Huck heads to the epicentre of the American shale-drilling boom to meet the residents-turned-activists who refuse to stay silent as the big boys dig in.
Drilling for gas and oil is big business in Pennsylvania. But the true cost of fracking may be even bigger.
Huck heads to the epicentre of the American shale-drilling boom to meet the residents-turned-activists who refuse to stay silent as the big boys dig in.
They came knocking in 2005 – so-called landmen making a visit to convince the Stevens family to lease their land for oil and gas drilling. Lloyd Stevens was seventy-four years old and undergoing chemotherapy for oesphageal cancer. Health care is not cheap in the United States, so the potential extra income was initially enticing.
Still, Lloyd declined. He had no intention of jeopardising his family’s 115-acre farmland. The plot in Silver Lake Township, PA, has been in his family since the 1830s. Over the next year, a steady stream of landmen visited. Each made their pitch. Each was turned away.
In 2007, Lloyd passed away. But the landmen weren’t finished. They turned to Lloyd’s mother, Bernice, who at the time was ninety-five, and arrived at the nursing home where she lived, contract in hand. She signed.
“That began my education on the oil and gas industry,” says Lloyd’s son, Craig. The experience converted this self-described dyed-in-the-wool conservative into one of the more colourful and tireless anti-fracking advocates in the United States. Based in the epicentre of the great American shale-drilling boom, Craig, who is a marketing businessman by profession and a Tea Party Constitutional Conservative by voting history, has turned his rustic, wood-framed home into a forward operating base for anti-drilling meetings.
“I found a gas lease that I knew nothing about,” says Craig. “And that’s where the fun began.” In the eight years since the drilling industry tried to bamboozle his ageing grandmother, Craig’s resolve has only grown – fortified mostly, he says, by the drilling industry’s ongoing behaviour.
His ire towards the industry grew in 2010 when Craig discovered the company had begun to survey for a pipeline across his land without his consent. It grew in 2011, when his two young sons discovered that a pipeline-drilling accident had fouled the creek in the backyard where the kids used to feed fish and ducks. It grew even more in 2013 when his tap water suddenly began to taste metallic. Tests showed it was laced with barium and strontium, commonly associated with the drilling industry, and Craig suddenly began to suffer nosebleeds until he stopped drinking the water or even using it to brush his teeth.
Tour Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and you hear no shortage of these stories. Farmers and artists, lawyers and teachers, hippies and pensioners – people of all ages, backgrounds and political stripes have had contact with shale drilling. It has created some jobs and spurred some development in some of the most depressed parts of the state. And yet, this new drilling has also reaped havoc on peoples’ lives in ways big and small. Much of that havoc gets recounted in Craig’s living room.
“They started out on the wrong foot,” explains Jenny Lisak, a Jefferson county farmer, “because they started out with lies.” Since they arrived, industry reps only ever focused on the money to be earned. They never disclosed the negative impacts: the round-the-clock truck traffic chewing up the region’s roads and bridges, the chemical spills, the dumping of radioactive waste into local sewage plants that released it half-treated into rivers upstream from drinking water intake pipes, the swimming-pool-sized impoundment pits that can overflow in heavy rains, the gas flares and compressor stations coughing up a constant plume of toxic gases.
“If you’ve ever breathed in flaring fumes,” Jenny observes, “it’s something that you just automatically know, you ought not to breathe in.”
In her free time, Jenny compiles The List of the Harmed, a website that has archived hundreds of testimonials from people nationally who have suffered ill effects from the shale rush. The reports range from the less acute (headaches, quality-of-life complaints like homes perpetually covered in dust) to lethal. Her work fills a gap created by the unwillingness of state and federal environmental officials to compile these reports, or at times even to collect complaints from citizens. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” she says of her website.
It wasn’t until 2011 that Lisak added her own name to the list. Her dog, a female collie, gave birth to a litter of stillborn puppies. Then her five-year-old male collie died unexpectedly of cancer. After that, the fresh-water spring on her property went bad. “For the 150 years that the farm has existed, there has never been a problem with that spring,” she says. The water went murky after an oil and gas well was drilled nearby, she says. But proving that contamination was from drilling can be a Sisyphean task.
