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May 12th, 2011

Farming and Fracking Don’t Mix: A Farmer Speaks Out

[The following post appeared originally at Ecocentricblog.org]

by Kai Olson-Sawyer

Natural gas exploratory well on the property next door to Greg Swartz's Willow Wisp Organic Farm. Photo courtesy Maverick Video Productions. Gallery photos courtesy of Greg Swartz.

Imagine that you live on a productive, award-winning 12-acre organic farm. The 50-plus vegetables and herbs you grow depend entirely on the uncompromised health and integrity of your soil, water and air. You’ve invested so much time and sweat, not to mention money, into the farm that reflects your values, including your respect for the natural world.

Now imagine that a natural gas well is set up in plain sight from your front porch on a neighbor’s adjoining property. This rig is exploring for natural gas with the intent to use the extraction method called high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The process blasts open fissures in underground shale-rock formations by injecting a high pressure combination of fluids, chemicals and proppants (each company’s formula is a closely guarded secret including some known carcinogens like benzene), causing the fossil fuel to flow to the production well. From years of studying fracking, you know that the gas and oil companies’ claims of safety and minimal environmental impacts are suspect because wherever fracking goes, human health risks and pollution tend to follow.

Greg Swartz, owner of Willow Wisp Organic Farm, doesn’t need to imagine this scenario because he and his family are embroiled in this situation. His farm, located a few miles from the Delaware River in northern Pennsylvania, places him squarely in the middle of a heated debate taking place not just in the state, but throughout the country. What further complicates matters for fracking in that region is the great Delaware River Basin provides drinking water to over 15 million people in cities like New York City, Philadelphia, Allentown, Camden, New Jersey, and many other smaller localities. The Delaware River Basin Commission, a four-state, five-member body that governs the river and basin, currently has a fracking moratorium while they complete a final set of rules on the extraction process for this extremely sensitive watershed.

The debate raging around fracking is very familiar to Greg: Fracking offers a potential economic boost, particularly for landowners, like some of his neighbors, who have signed leases with natural gas companies, but carries with it potential health and safety hazards and environmental degradation. As a landowner and a productive farmer, Greg knows the intrinsic value of his land, air and water for his livelihood now and into the future.

Listen to my interview with Greg as he shares his experiences, his deep commitment to his farm, his views on the fundamental role of property rights in the debate and his concern about the specter of fracking that threatens the very existence of his farm. Below you can get a taste of our compelling conversation. You can also download a podcast of the full conversation or the full PDF transcript. Also, see a video interview of Greg Swartz on his beautiful farm, courtesy of Maverick Video Productions.
Q: What are the concerns that you have with fracking, being that it’s on your doorstep, and with regards to your land, particularly as a productive organic farmer?

Yeah, I mean, after several years of looking into this, my basic conclusion is this: That high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing and food production are not compatible land uses. You can’t have the two coexisting; it doesn’t work. And here are the reasons: First of all, there is a significant risk of surface water and groundwater contamination, both during drilling processes as well as the hydraulic fracturing as well as during the movement of the fracking wastewater. There are massive amounts of contaminated water that is involved in this process; anywhere from three to five million gallons per fracked well. So in terms of the actual penetration of the earth, the mixing of the different strata of the earth, and then the injection of these unregulated chemicals into the earth, there is so many possibilities for A, human error; B, human – how do I say it, error on purpose, I’m not quite sure what the right way to say that is.
Q: It must really concern you as a farmer yourself and then also as an organic farmer where you really have high standards and meet certifications and that sort of thing. So how is the potential fracking on an adjoining property affecting buyers of your produce right now, or shares of CSA, that sort of thing?

Yes, right now we haven’t had that impact. I did hear, kind of through the grapevine, a little bit of people starting to be concerned last year with the drilling of this test well. But again, it wasn’t fracked so it didn’t quite hit that threshold. So when it actually happens, there’s two things that are going to happen. There may be the customer fallout, but more likely than that, before that point is, I have to make a decision about the safety of the food that we sell. And even before that I have to make a decision about it being safe to live here for myself, my wife, and my two and a half year old son. And it’s going to be really hard to identify what that threshold is.

You know, two years ago, just before we invested another six figures in infrastructure here on the farm, my wife, Tannis and I had that conversation. It was either, we get out now, right this minute, don’t do anything else here and leave. Or we invest that six figures, do it for as long as we can, and while we’re doing it, fight as much as we can to regulate this thing. So here we are, we’ve invested a bunch of money, a lot of time, a lot of the assets are not recoverable. Some of the things, like a tractor, we can bring that with us. But investing in our soil, which is the core principle of organic farming, we can’t take that with us. We can’t take a fence with us, etc. You know, we definitely put stuff down that we can’t take, but we just made the decision that we had to do it. We have to, we are here, we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to grow food for our community. Each of us have invested many, many years, more than a decade in the community. We have strong connections, great friends, strong business connections. You know, it’s our home, it’s the right place to be and we weren’t willing to walk away. All of that said though, we’re still kind of like on the edge, like at any time, once the regulatory landscapes changes, once they actually, once the gas companies get everything in a row and start drilling, we’re going to have to make that choice and do it, and leave. And I don’t think our neighbors really get it.

Greg Swartz’s list of notable hydraulic fracturing watchdog organizations working to protect the Delaware River and River Basin:

Delaware Riverkeeper Network

Damascus Citizens for Sustainability

Catskill Mountainkeeper

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