By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of Gerry Dincher.
Currently, there are upwards of seven thousand wells extracting natural gas from Marcellus Shale through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The Marcellus Shale is a layer of sedimentary rock buried thousands of feet beneath Earth’s surface that stretches from upstate New York, south through Pennsylvania, down to West Virginia, and west to parts of Ohio.
Pennsylvania, a state traditionally known for its coal production, began shifting its focus to commercial development of the Marcellus Shale in recent years, following the pattern of several other states in the northeastern United States on the hunt for natural gas.
According to a report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center, there have been over 3,000 violations of oil and gas regulations committed by fracking operators in Pennsylvania after more than five years of heavy drilling. Such violations include: allowing toxic chemicals to flow off drilling sites and into local soil and water, endangering drinking water, and dumping industrial waste into local waterways.
Despite so many violations taking place, Pennsylvania has proceeded with full force on all hydraulic fracturing endeavors before any definitive health study has been completed. This differs from New York and Maryland, states that also lie atop the Marcellus Shale, which have both decided to evaluate the potential health risks of the fracking process before any action is done on public land.
Pennsylvania has not been able to gather funds for an adequate health registry to look into the possible harmful effects of fracking. However, a nonprofit organization called The Health Project, composed of public-health researchers, toxicologists, and medical professionals, have been evaluating people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Many of the civilians surveyed have reported skin rashes, eye irritations, breathing problems, headaches, and nosebleeds–symptoms they believe were caused by air and water pollution from nearby drilling.
One family’s anecdotal report that gained attention from the media in 2010, was that of the Hallowich family, who had accused oil and gas companies of ruining their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania. With their property located near four gas wells, a number of gas compressor stations, and a waste water pond, it was hardly a surprise when the family reported burning eyes, sore throats, and headaches, which they attributed to a contaminated water supply. The difference between the Hallowich family and other families undergoing similar hardships however, is that the Hallowichs are no longer allowed to talk about the symptoms they experienced and they won’t be allowed to discuss it for the rest of their lives.
In 2011, the Hallowich family reached a $750,000 settlement with Range Resources Corporation, a leading oil and gas driller. Under this settlement, a gag-order was imposed not only on the two adults of the family but their two children, who were aged 10 and seven when the agreement was reached. When word got around that the gag-order had been extended to minors, environmentalists and free-speech advocates took notice. Even the parents, Chris and Stephanie Hallowich, were hesitant about the agreement at first, but stated that they would move forward if it meant that they could move to a safer environment.
BTR got a chance to speak with Robert Gardner, head of the Beyond Natural Gas Campaign in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Gardner has worked with families that have been stuck in similar situations. He has seen a number of families silenced as a result of agreements with oil and gas companies that are too beneficial to turn down.
“It’s a shame when someone has to choose between having access to clean water and speaking their mind,” Gardner expresses.
His campaign, a subchapter of the Sierra Club, aims to give voices to those who want to share their stories and fight against fracking from the center of the problem, as opposed to seeking refuge elsewhere. Gardner says that he does not fault anyone who chooses to reach a settlement with an oil company, although he does consider the matter “unfortunate.”
While the campaign leader seems to hold a special place in his heart for the advocates who decide to do work for the cause, he realizes that being an outspoken activist does at times come with major repercussions.
Activist Vera Scroggins, for example, has been permanently barred from a total of 312.5 square miles of area in her hometown. Because of a court order, she is forbidden from all property owned or leased by Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation, one of the biggest drillers in the Pennsylvania natural gas rush.
Scroggins’ punishment is one of the harshest ones Gardner has seen imposed on an activist who has operated within the law while protesting fracking. According to The Guardian, the reason Scroggins received such a harsh sentencing is partly due to the fact that the activist did not have much time to prepare for the case, which was called into court under a 72-hour notice. She was unable to find a lawyer in time and fought the injunction against Cabot’s lawyers and witnesses.
When asked how the court could have possibly perceived the 63-year-old activist as a “danger,” Gardner explained that “the industry” nowadays could pretty much paint anyone as a villain by “using the court system to their advantage.”
Beyond Natural Gas is working to make sure activists still have as much power as possible. The organization garnered hundreds of thousands of comments from supporters demanding stronger EPA standards that would seal up numerous loopholes in basic environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. In 2012, the EPA amended the laws to include more stringent rules in regard to fracking that would significantly lower the amount of toxic emissions.
“It really can start with just the help of a few concerned citizens,” Gardner explains. “Some of the best work has been done at the grassroots level.”