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April 19th, 2012

Fracking’s Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

By Rich Bindell

Pennsylvania’s license plates used to read, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” Thanks to Governor Tom Corbett and new legislation that’s friendly to shale drilling, they ought to make new plates that read, “Fracking’s Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” While the state continues to push for more drilling, the residents and environment continue to suffer.

The oil and gas industry has now given us something new to add to the list of negative impacts caused by shale gas drilling: home displacement. The immediate threat of relocation for Piatt Township, Pennsylvania residents in the Riverdale Mobile Home Village continues to add to the frustration and anger that many citizens have toward the gas industry for constantly turning communities into victims, all for a handsome profit–in this case for a private water company called Aqua America.

Aqua America bought the land on which the residents of Riverdale Mobile Home Village lived and they plan to build a water withdrawal facility there after receiving approval from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to withdraw 3 million gallons of water from the river basin. The facility would supply Range Resources and another gas company with the water needed to drill and frack for natural gas.

As soon as Aqua America purchased the land, they quickly terminated all Riverdale leases, giving them merely two months to vacate their homes. In one fell swoop, 37 taxpaying homeowners were suddenly homeless. Is this what the industry means when they promise that shale gas drilling will offer communities a better local economy?

The residents of Riverdale Mobile Home Village don’t live in a big city or deep in the country. They live in a residential community just outside of the state capital and just west of Williamsport, which hosts the Little League World Series each year. Some of them chose this location to raise their kids, while others were riding out their retirement, trying to enjoy their golden years in an affordable community. No doubt, Aqua America chose it because they could profit off a public resource for very little investment.

Aqua America reportedly offered payments to displaced residents, but the money ($2,500 or $1,500 depending on the residents’ moving day) isn’t much, especially when compared to the profits the company will make selling water to shale gas drillers. And now, Aqua America will profit from a public resource while displacing people from their homes, all thanks to a destructive form of energy extraction.

The energy story that seems to be most overlooked—even when it’s blatantly polarizing—is that big companies are profiting while the health and well being of rural and oftentimes lower-income communities are being marginalized. And, it’s not just happening in Pennsylvania. In the Bakken Shale of North Dakota, a Native American family of four was evicted from their home to make way for out-of-state oil workers.

The ironic part is that the same Susquehanna River Basin Commission just banned water withdrawals in five counties, including Lycoming County where Aqua America’s withdrawal facility is located because of the drought conditions in the northeast. So, they kicked people out their homes and, for now, the company can’t even withdraw water in a region of the state that’s usually water rich. And the situation looks even worse for Pennsylvania’s future.

On Monday, a new state law called Act 13 went into effect, billed as a regulating mechanism that would allow Pennsylvania to collect impact fees from drillers, which they did not do previously. But, the controversial Act 13 looks more like another big giveaway to gas drillers, as it hands control over to the Pennsylvania Utility Commission to overturn local zoning laws that would otherwise restrict industry. Now, towns throughout the state cannot establish their own tougher regulations on fracking because they are forced to accept the watered down version that comes with the new law.

This should come as no surprise considering the shale gas industry donated over $1.6M in contributions to Governor Corbett’s gubernatorial campaign.

But Act 13 has added insult to injury, literally. If a doctor in Pennsylvania treats a patient from possible exposure to dangerous chemicals from shale gas drilling, Act 13 added a stipulation that prevents that doctor from sharing information about those chemicals. Essentially, Act 13 has created a gag law preventing concerned doctors from educating people about the potential health risks from fracking chemicals. While companies are required by state law to disclose information about their chemicals to health professionals—for the purposes of diagnosis—the new state law requires those health professionals to sign confidentiality agreement. They can’t share that information with the patient they’re treating.

Energy companies have been aggressive in their expansion of shale gas drilling, and they’ve promised jobs and energy independence—even though industry plans to export a lot of shale gas as liquid natural gas (LNG)—to gain consumer support for natural gas exploration, particularly in Pennsylvania. They didn’t mention that they would take out huge loans, or that they would overproduce wells on behalf of hedge fun investors, like Chesapeake Energy seems to have done.

Over the past two years, the oil and gas industry has demonstrated that extracting shale oil is more destructive than beneficial to consumers in the Marcellus Shale region, from drinking water contamination in Dimock to thousands of gallons of drilling fluid spilling across farmland in Bradford County to kicking an entire community, including senior citizens, out of their homes in Piatt Township. Pennsylvania is quickly becoming an example of everything that can possibly go wrong for communities when shale gas exploration is the number one priority for a state government.

2 Comments on Fracking’s Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

  1. e. ingrid anderson says:

    i live in a very rural area. my artesian well had shifted the water vein due to an earthquake in the area. The only way to get water to the house was to frack the vein. I have no idea if this is included in the type of fracking that you are talking about or not.
    i am certainly against commercially high tech fracking!
    please send me the answer to my question and up-to-date information about fracking. thanx, ingrid

  2. Hugh MacMillan, Senior Researcher, Food & Water Watch says:

    Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing. What matters is what is in the hydraulic fracturing fluid injected underground to fracture the rock. So, is it just water and sand, or are there a whole host of potentially harmful chemicals added? Fracking a water well so that it will flow probably just involved injecting water and maybe some sand, and this is harmless.

    Another thing that matters is what the geology is like in the portion of the rock that is being hydraulically fractured. If it is a rock formation that holds oil, gas and other hydrocarbons, then these flow up the well after fracking — and many byproducts can be quite harmful. Chemicals like benzene, toluene, or so-called polyaromatic hydrocarbons are all present in rock formations that hold oil and gas. These are some of the chemicals that make fracking for oil and gas so problematic, because they are brought to the surface along with the oil and gas. But in your case, these chemicals aren’t going to be present in a freshwater aquifer, so fracturing the rock formations in the portion of the aquifer that your water well taps won’t be a problem.

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