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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Photo by jon sperry

They packed onto Sansom Street, blocking traffic, making their way to City Hall. Roughly 700 people holding banners, waving signs and yelling freedom fighter slogans like, “This is what democracy looks like,” and “It’s our water, it’s our right. It’s our water, we will fight,” marched on Center City last Wednesday afternoon.

A woman stood, arms crossed, wondering to no one particularly, “What the hell is that? There are so many of them.” A man looked at one of the signs, confused. “Drilling causes earthquakes?”

The sidewalk on either side of Arch Street that was empty in the morning began filling until it was packed with protesters at lunch time in front of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the gas industry was hosting its Shale Gas Insight 2011 convention. Inside, industry bigwigs and lobbyists mingled with the likes of Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and former Gov. Tom Ridge, and all sang the praises of Pennsylvania’s gas boom: It’s cleaner and cheaper than oil, and we’re sitting right on it. It’s environmentally friendly and green. Struggling homeowners and businesses from Philly to Pittsburgh will reap the benefits of lower electricity and heating bills. It will decrease the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and create local jobs. With 1,600 gas wells in Pennsylvania so far, more than 2,000 permits issued and reams of applications still pending, the state is poised to generate millions, if not billions, of investment dollars. In tough economic times, the promise of prosperity makes the government and natural gas industry look like heroes. Where do we sign?

Outside, the protesters sang a different tune.

“Fracking Poisons Air and Water. Fight Back Now,” read one sign. “Stop fracking with our air,” stated another. A third reminded the crowd, “They said it was safe to drill in the Gulf, too.”

Besides two local politicians who graced the stage, those who addressed the protest were just normal folk, who traveled from as far as Dimock, in Susquehanna County, to share their experiences with drilling. 

They rattled off tales of water being tainted, vegetation dying, and towns in turmoil over an increasingly controversial method used to get the gas in shale thousands of feet underground. They say hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—the process of pumping millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand to break shale and release the gas—is unearthing more bad than good. They warn other landowners about fast-talking landmen offering big bucks to lease their property.

Bradford Boomerang

Nowhere in the state is the gas boom as booming as in Bradford County, a “sweet spot” four hours north of Philly where the shale is especially thick and gas production bountiful. As of June, there were 386 gas wells drilled in the area, with 830 more permits issued. Residents of rural Bradford County have been leasing their property to energy companies for a decade or more. There would be no drilling and the lease would die, so when a flood of leasing started in 2006, few knew how big the industry would become. Now they’re experts. They’re close enough to the gas wells to have learned a life-altering lesson about drilling—between the contaminated water, the mysterious illnesses plaguing residents and animals, and the shady landmen with their sketchy leases, the boom is a fracking nightmare.

Bruce Kennedy points out gas pads like a natural-born tour guide, giving dates and tossing gossip into his explanations of each site. He and his wife Rita have 13 grandchildren. Kennedy is retired and runs a farm and heating business. There are no pads on the couple’s property, yet, but they have a lease with Eastern Oil and Gas, and Chesapeake Appalachia has a water pipeline running through their land.

So far, Kennedy says he’s had three industry-related accidents. “There was a diesel spill, there was a breach of pipe, and there was a hydraulic fuel spill from a piece of equipment they left settin’.”

Behind the bar in his furnished basement, Kennedy leans over, arms braced on the bar, settling wire-rimmed glasses on his thick nose and reading from his notes documenting life with the gas industry. A parade of pictures, plastic bags filled with black, diesel-smelling muck, and opaque water samples in jars line the wood bar. He remembers the day his relationship with the industry reached the boiling point. “April 16 of 2011, that’s when I discovered the fuel spill on my property. And it all stated spiraling from there. April 16 was the day I went from good guy to hard-ass.”

Kennedy called his contact, a man from Gary Monroe Associates, the broker for Chesapeake that had negotiated the lease for the above ground freshwater pipe that pumped water from an impoundment to the well pads. “When I called him I expected containment … and a cleanup,” Kennedy says.  “I was immediately hot to start with because they had promised me that nothing like this would ever happen.” Within days, trucks, a crane and a front-end loader showed up, “taking this damn thing out as quickly as they could get it outta there,” recalls Kennedy. But the following week, on Easter Sunday, he noticed a leak from the pipe itself. “The material I first drew out of it was cloudy, you couldn’t even see through it.” Kennedy says that when the reps showed up, they couldn’t find the leak. That’s when he told them, “follow the black line, you’ll find it.”

Ten miles or so north of the Kennedys, Harry Martin’s modest house stands on a hill, hidden by trees. An ancient retriever guards the back, while two mounted deer heads preside over the cluttered kitchen and living room. Martin, 65, a retired technician, is unflappable; he hunts, with bow or rifle, and his voice is dead level, picking up in speed and rising just slightly in pitch as he describes his experience with the gas industry. In October 2006, Martin and his wife signed a generic lease for $100 for each of their 130 acres, plus royalties from produced gas. There’s a gas pad on his property, with two wells in operation, Harry 2 and Harry 5, he says. The pad spreads like a level, 3.5-acre checkerboard, with an earth barrier around its perimeter. It used to be a hill, and Martin has to catch his breath a couple times walking up the drive.

 The wells are in the center of the pad: two wide holes injected by pipes that look like girders, feeding into a tangle of more round steel pipes and valves. Most of the pipes are underground; the well pad is pretty bare, with two towering cylindrical tanks along one edge, a loudly thumping box set next to pipes and valves on another, with a thread of pipe running between them through an anvil-shaped crux of pipes in the middle.

The pipes pump gas out of the wells into the separators. The waste goes into the big storage tanks. The gas is then fed into the loud compressor, which sends it into pipelines. Ubiquitous steel tankers labeled Residual Waste pull up to the pads and pump out the tanks, “when they’re full or when they’re told to,” says Martin.

The pipeline route is wide, a two-lane road’s width, cutting a scar through Martin’s forest and threading onward over the terrain. Martin planted nearly every tree and watches the wildflowers in his fields as he walks an avenue that the neighbor keeps mowed for him. “Whenever you get heavy rains here I got trouble with seepage on these two corners,” he says. “I had DEP in here last year because it was seeping and killing the vegetation.” Yellow earth gives way as he steps onto the barrier. “DEP made ’em dig the dirt out and put new in, but this remedy on the corner here is a joke because I been up here after it rained and it still seeps. They come up here and drill again, I’m gonna have whatever comes out of that black sludge layin’ all over the place in the water.” So far he’s lucky the black sludge isn’t oozing out of his drinking taps.

Sherry Vargson, 49, can’t say the same. A few miles south, past the top of a hill the graying, cheerful woman tries to make sense of the liquid running out of her kitchen faucet. She holds a glass cup under the tap and turns it on. The faucet gurgles and hisses. The cup fills with a substance that’s bubbling and fizzing, opaque and smoky. “Reporters love this,” she says, holding a flame under the running water. The flame stays lit under the running tap, and she says, good-naturedly, “Oh, it usually goes right up.”

Vargson and her husband signed a lease for $100 an acre back in 2006. She says they first noticed the problem when she was boarding her daughter-in-law’s horses in 2010. “We had a 20-gallon tub so the horses had free access” to water, she says. “As the weather got colder, we noticed the water wasn’t freezing, so I thought, maybe they’re just keeping it stirred up or whatnot. As the winter got more set in, we had days of temperatures below zero, and the water would get a crust on it but would not freeze solid, and we said, there’s something else going on.”

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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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