Although central Pennsylvania has more wells, this wet gas makes Washington County, in industry parlance, a "honeypot."
The lure of million-dollar payouts has led many farmers, homeowners, school boards, and town commissions to lease out their subterranean energy wealth. Royalty payments on leases so far have topped half a billion dollars statewide--money that, for some, is literally saving the farm.

"An unprecedented economic impact," Matt Pitzarella has called it. He's spokesman for the leading driller in this part of the state, Texas-based Range Resources, which in 2004 fracked the first successful Marcellus Shale wells--at the time a shot in the dark and now believed to be tapping the second-largest natural gas field in the world. Pitzarella ticks off stories of poor families who hit the gas-lease lottery and are now able to afford college tuition, new cars, and home makeovers.

But unlocking half-billion-year-old hydrocarbon deposits carries a price, and not everyone shares in the bonanza. For every new shale well, 4 million to 8 million gallons of water, laced with potentially poisonous chemicals, are pumped into the ground under explosive pressure--a violent geological assault. And once unleashed, the gas requires a vast industrial architecture to be processed and moved from the wells to the world. Imagine the pipes, compressors, ponds, pits, refineries, and meters each shale well in Pennsylvania demands, planted next to horse farms, cornfields, houses, and schools. Then multiply by 5,000.

"It's changed everything, all right," says Pam Judy, a resident of Carmichaels, in neighboring Greene County. Her now-unsellable dream home sits 780 feet downwind of three enormous gas compressors, which appeared in 2009. "It sounds like helicopters in the backyard," she says. "The fumes make me dizzy. My children get headaches and nosebleeds. Some opportunity."

"It's turned neighbor against neighbor," says JoAnne Wagner, an outspoken homemaker who battled unsuccessfully to keep fracking away from her children's schools in Mount Pleasant Township. She tells about the day she opened her garage and was hit by an overpowering, burning-chemical smell. Can she prove the source? No. But such stories are common in America's fracking capital.

"The gas companies have been given carte blanche to put anything anywhere," she says.

To get its way, the gas industry has employed prodigious lobbying, campaign donations, even the hiring of retired military psychological warfare experts to tar opponents as antibusiness, job-killing eco-fanatics. One result has been the unprecedented move in January by Pennsylvania's pro-fracking governor and legislature to strip towns and counties of their traditional zoning authority, which they were using to create no-frack buffers around homes and schools. The law also imposes a gag order on physicians, barring them from revealing the trade-secret chemical ingredients of fracking fluid--even to their patients.

Since the shale boom began, gas companies have been cited by Pennsylvania regulators for more than 4,100 violations. The citizen's group PennEnvironment studied 3,355 of these reported violations, from 2008 to 2011, and found that more than 70 percent likely posed "a direct threat to our environment." Washington County farmers complain of stillborn and deformed calves near fracking operations. Residential well water has turned murky and undrinkable. Homeowners near massive gas compressor stations complain of respiratory ailments, chronically sick children, and the sudden deaths of pets. While cause and effect is often hotly disputed--particularly when it comes to sources of water-well contamination--similar complaints are echoed in communities throughout the state and nation wherever shale gas is being drilled.

Among those speaking out is 53-year-old Jeannie Moten of the tiny Washington County village of Rea, where 22 residents have been beset by eye-watering fumes and noxious drinking water they attribute to a fracked gas well on a hillside above their homes. Residents complain of "frack rash," asthma, diarrhea, incontinence, sore throats, and joint pain. Moten claims that the water from her mother's faucets stinks so horribly that visitors flee, and that the fumes have set off the household smoke alarm. Tests have revealed the presence of strontium, benzene, and other toxics--some of them matching the proprietary fracking compounds used to break open the shale. Moten says her tap water has even spewed live brine shrimp into her glass on several occasions. So far, her complaints to township officials have led nowhere. Doctors have told her to move, but it's the only home she's known, and her elderly mother depends on her.

"My 90-year-old mother ought to be able to drink her tap water without getting sick," says Moten, her voice shaking, the once smooth, freckled skin of her face marked by angry rashes. "She always could. Now her well is unusable. But they say nothing's wrong, that fracking is safe. How far will this go before people wake up?"

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