Jenny’s inability to conclusively trace the source of contamination followed a typical pattern. To show that her spring water was clean before the drilling started, the company and state say she must provide proof, through a battery of tests taken before the drilling. But drilling companies are generally not required to disclose the chemicals they will use at a given site, and some of the contaminants associated with drilling and fracking are naturally occurring heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and radioactive materials that were trapped deep within the earth before the drill bit reached them. So to pre-test for the right contaminants would have required a certain level of clairvoyance, without which it is impossible to know what to test for as a baseline (or a virtually inexhaustible budget, since some tests can cost over $1,000).
Jenny’s water was never pre-tested for many oil and gas contaminants. Many of these oil and gas contaminants, like benzene, show no visible trace or taste, but they can be dangerous at concentrations as small as a single drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Jenny says the spring is no longer muddy, but she can’t be sure whether the water is safe anymore. For now, she draws her water from another spring on her property.
“You’re sort of on your own with nobody to help you,” she says. “You don’t know at what moment your water might go bad. Might be next week, it might be fifty years down the road, but there’s always that possibility. You never really have peace of mind anymore.”
Ray Kemble knows something about this sort of loss. A former mechanic who spent two years working as a trucker for the oil and gas industry, Ray lives not far from Craig’s house in Dimock, PA, a tiny speck on the map now known internationally for its flammable tap water. This town, and specifically the homes on Carter Road, where Ray lives, have been the focus of one of the country’s most contentious battles over fracking.
In part, the fight in Dimock has raged so fiercely because of what was at stake for the industry: well-publicised proof of something that oil and gas companies have denied for years.
Among the industry’s favourite mantras – repeated to this day despite proof to the contrary – is that “there is not a single documented case where fracking contaminated groundwater”.
From the outset, the line is disingenuous, a phrase parsed by teams of lawyers with a precise meaning behind each word. Cases are not ‘documented’ if they’re locked away behind sealed settlements that bar plaintiffs from speaking about the case or sharing their files – an issue that tripped up EPA investigators starting in the 1980s and continues to befuddle regulators today. The contamination must come from the actual fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) process – the injection of millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into a well under high pressure – not from drilling, cracked well casings, or any of the other stages of extracting oil or gas from rock. The water must be ‘groundwater’, the aquifers below the surface that feed private wells, so spills into rivers, streams or other bodies of water don’t count.
Under a less restrictive definition, there are hundreds of cases in Pennsylvania alone where state regulators determined that drillers have contaminated water. In September, state officials released a list of 243 cases of contamination, including twenty-three in Dimock alone. Roughly seven per cent of shale gas well casings – the cement-enclosed steel pipes designed to prevent any contact between the inside of a gas well and the groundwater surrounding it – failed in 2010. That rate might seem small until one considers that over 100,000 shale wells are expected to be drilled in Pennsylvania alone over the next two decades, and that a single leak can ruin an entire aquifer.
Yet, the industry continues to circulate its misleading mantra. The EPA documented at least one case that fits into the strict framework, dating back to 1987, as The New York Times reported in 2011. But that happened before the shale gas rush, and is dismissed by drillers as the product of outdated technology.
The high-profile contamination in Dimock, if proved to be the result of fracking, could deal a fatal blow to the industry’s ability to make their claim. As such, the battle over what caused the water to go bad has taken on a larger-than-life significance, replete with allegations of cover-ups.
In 2012, the EPA, under strong pressure from ‘drill baby drill’ Congressmen like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, put out an election-year statement claiming that Dimock’s water was not contaminated by fracking. But an internal EPA powerpoint, leaked to the LA Times in 2013, found that “based on data collected over four and a half years at eleven wells around Dimock… methane and other gases released during drilling… apparently cause significant damage to the water quality”.
Talk to Ray, and you’ll hear stories not just about heated meetings with regulators and policy-makers (when they’ll agree to meet at all), but also a very personal battle with the industry.
This fall, Cabot Oil and Gas put up a new rig right across the street from Ray’s house on Carter Road. Workers at the site shined klieg lights round-the-clock into his home – and away from the rig – in what he believes was an attempt to harass him by keeping him awake for days at a time. He’s come home to find shale workers poking around inside his house, he says. One of the last hold-outs on Carter Road after many of his former neighbours sold their land to the driller or signed non-disclosure agreements, Ray’s home is now bedecked with front-yard banners calling for a fracking ban, an attempt to keep the harm done on Carter Road visible.
These days, Vera Scroggins is one of the few locals who helps Ray keep a spotlight shining on Carter Road. Vera conducts free tours for journalists, policy-makers and others interested in seeing the shale drilling boom first-hand.
