I recently took a road trip to Frackville. What I saw could serve as a cautionary tale about the mixed blessing of discovering a vast natural gas reserve beneath the Mid-Atlantic region. On one hand, there's a lot of money in drilling and a fuel that's cleaner than coal. On the other hand, there's drinking water contamination, chemical spills, dead fish and a changed landscape.
Actually, my destination was only "Frackville" in a figurative sense. I drove north from Baltimore to a tiny town in northeastern Pennsylvania that has been transformed by a boom in natural gas drilling using a technique called hydraulic fracturing (nicknamed "fracking").
In reality, I kept on motoring up I-81 past the Frackville exit sign (not my real destination, but the name was irresistible) to the village that lies at the center of my tale: Dimock, Pennsylvania. It's in a beautiful area of rolling hills and rocky forests, with farms and houses that date back more than a century. Four years ago, there were no natural gas wells in rural Susquehanna County, which surrounds the town. But over the last year, drillers from Texas have installed 60 wells in the county. And that number is expected to more than triple over the next two years, according to the drilling company. This surge makes Dimock a microcosm for Pennsylvania as a whole, where 650 gas wells have sprouted over the last four years.
Dimock has about 400 families and a median household income of $35,000. It's a warm and attractive village, but not rich. The town has only one stop light -- and actually, it is not even really a stop light, just a flashing light at the center of the town's one main intersection. There's a post office, an optician, the Dimock Baptist Church -- and then mostly just farms and homes.
A few years ago, gas companies started
figuring out there was a huge amount of natural gas in a black rock formation that stretches across Pennsylvania from the northeast to the southwest called the Marcellus Shale. The firms started signing land-use leases with many families in Dimock, many of whom were thrilled to get monthly checks. It seemed, at first, like free money. Drilling rigs started popping up next to barns and in pastures and forests.
In a little more than a year, dozens of drilling towers have risen around the town. I drove around, looking at the sites. And one thing became clear: Although natural gas is a relatively clean fuel, in that burning it produces less air pollution than coal, actually getting it out of the ground can be a messy business.
To create well sites, the drilling companies sometimes clear cut about five acres of forest in a circle. The ground afterward looks like a moonscape of shattered rock.
I visited on a day after a light rain, and muddy puddles stretched between pipes, pumps and tanks.
The narrow roads rumbled with massive trucks like this one, hauling large containers of water needed for the hydraulic fracturing process. The water is injected into the ground at high pressures, mixed with a gel of chemicals that serves as a lubricant for the drilling. The liquid cracks the rock and releases the gas.
When the water comes back out of the ground, it is laced with not only the chemicals but also salts and other minerals picked up underground. And sometimes this fracking cocktail causes problems. Pictured at left is Stevens Creek, downstream from a drilling site in Dimock. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, a Texas-based drilling company spilled 8,000 gallons of fracking liquid into this stream on Sept. 18 and 22, causing a fish kill and polluting wetlands. The state fined the company $56,650 and ordered it to cease all fracking in the county for three weeks.
Some neighbors have also become concerned about their drinking water. Pictured at right is a family's drinking water well. The woman who lives here said her well exploded, its concrete cover splitting into three pieces. After the blast, she said her water turned black and smelled like diesel fuel. The state environmental agency said it sampled 24 wells in the area, and found nine with methane in them. Four of these homes had so much natural gas in their tap water that "it could pose a threat of explosion to enclosed areas of the homes," according to a state report.
Here is the woman who lives in the home. She's Norma Fiorentino, a 66 year old retired nurse and widow. At first, she thought the drilling boom was a great blessing. She doesn't have a well on her property, but she's part of a group of neighbors who all signed agreements to allow a drilling company to draw gas from underneath their neighborhood. After her husband, Joseph, a plumber, died of a heart attack in December 2008, she lost his income and was "just scraping by" on $557 montly social security checks. The $165 monthly checks she now receives from the gas company help her pay her mortgage and keep from losing her small home, whose walls are lined with photos of her six children and 19 grandchildren.
"I really needed the money," she told me. The drilling company "made us think we were all going to get rich from this.... But they didn't say anything about our land being ruined or my water being ruined."
After her well blew up on New Year's Day, she said her water ran mucky and foul-smelling. Simply to drink, she was forced to haul water from a neighbor's home. This was tough, because she's in frail health. For 10 months, she said the gas company refused to supply her with bottled water.
"I begged them, 'Please, I'm on a fixed income, I can't afford to buy water. I can't afford to haul water,'" she said.
Finally, last week, after her story was reported in the local paper, the company dropped off four boxes, each containing gallon jugs of water. "I was very happy -- finally," she said. "But I said, it's a little bit too late... I don't think any of us here are going to trust our water again."
Pictured at left is another neighbor, Victoria Switzer, who is also worried about what's happening to the water amid the drilling boom. She's wary not just about her own drinking water (which she said was curiously orange and bubbly after the explosion). She's also concerned about the streams and rivers that flow through Pennsylvania down toward the Chesapeake Bay. "I don't know how this formula is working for the country," she told me, as she stood outside behind her home. "We are trading good clean water for cheap gas."
After talking to these neighbors in Dimock, I called the Houston-based company, Cabot Oil & Gas, that is drilling in this part of Pennsylvania. It is the firm that was hit with the $56,650 fine in September for the environmental violations by its contractors, Halliburton and Baker Corporation.
Ken Komoroski, a spokesman for Cabot Oil & Gas, said his company is now providing drinking water -- in the form of bottled water and water tanks -- not only to Norma Fiorentino, but 12 other households in the Dimock area.
Komoroski said that while Fiorentino is "a good person and an honest person," he disputed her claim that her well actually blew up. He did not deny that natural gas seeped into the local water supply. "Clearly, there is methane in Mrs. Fiorentino's water supply," Komoroski said. "There is a possibility that Cabot's activities caused the methane contamination in the water supply."
John Hanger, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said that his agency believes that an explosion did occur at Fiorentino's home.
"There are going to be some impacts from drilling, and our focus is on minimizing those impacts up front, and where there are spills -- or, in this incident, a serious event that included an explosion, which thankfully didn't harm anyone -- that remedies are taken," Hanger said. "We've had a series of regulatory enforcement actions involving Cabot. And I'm also glad to say that the drilling that goes on in Pennsylvania in most instances does not involve this kind of event."
Komoroski, of Cabot Oil & Gas, said that natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region represents a major economic opportunity for Pennsylvania and the whole country.
"There are almost 500 trillion cubic feet of gas estimated to be available in the Marcellus Shale," Komoroski said. "The acreage of the shale play (drilling opportunity) is the largest of any in the United States, and this formation has the potential to become the second largest producing natural gas field in the world."
I drove home from Pennsylvania with mixed emotions. I'm not against drilling for natural gas, and neither is my employer, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). But CBF has filed legal challenges to drilling permits in Pennsylvania, because the state has been rubber-stamping the permits, without adequate environmental review and protections. Last week, we won a victory, when the state revoked sloppily-approved permits for wells in a state forest and on private land in nearby Tioga County, Pa.
CBF has also been calling for the end of a tax-exempt status for gas production in Pennsylvania, so that some of the money generated by these out-of-state companies can be returned to help protect and conserve the land.
That strikes me as the key lesson from Frackville: If the state is going to allow all this drilling, it absolutely must make sure that the drilling companies take all measures to protect streams, drinking water supplies and forests.
It is not a fair trade, to surrender natural resources for quick cash.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation