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FRACKING, PART 2: ENVIRONMENTALISTS WARY ENERGY COMPANIES PURSUIT OF SHALE
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February 24, 2011
“Land men” for Texas based Cabot Gas and Oil first showed up in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006, offering to pay landowners for the right to drill for natural gas on their properties.
Less than five years later there are more than 60 gas wells in a 9-square mile area and more on the way. Water wells are polluted and neighbors are split over the hazards and benefits of the search for the clean energy trapped in the Marcellus Shale beneath them.
"Originally, we had very little methane in our water, around two or three percent, which might be normal, ok? When the migration started ours went up to four then to eight--this is all in a short period of time—until it just about reached 12 percent.”
Victoria Switzer, a retired school teacher, is among those who has sued Cabot over the damage to their wells. Cabot denies it caused the problems, but has put $4.1 million into a fund for purification systems on those wells in exchange for permission from the Pennsylvania Department of the Environment to resume drilling. Switzer says that “lets Cabot off the hook.”
But others in the tiny communities that dot these Appalachian ridges are grateful for the jobs the gas companies brought with them. Donald Potts, a dairy farmer in Forest Lake Township, says two farm hands that used to work for him have doubled their salaries since they went to work for Cabot.
“Anybody that’ll get off their…and work, you can have a job making more money than you could in two years before they came here.”
Donald’s father, Delbert, who still helps out on the farm at age 78, says there are other benefits, as well.
“You’re still going to be able to have your land; you’ll still be able to farm the land. The area that they take out you’re not going to be able to, you know, for a pad or for wells or for whatever. But you still have the farm that you continue business to make your living.”
Frank Pinkowski, who is running for township supervisor in Forest Lake, points out the scars left on the sides of mountains by stone quarries that could last 100 years and the areas where loggers have cleared the ground. He says the scars left by the gas wells are comparatively minimal.
“For many people, if they’re choosing between evils would rather have the lesser of the evils, which at this point they feel is the oil and gas industry.”
But it’s not as if those who see benefits from the gas companies aren’t also worried about the environmental effects. Gretchen backer and her husband own the Montrose Inn, in Montrose, the Susquehanna County seat. She says she and other local merchants are thankful for the business. But... "Nothing will ever outweigh if you’re going to mess up your environment. I mean we are definitely concerned with them doing their job efficiently and correctly and being concerned about their environment. And they are.”
Since the wells at Dimock were contaminated, Pennsylvania has begun drafting tighter regulations. And Victoria Switzer says that’s a good thing. But mistakes still can happen.
“There’s no regulation that’s going to keep my water from getting contaminated if they have an accident or a spill. You can have a phone book thick lease getting tons of money and thinking I’m set. But nothing’s going to stop, in that lease, stop you’re water from being contaminated.”
Still, she says that if the bad things happened in her town are for the greater good, she can live with that; as soon as she gets a new water purification system.
I’m Joel McCord, reporting in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania for 88.1, WYPR.
In the next installment, Joel reports on developments in Western Maryland and the State House.
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