Tour of Frack sites
Today was a highlight of our visit to Pennsylvania – a tour of the areas being fracked with Vera Scroggins as our guide, a truly remarkable lady who is being sued by industry but keeps on showing people the impacts of fracking from a community viewpoint. Cabot, a fracking company, has taken out an injunction against her, she cannot stand on company owned ground, cannot stop within 100 feet of a driveway leading to a wellsite or within 30 feet of a boundary fence. Nevertheless, she brought us into rural areas being fracked and introduced us to individuals who are being severely impacted by fracking operations.
First to describe the countryside. Susquehanna County at first sight is one of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen – rolling hills, deciduous forests, rivers and farmlands. Dairy farming is big here, and logging of forests. The houses are generally big, with chapboard walls and well maintained. The roads are country roads, networking throughout the land. However, the traffic is far greater than one would expect – large trucks travel at high speeds throughout the area, a symbol of the industry that has drastically invaded this county. Our tour guide told us that while we were travelling on main roads, most side lanes ended in a well pad, hidden from view by the trees. It is only from above that one can get an idea of how invasive the fracking industry is.
First stop was to Mrs Page, who is one of the few householders in her community who have refused to lease their land to the fracking company. She wanted to protect her property but has found that she is impacted very badly nonetheless with her land covered from time to time with a fine dust, connected with drilling activitiy. Nobody knows what is in this dust but people have histories of allergies and respiratory diseases. Mrs Page has several pipelines snaking around her property and a pig located feet from her boundary.
Next stop was to Dimock where we met Ray, an amazing character, ex-military, who has had his life ruined by fracking. He worked on a frack pad for 3 years and has been left with serious skin rashes and respiratory problems. Ray literally has had to evict company personnel and state troopers from his property at gun-point! His water has been contaminated and he trucks in water from Montrose every week. He filled a bucket with water from his well, the smell was indescribable. Someone said that it was like a decaying skunk! The stress of his situation is having a really bad impact on his health and Ray is getting very tired of the fight that he can’t win.
His neighbour is Bill. Bill’s water, which we also saw, has high levels of methane . We saw it bubbling through the water but did not dare to try to light it! Cabot have supplied him with a treatment system that we examined. It looked impressive, including a sprinkler system to remove any gases, two kinds of filters to remove particles, chlorine treatment (as if there were not already enough contaminants in the water), UV lamps to sterilise the water and ozone treatment for odour removal. What was not addressed was the contamination by heavy metal salts that dissolve in the water! This would need active carbon filtration that we didn’t spot. Bill did not drink the water but fed it to his animals and used it for showers etc. The family drank bottled water.
What was truly obvious was that the nearer the houses were to the fracking sites, the poorer they appeared. Fracking money has not filtered through to those communities, country folk who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for when they signed leases. Many have left the area, dairy farms have disappeared, tourism also has suffered.
AFTER OUR TOUR, we had our lunch on the bus and spent six hours getting to Pittsburgh, where we had dinner with Riana Rippel, Director of Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. This is an NGO funded largely by the Heinz Foundation. Riana dealt with the public health impacts of fracking. In Washington County, near Pittsburgh, there is a real problem with health records, even asthma records are “very patchy”. Health records are not kept if they are related to fracking. Environmental health is not taught in any detail to trainee medical personnel and the Health Project must deliver training to them as an extra. Federal funding is not available in many areas to do wider research.
“With regard to talk of better regulations, you cannot impose “one size fits all” on this industry. Every area is different, every well is different. Major players can sign up to better regs but the work is largely sub-contracted to smaller players who may not be compliant. Whereas there may not be major catastrophes, there are thousands of incidences of spills and contaminations. Spot checks are no good, there is no comprehensive monitoring by EPA of wells, pipelines, compressors. We need the capacity 24/7 to monitor what’s going on.”
Baseline studies are essential! Before the industry gets going, put in place safeguards, good regulations, monitoring systems. Monitor social impacts as well as health – communities overwhelmed by influx of foreign workers. Timing is a key component. “Did you have that kind of condition prior to exposure. Did fracking activity come close to you during the time that you got worse?” This is NOT scientific research but a strong indicator for companies, lawyers and health officials.