Natural Disaster: How Did the Gas Industry Get So Fracked Up?

How one Pennsylvania county got the gas chamber. And ours could too.

By Ada Kulesza
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Sep. 14, 2011

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Passing gas: A frack pond and gas pad under construction in Bradford County.

“I have seen some horrendous looking water in these people’s homes, and I truly know that … people are not crying wolf,” says Siegmund, her own eyes red-rimmed and swollen because she’s allergic to the formaldehyde being emitted by the compressor stations near her house.

When it comes to the gas industry, Siegmund says, “I personally have a lot of problems with watching sick people be ignored. I don’t like cover-ups. I don’t like it when cattle start dying or pets start losing their hair or people’s hair starts falling out.”

Since there is no official, institutional body to collect the data, health professionals have to do it on a grassroots level.

Dr. Poune Saberi knows of at least 30 cases of people exhibiting the type of symptoms associated with water and air contamination. They spring up in clusters, a rash of similar complaints across wide demographics of the population within the vicinity of natural-gas operations that came on around the same time. Saberi is frustrated at the medical field’s lag behind the industry. A baseline study is being conducted in counties where drilling hasn’t started yet, so researchers can determine if drilling causes problems, but that’s pretty much it. The doctor can’t say with official studies backing her that illnesses were caused by natural gas. “But it’s not necessarily a coincidence that all of a sudden people are complaining of clusters of symptoms, and they attribute it all to the beginning of this process on their property,” she says. “A lot of people complain of heart racing, elevated blood pressure, skin rashes, abdominal pain, nausea, shortness of breath, hair falling out, dizziness, tremors.”

Deconstructing Bradford

Siegmund moved to Towanda two decades ago because it was a quiet town. After the rain, mist hangs over the mountainsides like cotton balls, and the lone highway dips and rises along the hills like an insect making its way along a rumpled blanket.

On a summer Saturday evening the main street of Towanda, one of those iconic, Anywhereville, U.S.A., boulevards once home to a baker, butcher and hardware store, now gleams in the slanting sunlight with dusty storefronts of empty shops, interspersed with the occasional second-hand store.

But on a recent Monday, the streets are packed. Steel water and water tankers, tractor trailers, SUVs and pickups flow from Sayre, on the edge of the New York border, down to Towanda, creating massive gridlock in the heart of the town. Siegmund says her reaction to the way the town has changed since the natural-gas boom started is, “Get me out of here!” Since it would be difficult to sell a house that’s next to a natural-gas compressor station, she says she has three words for Chesapeake Energy: “Buy. My. House.”

A house with tainted water is virtually worthless, but rents have skyrocketed, thanks to 20,000 out-of-state workers who have flooded the area, with the massive amounts of equipment and trucks that come with the industry.

The wells are drilled with rigs twice the height of a 70-foot silo. After a pad is constructed, it takes about one month of drilling 24/7 to drill the well, with another two weeks or so to frack and put the well into production. “The drilling took a month,” says Bastion, his gesture encompassing his trailer. “It’s lit up like New York City. It’s like, day is day, and night is day. I’m outside at 10 o’clock at night, mowing the lawn.”

When a well is being drilled, a row of portable office trailers monitor the work, and there are storage trailers with water, sand, waste and chemicals parked side-by-side along the pad. The drills are manned by skilled workers from the Oil Belt: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and elsewhere.

The men live in camps, like the NOMAC camp west of Sayre, on the New York State border, in a cross between a mobile home and a dorm. Their trucks and SUVs are parked against the board trailers tacked on to one another. The encampment is surrounded by chain link fence topped with barbed wire, adjacent to an industrial plant.

A driller from Arkansas who asked his identity be withheld, says he was hired out of high school four years ago by Chesapeake. He makes $28 an hour, working 12-hour days for 14 days straight, feeding pipes into the well casings, sometimes earning a mud sludge bath for his efforts. He rises for work at 3 a.m., has an 11 o’clock curfew or faces a breathalyzer, and spends his 14 days off in his home state, transportation provided by the company. There’s a security booth that guards the entrance to the man-camp, that checks in and out anyone leaving or entering.

He says the boys like to spend their evenings at the local bars, leading residents and local politicians to raise cries of rising STD rates and increased prostitution in the area. “It’s a mess,” says Crystal Stroud, referring to reports of stabbings and rapes and shootings that she’s been reading about in the county, and to the “creepy men staring” at her. She says grocery clerks have to walk her out of the store. “We don’t feel safe in our town anymore. Chesapeake has bought our county,” she says.

Chesapeake, along with the other players in the natural-gas industry, hired Ridge as spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Commission for $1 million. (The natural-gas and oil industry made large investments to the GOP during the 2010 elections). Come autumn, the governor and legislature will consider the recommendations outlined in the governor’s advisory committee report, which advises the governor to begin switching Pennsylvania’s infrastructure over to natural gas: building natural-gas stations along the PA Turnpike, and offering tax incentives to switch over public transportation fleets to natural gas. And in October, the Delaware River Basin Commission will consider adopting its draft regulations on natural-gas drilling. Once it does, the path will be open for natural gas companies to submit applications for drilling in the Delaware River Basin, in the headwaters of Philadelphia and New York City’s drinking water.

And that might be OK. As long as the price is right.

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Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Anonymous said... on Sep 15, 2011 at 07:48AM

“run them over”

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2. Oil E said... on Sep 15, 2011 at 01:43PM

“Oh just die already. You people are cutting into our profits. Oh you HAVE health insurance.”

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3. Nathan Fried, PhD Candidate said... on Sep 17, 2011 at 07:50AM

“The last bit about prostitution and STD spread reminds me much of Bioko Island in Africa where big oil from America creates compounds for off shore drilling. Prostitution is somehow rampant in an obviously sexually-unsafe environment.

About the leases though.... to play devil's advocate, I feel as if these landowners can't complain of New York Style lights or the noise. Its been public knowledge for years now that these productions are large and noisy. What did they expect? Of course, raising concern over the pollution, contamination, and health issues are important. Still, one thing I don't know.... you mention that the leases were "thought to be temporary 5 yr long". How did that not happen? Are the landowners forced to rent out the land after the 5 yrs? Why can't they just say, "Get the F#ck out now!" Is it a matter of reliance on the lease money? If it started in 2006, then this year the lease should be up for renewal... raise the rent like crazy or kick them out!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 19, 2011 at 10:09AM

“We are watching America self destruct. For one industry to be allowed to not be regulated like all other industries is a RED FLAG....for this industry to "not respond or take responsibility to the number of people that are showing health issues is disheartening and frightening. What has become of our country when corporations have more rights than the people who live here. When politicians are taking money from these companies at the risk of making the people who put them in office sick and without water? Why can't we learn from our mistakes and listen when there is concern? These are serious issues that can't be fixed with just a large campaign donation. Much of this is irreversible damage to our water, without clean can't survive. How is it possible this is allowed to continue, have we all lost our minds? There needs to be immediate action to stop any more of this destruction before it's too late. We need a ban on drilling now, because "IT IS NOT BEING DONE RIGHT"”

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 20, 2011 at 04:07PM

“The problem with all of this is that a lot of wells get contaminated even without fracking. The article correctly pointed out that many of them have methane in them anyway. The article says nobody knows how many wells have been contaminated by fracking and that's true. There have been investigations and one that I read about found out that the natural gas in the well had a different signature (different composition) than the gas being fracked. That is because the fracking is a lot further underground than the wells are. The oil these companies are interested in is much lower than the water table.”

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6. MAL said... on Sep 21, 2011 at 03:23PM

Giving kids cancer is ok??????? Fracking should be banned! Leave the gas where it is until a SAFE method of extraction is available.”

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7. PA Protester said... on Sep 24, 2011 at 01:15PM

“ALL leases with the shale gas drilling companies should be NULLIFIED because the companies DID NOT DISCLOSE THE RISKS AND HAZARDS ASSOCIATED WITH SHALE GAS OPERATIONS WHICH ADVERSELY AFFECTED THE RESIDENTS/LESSORS HEALTH AND LIFE. Also, the Lessors should be entitled to immediate remedial assistance from the Lessees.”


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