The Fracturing of Pennsylvania
By ELIZA GRISWOLD
From some views, this diamond-shaped cut of land looks like the hardscrabble farmland it has been since the 18th century, when English and Scottish settlers successfully drove away the members of a Native American village called Annawanna, or “the path of the water.” Arrowheads still line the streambeds.
From other vantages, it looks like an American natural-gas field, home to 10 gas wells, a compressor station — which feeds fresh gas into pipelines leading to homes hundreds of miles away — and what was, until late this summer, an open five-acre water-impoundment chemical pond. Trucks rev engines over fresh earth. Backhoes grind stubborn stones. Pipeline snakes beneath clear-cut hillsides.
The township sits atop the Marcellus Shale Deposit, one of the largest fields of natural gas in the world, a formation that stretches beneath 575 miles of
About five years ago, leases began to appear in the mailboxes of residents of
On Nov. 21, the Delaware River Basin Commission, which involves four states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware — will vote on rules governing fracking in the river’s watershed, which supplies some 15 million people with drinking water. The states most affected will be
This summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of
There are more than 4,000 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania, with projections ranging from 2,500 new wells a year to a total of more than 100,000 over the next few decades; 458 of those wells are in Washington County and 60 are in Amwell Township, to which fracking has given an injection of new income and business; it has also spurred one of the first E.P.A. investigations into fracking’s effects on rivers, streams, drinking water and human health.
Just before Christmas in 2008, a handful of neighbors granted Range Resources the right to drill thousands of feet below their homes and up to two miles in any direction. Signing leases here is nothing new. For the past 200 years, one industry after another has extracted minerals from the land. In the 1800s, it was coal; in the 1900s it was glass, coke and steel and industrial mining. “Sooner or later, somebody wants to go around, under or through you,” one farmer and gun-shop proprietor told me. “You make your best deal and you talk to a lawyer. At least these companies pay something up front.”
What these companies paid was more than many people in
The conflict instead is between “country folk and city people,” Bill Hartley, 63, a barber and a cattle farmer told me. “The country folk want the drilling and have mineral rights. The city folk don’t want the drilling and have no rights to sell.”
At Hartley’s Styling Shop, the barbershop Hartley has run out of a rented trailer on his great-great-grandfather’s farm for the past 16 years, the gas boom is all anyone talks about. There’s a barber pole spinning outside and a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. A John Deere clock tells time according to a tractor. When I met Hartley there early last spring, he was alone, reclining in his barber’s chair and chain-smoking, as he had been for hours, or maybe years. The trailer’s air and Naugahyde chairs were saturated with stale smoke.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked. I didn’t. “Good, because I would have told you, ‘Tough.’ ” Hartley, who has the long, hollow face of an Appalachian Marlboro Man, keeps 35 cows on 110 acres of rocky fields of fescue. Until recently, like most farmers he knows, he needed a second job to pay for the cows. Raising cows costs more than $300 a head per year. It takes a good year for Hartley to break even. Now he has more money than he ever imagined. Signing his gas lease at “a little more” than $1,000 an acre netted him in excess of $110,000 upon signing, plus 12.5 percent of the royalties from gas produced on his land. Hartley prefers not to discuss exact amounts. “That’s nobody’s business,” he said. But after the first couple of years, production tends to drop off precipitously, and the royalty checks will dwindle. So Hartley still cuts hair. “And I like people,” he said.
As Hartley sees it, the gas industry has helped him to preserve his farm, cows and way of life. “I don’t want to say you have to be born into it,” he said. “But it has to be in your blood.”
The Marcellus boom has brought a host of economic benefits to
Hartley’s cousin Stacey Haney lives two and a half miles from Hartley’s farm. A brown-haired, blue-eyed former beautician, Haney, 42, is a nurse at the nearby
“We came into this world poor, and we’ll go out of this world poor,” Haney says. This is her family’s motto. Haney — a single mother who wears her hair in a shag — works full time and is raising her two children, Paige, 12, and Harley, 15, along with an ark of 4-H animals. Her father, Larry, whom everyone calls Pappy, is a steelworker. He has had long stints of unemployment, beginning when Stacey was in second grade. He’s also a sometime farmer whose butternuts have won first place so often at the Washington County Fair that no one else bothers to enter anymore. The fair is the highlight of the Haneys’ year: beribboned photos of their award-winning rabbits, goats and pigs line the walls of their immaculate three-bedroom home, which Haney has hand-stenciled with deer tracks.
When the natural-gas industry came to town, Haney saw an opportunity to pay off farm bills and make a profit from the land. Word had it that the companies were interested in signing up large parcels, so in the winter of 2008, Haney, who owned only eight acres, persuaded two of her neighbors to pool their land on a lease for which she was paid, in installments, $1,000 dollars per acre and 15 percent royalties.
The money would help to pay the taxes on their farms. The land man who came to the Haney home to sell the lease showed pictures of a farm and pasture with a well cap “the size of a garbage can,” Haney said, which she found reassuring. And it didn’t seem as if the drilling would affect their lives much. Range Resources was involved in the community in small ways too. For the past several years, it operated a booth at the Washington County Fair. In 2010, the company offered kids an extra $100 for the farm animals they auctioned. That was the year Stacey Haney’s son, Harley, took his breeding goat, Boots, all the way to grand champion.
At the fair, Haney ran into her next-door neighbor, Beth Voyles, 54, a horse trainer and dog breeder, who signed the lease with Haney in 2008. She told Haney that her 11 /2-year-old boxer, Cummins, had just died. Voyles thought that he was poisoned. She saw the dog drinking repeatedly from a puddle of road runoff, and she thought that the water the gas company used to wet down the roads probably had antifreeze in it. “We do not use ethylene glycol in the fracking process,” Matt Pitzarella of Range Resources told me. He also said that the dog’s veterinarian couldn’t confirm the dog had been poisoned and that another possible cause of death was cancer.
A month later, Haney’s dog, Hunter, also died suddenly. Soon after, Voyles called Haney to tell her that her barrel horse, Jody, was dead. Lab results revealed a high level of toxicity in her liver. Voyles sent her animals’ test results to Range Resources. In response, Range Resources wrote to Voyles to say that, as the veterinarian indicated, the horse died of toxicity of the liver, not antifreeze poisoning. The company did acknowledge that the vet suspected the horse died of poisoning by heavy metals. Subsequent tests of the Voyleses’ water supply by Range Resources revealed no heavy metals.
Voyles’s boxers began to abort litters of puppies; six were born with cleft palates. They died within hours. Others were born dead or without legs or hair. Unsure what to do, Voyles stored 15 of the puppies in her freezer. (Range Resources says it was never notified about the puppies.) By December, Boots, the grand-champion goat, aborted two babies. Haney had to put her down the day after Christmas.
What was going on with the animals? Where were the toxic chemicals in their blood coming from? Haney feared that the arrival of the gas industry and the drilling that had begun less than 1,000 feet from her home might have something to do with it.
In Amwell Township, your opinion of fracking tends to correspond with how much money you’re making and with how close you live to the gas wells, chemical ponds, pipelines and compressor stations springing up in the area. Many of those who live nearby fear that a leak in the plastic liner of a chemical pond could drip into a watershed or that a truck spill could send carcinogens into a field of beef cattle. (According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 65 Marcellus wells drilled this year have been cited for faulty cement casings, which could result in leaks.) But for many other residents, including Haney’s neighbors, the risks seem small, and the benefits — clean fuel, economic development — far outweigh them.
On a Saturday morning in July 2011, Bill Hartley’s Styling Shop bustled with clients — a truck driver, a leaseholder, a landowner — all of whom profited from the gas boom. One was Ray Day, 64, a ginger-haired farmer, who, along with his brothers and sisters, owns nearly 300 acres of
A few days later, I met up with Day off 1-79 at the Amity-Lone Pine exit, a little more than a mile from Stacey Haney’s home, and followed him past the local elementary school to a barn, with a white wooden sign that said Day Farm 1912. We drove a few thousand yards up a steep hill to a gated compound, where we were met by a young woman who’d come from West Virginia, along with her husband, a driller, to work as a security guard for Range Resources. She called headquarters to confirm my permission to visit. As we waited, Day pointed out a 40-by-100 fabric hoop structure where he stores round bales of hay. During the hydraulic fracturing, which took place 24 hours a day in March and April 2010, the huge open shed served as a parking area and meeting place.
Day pointed to where there had been a truck spill of chemically treated water used in fracking, and then he pointed to the stream below, which flows into the watershed at Ten-Mile Creek and then onto the Monongahela River. The spill hadn’t reached the stream, he said. Moreover, he’d been impressed with Range Resource’s openness about what happened. Every hour while fracking, workers walked the temporary plastic pipeline, full of chemical water, that ran between his site and the pond near Stacey Haney’s home. While walking the line, workers discovered several cracks that spilled frack water on the frozen ground. Such cracks are not unusual. “We all know they leak,” one Range employee wrote in an internal e-mail, which has become a matter of public record pending a lawsuit.
“None of it leaked on my property,” Day said later. Finally, the guard let us go up and take a look at the 3.5-acre chemical impoundment, known as a frack pond, which was 20 feet deep. The used frack water, called flowback, was milky gray. The aerators hummed. The impoundment, like many nearby, sat at the top of a watershed. We’d only been at the pond for a couple of minutes before a sedan raced up the hill behind us. My access had been denied. Later, Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, said that OSHA regulations regarding equipment and the company’s own safety standards required that all visitors wear protective gear.
Day drove me next to the well pad, a football field of cement and a few condensate tanks that painters were rendering forest green. Long before the recent drillers came, this was named the Well Field, after an oil well locals said was drilled here in the 1920s. Like some of his neighbors, Day signed a gas lease in part to protect his land from what he saw as a far more rapacious industry headed his way: long-wall coal mining, a process that takes a ribbon of coal out of a seam over miles. “Long-wall mining is so much more destructive than this, the way I see it,” he said. “Hopefully with these pipes they wouldn’t want to mine coal underneath us.”
The fracturing was now over, the major pieces of equipment were gone and the field was replanted with medium red clover. Day wasn’t concerned about the impact of drilling. “Nothing I’ve seen would indicate an adverse effect,” he said, “except the odor coming off the compressor station.” (Range Resources told Day that the smell comes from anaerobic bacteria that are more prevalent in this fracking process but that they are harmless. Investigating air quality around compressor stations is part of the E.P.A.’s ongoing study.) Day, like most of his neighbors, trusted the companies to use best practices. A man’s word means a lot here. After all, without regulation or oversight, he and other farmers worked together to do things like fence streams to keep cattle out of them.
We drove back through an alfalfa field to the farm. “You haven’t asked me what my profession is,” Day said. I’d assumed he was a farmer. “No one here could survive on farming,” he replied. “I taught science in local schools for 35 years.”
For Day and others, allowing the gas company to drill on their land isn’t simply a matter of cash. They also firmly believe that natural gas should be used as a bridge between foreign oil and sustainable energy sources, like solar and wind. “Natural gas is the most eco-friendly fuel source that we have,” said Rick Baker, 59, a piano tuner who lives on 91 acres located between Bill Hartley and Stacey Haney. “Some people will argue with me on this, but it burns clean.” He’s such a proponent of drilling that he even agreed to star in a commercial for Range Resources, for which he was paid $200.
About a year before Haney’s dog died, in the summer of 2009, she began to notice that sometimes her water was black and that it seemed to be eating away at her faucets, washing machine, hot-water heater and dishwasher. When she took a shower, the smell was terrible — like rotten eggs and diarrhea. Haney started buying bottled water for drinking and cooking, but she couldn’t afford to do the same for her animals.
Later that summer, her son, Harley, was stricken with mysterious stomach pains and periods of extreme fatigue, which sent him to the emergency room and to Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital a half-dozen times. “He couldn’t lift his head out of my lap,” Haney said. Early in November of the following year, after the animals died, Haney decided to have Harley tested for heavy metals and ethylene glycol. While she waited for the results, Haney called Range Resources and asked that it supply her with drinking water. The company tested her water and found nothing wrong with it. Haney’s father began to haul water to her barn.
A week later, on Haney’s 41st birthday, Harley’s test results came back. Harley had elevated levels of arsenic. Haney called Range Resources again. The company delivered a 5,100-gallon tank of drinking water, called a water buffalo, the next day. “Our policy is if you have a complaint or a concern, we’ll supply you with a water source within 24 hours,” Pitzarella of Range Resources said. He added that the company has “never seen any evidence that anyone in that household has arsenic issues.”
Although she was able to work 40 hours as a nurse and care for two kids and a small farm, Haney wasn’t feeling great, either. So a few months later, she had herself and Paige tested too. Their tests results showed they had small amounts of heavy metals like arsenic and industrial solvents like benzene and toluene in their blood. Dr. Philip Landrigan of
Soon Haney and her kids began to notice that even outdoors it smelled a lot like the shower — a combination of sweet metal, rotten eggs and raw sewage. Talking to neighbors, Haney learned that atop a hill, about 1,500 feet from her home and less than 800 feet from that of her neighbor, Beth Voyles, there was an open, five-acre chemical impoundment filled with chemically treated water.
Haney figured out how to navigate Google Earth on her son’s computer. (She doesn’t own one, nor does she have an e-mail address.) There was her gravel driveway and her house hidden under the canopy of maple trees. And there was the six-football-field-square black pond that dwarfed her neighbor’s silver-roofed house. The grass surrounding the pond looked dead.
Popular concerns about natural-gas drilling have centered on what chemicals companies are putting into the earth, not least because this list is a proprietary secret. In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney spearheaded an amendment to the energy bill, which critics call the Halliburton Loophole. This legislation exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and protects companies like Halliburton, of which Cheney was once the C.E.O., from disclosing what chemicals are going into the ground.
But the problem, it turns out, lies also in the dissolved substances coming out: namely salts (bromides, chlorides), radionuclides like strontium and barium, as well as what are commonly called BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene), volatile organic compounds that can be injurious to human health.
The industry acknowledges that the question of how to handle the wastewater that comes from fracking is one of its most pressing problems. In
“Salt is a serious problem,” Rose Reilly, a water biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers, said. It has to be managed like any other pollutant. “It isn’t biodegradable.”
This past spring, in response to public outcry,
The challenge, as Tim Kelsey, a professor of agricultural economics at
But for men like Bill Hartley and others who welcome the arrival of fracking in the state, it’s not the politics of deep drilling that matter. What matters is preserving common resources. “My one concern is our water,” Hartley said. “My grandfather taught me water is life.”
On Sunday May 8, 2011, Mother’s Day, when Haney and her kids were returning from dinner at a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant, they turned onto
Range Resources did have an explanation: the power had failed at the impoundment, shutting down the aerators that move oxygen into the water to prevent bacteria from growing. Range Resources maintains that a D.E.P. study from 2010 indicates no air pollution of any kind at the pond next door to the Haneys and the Voyleses, or anywhere else, for that matter. Critics of this study say the effect of fracking on air quality remains underinvestigated.
That same day, when Voyles told Range Resources she had developed blisters in her nose, it offered to put her up in a hotel, as it does for all nuisance complaints, but she didn’t want to leave her dogs and horses behind. (Range later said that it had no record of the complaint.) Next door on
Haney says that Dr. Fox’s advice to her was unequivocal: “Get Harley out of that house right away. I don’t want him anywhere near there, even driving by, for 30 days.” So Haney took Harley to a friend’s house in Eighty-Four, a town named for the lumber company. She took her daughter to her parents’ house in Amity. Each day, she spent about four hours in the car shuttling the kids from school, to and from friends’ homes and driving to the farm to feed the animals, which were O.K. some days and vomiting or collapsing on others. Haney found a cousin willing to take her pigs, but she had nowhere to house the other animals, so they remained at the farm. She stayed home for less than an hour at a time, long enough to put a load of laundry into the washer. Every two days, she spent $50 on gas. Their farmhouse stood abandoned. “Our home has become a $300,000 cat mansion,” Haney said when I visited her in July.
Haney is no left-leaning environmentalist; she is a self-proclaimed redneck who is proud to trace her roots here back at least 150 years. This is not the kind of fight she usually takes on. “I’m not going to sit back and let them make my kids sick,” she says. “People ask me why I don’t just move out, but where would I go? I can’t afford another mortgage, and if I default on this place, we will lose it. ”
Beth Voyles is equally frustrated. Although the results of her medical tests are inconclusive, she complains of blisters in her nose and throat, headaches and nosebleeds, joint aches, rashes, an inability to concentrate, a metal taste in her mouth. Voyles filed suit against the Department of Environmental Protection in May. Range Resources chose to join the case, because its rights are also at stake. Documents from industry sources and the D.E.P. — now a matter of public record — support the suit’s allegations of a series of structural violations and hazardous incidents surrounding the pond. They include half a dozen tears in the pond’s plastic liner (at least one caused by a deer — its carcass had to be dragged out); at least four cracks in a temporary plastic transfer pipeline leading to an open field; two truck spills, one of which contaminated a cattle pasture; and a leak in an adjacent pond that held drill cuttings. Range admits that after this leak, the level of total dissolved solids, or salts, spiked in the water. Of all these violations, the D.E.P. issued a citation for only the last. The D.E.P. declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
In mid-July, Voyles’s 25-year-old daughter, Ashley, was riding her paint gelding, Dude, behind the chemical pond. Ashley could hear a hissing and bubbling sound in the stream. There were pools of red foamy oil slick. “It was rainbow water,” Ashley said. The next morning Haney and Voyles called in the alphabet soup of government agencies they’ve contacted over the past year to test the water in the pools: the D.E.P., the E.P.A., the Fish and Boat Commission. They also called Range Resources. Sunday, the D.E.P. spokesman, said that it was most likely decayed vegetation that gave off gas. Later, test results of the area commissioned by Range Resources revealed the presence of acetone, toluene, benzene, phenol, arsenic, barium, heavy metals and methane. The company maintains that none of these were found in drinking water.
Bill Hartley, Rick Baker, Beth Voyles and Stacey Haney received their first royalty checks this summer from the nine gas wells that lie on the square mile between them. Stacey used most of her $9,000 check to pay off the bills she incurred: $4,500 went to co-pays and deductibles for doctors’ visits; $1,150 went to pay for gas. She set $2,700 aside to pay taxes on the earnings. The remaining $750 she used as a down payment on a camper. Haney finally moved the kids to live behind her parents’ home in Amity. Subsequently, the benzene and toluene levels in each of her children’s urine dropped precipitously. For Haney, who continues to return to the farm to feed the animals every evening, the benzene and toluene levels remain higher. Harley still suffers from acute nausea, for which his doctor has prescribed Zofran, a medication frequently given to chemotherapy patients. “They’ve ruined our lives,” Haney said. “I have to worry every day if my kids are going to have cancer. I will worry for the rest of my life about them with the amount of carcinogens we now have in our blood. We’ve lost everything — our pets, the value of our house. No amount of money that we’d ever get from royalties would ever replace my children’s health.”
The people of Amwell are no strangers to the price of development — the loss of a farm’s spring, the sinking of a family home when the coal mine burrows beneath it — or the price of its absence — shuttered mills and lost jobs. But given our energy needs, the use of fracking and the number of wells are likely to grow. The question is whether regulations to address environmental and health issues can keep pace with a booming industry.
Haney’s neighbors have heard about Harley’s illness. “I don’t know what to make of it,” his cousin Bill Hartley says. “It could very well be there’s a leak in the pond.” Haney’s neighbor Rick Baker is also unsure of what the problem is. “I don’t deny there’s something going on there,” he said. “It concerns me.” He called Range Resources after it first delivered the water buffalo to say he was glad the company was taking care of the problem. Baker stands by the positive impact the industry has had on Amwell and thousands of other townships. “This is definitely the right thing for
Haney still made it to this year’s Washington County Fair, where her daughter, Paige, lost the Spam bake-off. Paige’s goat, Crunch, won first place, and her rabbit, Phantom, almost took best in show. As usual, Pappy’s butternuts placed first. In the fair’s main hall at the craft division, a glossy ribbon hung from a child’s three-foot high Lego Patterson rig, a model of a gas well. It won first prize.
Eliza Griswold is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and is at work on a book about man-made America, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Editor: Sheila Glaser
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