Point of View

Living with fracking’s fallout

June 7, 2012 

My wife and I spend the summertime at a small farm in Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, where our modest 18 acres (once many more) have been in her family since 1954. We in Hallstead, Pa., are smack-dab in the middle of hydraulic fracturing country, so the emerging fracking controversy in North Carolina is more than hypothetical to us.

The farm is only 19 miles from Dimock, the epicenter of gas drilling in the county and the small town featured in the opening scenes of “Gasland,” the HBO documentary on fracking. An indelible image from the documentary is of one Dimock homeowner turning on his kitchen faucet and igniting the methane that came out along with the water. The area has been full of methane for decades, though, and my wife remembers stories of flaming faucets from well before fracking began.

Four years ago, we signed a lease on our property to allow drilling. The money was attractive, and since literally everyone around us had signed up it would have been foolish for us to hold back. There was no way we could escape the widespread disruption of life in an area riddled with wells and active drilling operations.

Fracking uses huge amounts of water (most of it hauled by truck), which is laced with chemicals and sand and injected under very high pressure into shale formations, fracturing the rock and releasing the gas. The contaminated water is recovered and disposed of, and that’s one of the biggest problems, one North Carolina must address.

Some of the used fracking fluid is pumped back into the ground, into very deep and supposedly impermeable wells. Some is trucked to treatment plants and processed to remove the dangerous stuff. Early on, some was dumped into the Susquehanna River and its tributaries. That, at least, has been firmly stopped by the state regulators.

The coal industry, which kept Pennsylvania humming for many years, had a similar waste problem, but because coal mines were dug in the thinly populated central part of the state, mountains of “tailings” from the mines just built up and remain a fact of the landscape along Route 81. But with fracking virtually in people’s back yards, the waste disposal problem is different.

The well sites themselves are technical marvels, popping up in no time after an assault by heavy construction equipment and dozens of workers. They are brilliantly lighted at night and looking a lot more like rockets poised for launch than the derricks often associated with drilling. It is downright weird to see these high-tech installations in the very rural settings.

New technology allows the holes to be bored straight down thousands of feet, then turned 90 degrees and projected laterally additional thousands of feet, usually under someone else’s property. If that happens, and the well is productive, that landowner profits from the gas even while not having drilling on his land.

This means that in an area full of drilling, the balance of profit versus annoyance is a constant issue. In Susquehanna County, drilling has changed the very nature of life, and North Carolina legislators would be well-advised to pay attention to quality of life as much as potential pollution from fracking.

Susquehanna’s roads, many of them dirt, are pummeled around the clock by those large fleets of water trucks, most of them 3,000-gallon vacuum trucks, and show the wear. It is hard to chat with a friend on a street corner in Montrose, the county seat, because of the trucks. I counted 38 in one 30-minute period last summer passing under the lone traffic signal in town. Big trucks make a racket, and the peaceful countryside and quiet town are disrupted for many hours each day.

Housing in the county has been swamped by drill rig operators from out of town, many from Oklahoma and Texas, making affordable housing for the locals very hard to find. Unsightly mobile home parks have sprung up. Crime has risen, as workers far from home and needing to blow off steam at week’s end often drink too much and get in fights or have accidents on the roads.

Susquehanna is an impoverished county, in ways that the areas of North Carolina likely for fracking simply are not, and while having more jobs is great, a large proportion of the wages goes out of state. Businesses supporting drilling have opened, but their connections to the county are tenuous at best.

A North Carolina state senator has promised “the very finest regulation, bar none, in the country.” Since the General Assembly appears likely to approve fracking, the least it can do is consider both the physical and civic environments, and enact regulations that protect the state’s citizens from the many problems of fracking that go beyond polluted water.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com.

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