I traveled in March to Greene, Washington and Butler Counties in southwest PA to do research, stopping in Pittsburgh to attend a conference on the impacts of extraction industries. Wow! Once I crossed the border into Pennsylvania, I knew something had changed. Immediately, I saw billboards from Range Resources or Rice Energy promoting shale gas jobs and benefits.When I left the highway, I was bombarded with compressor stations, pipeline construction and well pads. Even though I knew these counties have lots of wells and drilling, actually seeing it with my own eyes was shocking. Except for the gas development, these areas look just like parts of NC, with smaller, rolling hills, but the landscape feels like NC’s Appalachian region. There are small towns, the roads are winding, and there are lots of beautiful farms and cattle operations. The promises of wealth that the industry touts were not in view, however, with lots of dilapidated homes in sight.
The Center for Coalfield Justice and the Izaak Walton League Harry Enstrom chapter work extensively with citizens who are experiencing impacts from shale gas fracking as well as longwall coal mining, which has a long history in the region. Gas drilling is just the latest in a stream of extractive industries impacting the region, with valleys filled with coal mining refuse and water quality degraded by acid mine drainage. Most of Greene and Washington Counties have underground coal mining, with the largest coal preparation plant in North America on 3000 acres. As I drove around, the truck traffic was heavy and the little hamlets were abuzz with noise. We saw a school right across from a fracking well pad. It was actually heartbreaking and also inspiring to talk to those living and working to fight this development.The Connoquenessing Township in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh, has active wells and new pipeline construction. I attended a community meeting designed to educate community members about their rights as landowners, as pipelines are being constructed, and to hear community members speak about impacts they were experiencing from well drilling. It was right out of Gasland, with one older gentleman bringing samples of his fouled spring water from pipeline construction, saying he hoped it would clear up. Community members were confused and bewildered as they learned about potential impacts and tried to understand their rights (or lack thereof) in facing eminent domain.
I interviewed members of Marcellus Outreach Butler, Section 27 and Mars Parent group, all active in Butler County’s anti-fracking movement. As they shared their stories, I was so impressed by the time and energy they dedicate to keeping their community’s residents, air and water safe. It takes a lot to combat a large industry with deep pockets, but by working at the local level they are making progress.
A Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in late 2013 reinstates the ability of local governments to use zoning and planning to protect residential areas from industrial activity. As in NC, many rural areas in PA do not have ordinances or zoning, so are working to develop them now. There is a deep sense that government and regulatory agencies are not working for the best interests of citizens, and that residents must work to hold the government accountable to its public duties.
While shocking, my experiences inspired me to share what groups and citizens have done already to resist fracking in PA with folks in NC who are working to prevent fracking from happening here!