As Rebecca Roter stood on Broad Street, heavy clouds threatening rain overhead, she brandished a bottle of murky water labeled “Bradford County.” This, said Roter—a volunteer with the nonprofit Protecting Our Waters—is water drawn from private wells near natural-gas extraction sites near the Susquehanna River. Her question was: Would you want to drink this? The answer from the dozens gathered outside the DoubleTree Hotel last week? “No fracking way!”
The demonstrators were on Broad Street to protest a speech that former Gov. Tom Ridge—now a consultant contracted by the Marcellus Shale Coalition—had scheduled with the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce about natural-gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale, a vast underground formation that stretches from the Delaware River Basin and New York down to Tennessee. Ridge had been touting the gas industry as a boon to the state and to the city for its job growth and investment potential, says Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Liz Ferry. “There’s not drilling in Philadelphia County, but as members of the business community, folks were interested to hear what the impact would be on the economy of the entire state as far as jobs,” she says. “We all have an interest in seeing Pennsylvania grow and thrive.”
But the protesters say drilling has not only ruined their land; they claim it has polluted their water, and warn that Philadelphia’s drinking water is at risk if drilling is allowed in the Upper Delaware.
The pressure is now on the Delaware River Basin Commission—a body consisting of the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware, and a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers—to decide whether to allow drilling in the area. Now, the Commission won’t let drills anywhere near the basin, which provides drinking water for more than 15 million people, including all of Philadelphia, until regulations are in place, says Kate O’Hara, the Commission spokesperson.
The forested headwaters of the Delaware, which lie on top of the coveted natural-gas reserves, are the most pristine waters of the river, according to O’Hara. A researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, which has been conducting a long-term study of the river basin, confirmed that the Delaware has actually gotten much cleaner since the DRBC was instituted 50 years ago. “The whole reason we were formed was to protect and manage the resources of the Delaware River Basin,” O’Hara says. “[Natural-gas drilling] has been an issue that we haven’t necessarily had to look at before.”
Which means the Commission must perform a delicate balancing act as it considers opening the Delaware to the natural-gas industry while fulfilling its mission, which O’Hara says is being “protective of the water resources.”
On June 1, the Commission will hold its second public hearing about whether to allow XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon, to extract 250,000 gallons of water per day from a Delaware tributary for their operations. They’re sorting through more than 58,000 public comments they’ve received about their proposed regulations of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that involves cracking the shale with a mixture of sand, water and a chemical cocktail to release the gas. Once the regulations are passed, applications for drilling could be considered in the headwaters of Philly’s main drinking water source.
Which is exactly why Protecting Our Waters volunteers were handing out literature to passers-by, making speeches and performing skits at last week’s demonstration. Their goal is to attract the public’s attention to an issue they say has been glossed over and flagrantly lied about by the natural gas and energy industries.
“People are getting sick,” says Roter, who says a friend of hers was hospitalized recently because he couldn’t breathe. She says he lived near a gas-well pad in Dimock—a town known for its tainted water after scenes from the documentary “Gasland” showed people putting lighters to their spigots and setting fire to their running tap water. The gas-well pad, Roter says, contained a separator, which emits harmful gases as it extracts natural gas.
“Wells get contaminated—people oftentimes don’t realize right away,” says Roter, a dual resident of Susquehanna and Bucks counties who has a house in Brooklyn Township—about 15 minutes from Dimock. “So by the time their water catches on fire or it looks so bad, they’ve been drinking bad water for a while.”
She and other demonstrators say fracking is far from being the clean technology TV commercials and industry reps like Ridge claim. Even so, natural gas has been heralded as a savior to the nation’s energy woes. Advocates to shale drilling argue the gas burns cleanly and, more importantly, can be found abundantly all over (or more accurately, under) the nation, including a large portion of Pennsylvania—meaning more jobs, lower energy costs and less dependence on foreign oil.
“The positive impacts of the industry are certainly being felt in every corner of the Commonwealth, including Philadelphia,” says Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition. The industry brings jobs and lowers energy prices, he says.
But people who live near wells in places like Bradford County in the Susquehanna River basin have suffered the consequences of practices by an industry they say is under-regulated. Iris Marie Bloom, who heads Protecting Our Waters, says that the Department of Environmental Protection is not regulating the industry adequately. If it were, she says, violations wouldn’t happen.
“I know personally of 60 families in Bradford County alone that can’t drink their water anymore, but are having their water replaced by Chesapeake Energy,” Bloom says, rattling off a list of hazards involved when the natural-gas industry moves into a neighborhood: open-air wastewater pits, trucking waste to Ohio, and massive industrial equipment like flares. “This industry is out of control,” she says. “They keep saying that it’s safe and experience keeps proving that it’s not the case. We’re asking them to ban frack pits, which enable toxic substances, radioactivity, carcinogens, neurotoxins to enter the environment in all kinds of ways. The problem is much bigger than any single fine or any single policy.”
Last week, Chesapeake Energy Corporation was fined a little over $1 million by the state Department of Environmental Protection for an explosion and for contaminating drinking water.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” says Mark Schmerling, a photographer who has been documenting natural gas and coal and who displayed his photos at the rally. “You think a million dollars will make people do the right thing? You can fine them all day ... it’s the cost of doing business.”
This is an update to a story we ran online only on Thursday, May 19.
Like many in her area, Crystal Stroud was aware of the concerns about hydrofracturing, or fracking. In that process, a solution of water, sand and chemicals is shot into a deep well to help release the gas. When she saw the drill rig go up near her house, she had her well water sent for testing. She wanted to get a baseline, in case fracking ended up polluting her water. But Stroud's health issues began before the well near her house had ever been fracked. On April 11, she got a surprising call from the lab. The woman calling said the water tests revealed "major concerns."