Unfettered by any non-disclosure agreement, Vera can point out the spots under decks or in basements where residents tuck away their water buffalos – not the animals, but giant cisterns of drinking water trucked in for daily use. She can describe the colour of the water that spewed from the despoiled wells, and explain the precise restrictions on what each family can or cannot speak about to the press.
But Vera has faced another kind of attempted gagging. In October 2013, she was served with a notice requiring her to turn up in court twenty-four hours later, to defend herself against a restraining order that would keep her off all land leased by Cabot Oil and Gas, the company believed to have contaminated the water on Carter Road. Vera never had time to find a lawyer, she says.
The next day, Vera found herself subject to an injunction that forbade her from entering any land leased to Cabot. That meant forty per cent of the county she lived in – including the grocery store where she shopped, her dog’s regular vet, and even the newly-built hospital, all of which were leased to Cabot. To avoid violating the order and risking fines or jail time, she had to head to the local courthouse so she could draw up a map of lands leased to Cabot, then check that map every time she drove down a local road. The order kept her from visiting friends in their homes.
“I had all kinds of people that I showed on my tours with contaminated water with Cabot leases – I couldn’t go onto their land or in their homes and have them interviewed or show us the water,” she explains. “I would just have to stand on the public road and see if they wanted to talk to me on the edge of the road.”
She lived under that injunction for five months, while she gathered a legal team to help her fight the order.
These days, she still shows visitors around the gas patch, under a less-restrictive court order. Not permitted to stop within 100 feet of a Cabot access road, she conducts tours by slowing her car to a crawl in the breakdown lane, or parking and waiting outside the prohibited zone while her guests walk closer. “I can keep walking,” she says, “but I can’t stop.”
George Stark, a Cabot spokesman, told the Guardian that “Cabot respects Ms Scroggins’ right to free speech, but we also respect the court order and will enforce it.” Vera says Cabot workers often video her, or track her location by radio. “They’ll take pictures of me and they’re trying to catch me and they’re trying to go back to their employers and get some brownie points,” she says. “They make a big deal about it,” she says. “They’re going after a senior citizen and they act like they’re dealing with an eco-terrorist or something.”
It’s not a hollow threat. In October, Cabot attempted to have Vera fined and jailed for coming too close to a driveway that they considered an access road. The judge tossed out that claim, but Vera has an upcoming hearing on a permanent objection in February.
From Craig’s house, locals like Vera and Ray have connected with young organisers concerned about the environmental impacts of fracking writ large.
These residents-turned-advocates and advocates-turned-residents use Craig’s house to hold meetings and plan actions, like a recent protest at the inauguration of Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Wolf. After neighbouring New York state announced that fracking would be banned, campaigns to ban the industry in Pennsylvania have been re-energised. They face a long fight, however, and much of their organising effort must go not only to pressing for legislative changes but also to deliver much-needed water to residents whose water is now undrinkable.
That list includes many organisers. “It was like living in any collective house,” says Charlotte Lewis, twenty-seven, a Lakawana College environmental science student, about her time volunteering with Energy Justice Summer at Craig’s house. “Except one of the weekly chores on our chore wheel was to go fill up jugs of water from an artisanal spring.”
The group not only reaches out to people in Susquehanna County, it also brings people in to see the harm done by the fracking boom. “I call it, ‘Come and See It, Come and Breathe It, Come and Drink it,’” says Craig. Several celebrities have taken Craig up on the offer – he’s hosted Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, Mark Ruffalo, Arun Gandhi and Bobby Kennedy Jr.
“They attacked them because they’re lefty celebrities,” Craig adds, “and I said, ‘Hey, they’re the only ones that are showing up. We’ll show anybody that shows up.”
The organisers who currently rent Craig’s place have expanded their efforts from a summer-long project to encompass long-term campaigns, focusing on gas pipelines that will carry gas from the mountains of Pennsylvania to Liquefied Natural Gas plants on the coast for export.
These days, Craig mostly stays in Virginia, close to Washington DC, as well as several other state capitals, making it easier for him to meet with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. “I know how to tell a story about problems and make it stick,” Craig says. “I will go and sit down with the most left-wing people on the planet and the most right-wing and anybody in the middle, because, after three years of trying to treat this like politics, I don’t anymore. This is a civil rights and a human rights issue.”