Foes of shale drilling take message to Green Tree
Anti-pollution group meeting here
Saturday, November 20, 2010
By Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The natural gas industry has been making inroads into Pennsylvania for a few years, and now their opponents are opening up a new front in the state, too.
The national convention of the Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project, the country's biggest group dedicated to protecting rural and urban properties from the effects of natural gas development, is being held for the first time on the East Coast this year, after years of focusing on anti-pollution efforts in areas such as the Rocky Mountains, Texas and Alaska.
The message from the more than 200 local and nationwide activists ending their meeting in Green Tree today -- many of whom have already experienced the gas boom repeating itself now in Pennsylvania due to Marcellus Shale exploration -- stayed the same, despite the change in location.
"You're going to suffer. You're going to pay the price for the [gas industry's] profits," warned Pavillion, Wyo., rancher John Fenton, whose 200-acre ranch is surrounded by 24 natural gas wells. "They're there to get you to sign the [mineral lease] papers and be quiet."
Mr. Fenton is a cowboy-hat-wearing hay farmer and something of a rock star among the crowd, as his complaints about chemicals used in the drilling process were featured in the documentary "Gasland," which was recently short-listed for an Academy Award. He said his tap water "fizzes like soda water" and he has to ventilate his bathroom, kitchen and laundry facilities to avoid chemicals from building up.
Lisa Parr, a homemaker from Wise County, Texas, described weeks of nosebleeds, rashes, welts, stuttering and shaking by her 8-year-old daughter, her rancher husband and herself, which she linked to airborne chemicals from the 21 wells around their rural property. They fled the ranch this fall after a doctor warned her the family would "spend more time or money on chemotherapy or morticians" than they would a new house.
Closer-to-home warnings came from Stephanie Hallowich, a married mother of two from Mount Pleasant, Washington County. Chemicals from a gas well, processing plant and compressor station near her rural property have poisoned her well water, she said, leading her family to spend up to $500 monthly to buy new water, and frightening away all potential buyers for her house.
The family cannot find a new place to rent, either, as local rental prices have tripled due to high demand from gas industry workers. "We can't find a reasonable place to live in, in a place we want to live in, because there are so many people from out of state," she said.
Climbing energy prices and advances in drilling technology have led the natural gas industry to the Marcellus Shale deposits across parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and upstate New York to tap into its estimated $2 trillion worth of natural gas thousands of feet underground. The work is expected to pump billions of dollars of economic activity and tens of thousands of jobs into Pennsylvania alone, but raises questions about safety and pollution at the same time.
Many but not all of the criticism involves the "fracking" process, which uses a mix of water and chemicals to shatter the shale and release the gas. Industry officials insist the process is safe, but activists adamantly disagree -- noting that the industry is protected by federal law from identifying the chemicals in their fracking recipes.
"They lie through their teeth, and we're going to keep kicking them in the teeth until they stop telling their lies!" said Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields, who got a standing ovation from the crowd for legislation banning gas drilling in the city. "Nonviolently, of course," Mr. Shields added.
Another star in the crowd was Calvin Tillman, the mayor of Dish, Texas, a tiny town crisscrossed with gas pipeline and compressor stations in the Barnett Shale region. He got his township to fund an air quality study in 2009 that found "high concentrations" of toxic chemicals in the air. Mr. Tillman, who also appeared in "Gasland," has visited Pennsylvania some 20 times and said people in the state "are pleading for more information. They want to be educated. They want to know the consequences" of gas exploration.
Mr. Tillman was one of many activists Friday urging Pennsylvanians on the front edge of the gas exploration boom to do "baseline" testing of their water, air and soil now, so they can compare it to conditions after gas drilling starts. After conversations with rural Pennsylvania landowners, who told him they signed away their drilling rights without thinking of long-term consequences, he was driven to start a nonprofit -- Shaletest.org -- that will provide such tests free to low-income property owners.
"They thought it was a godsend. Now they knew how to pay their gas and electric bills that were two months overdue, because here was a man with a checkbook to fix all that," Mr. Tillman said. "The next thing they know, their children are drinking tainted water."
The summit at the Radisson Green Tree continues through tonight.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581.