On a Trip to Fracking Country, Hearing of Hardships Firsthand
By Jill Pape
On a recent road trip to Pennsylvania, I saw a sight that was both familiar and unfamiliar: fracking rigs. Though I’d been working for the past year with Food & Water Watch and had seen countless images of fracking, it was my first time seeing the drilling process up close and personal. And out there in Pennsylvania, the sight of drilling rigs was hard to miss. Driving down the main road in Dimock, Pennsylvania, we saw well pads every few hundred feet — many just a stone’s throw away from neighborhood homes.
But beyond the familiar drilling rigs, much of what I saw in Dimock was a huge surprise. Where I’d expected to come across outraged citizens and families complaining about tainted water, what I encountered instead was chilling: silence.
Where were all the families I’d seen in Gasland, lighting their tap water on fire and speaking out about their fracking-induced migraines and mystery rashes? As we passed home after home of suspiciously quiet residents, the truth began to surface.
As it turned out, there were not many families left in Dimock who had held out against the oil and gas industry. As many residents’ tap water became too toxic to drink and too foul to bathe in, they were forced by circumstance to sign non-disclosure acts with the very gas companies that were poisoning them. In exchange for regular shipments of fresh water, these families had to agree to never speak up about fracking or the damage that this drilling process had caused to their livelihoods. It was a much more sinister reality than the one I’d imagined, but it strengthened my resolve to fight fracking.
If gas drilling was as all-American as the industry claimed, then why would gas companies deny local residents of their first amendment right to free speech — arguably the most defining aspect of American culture and politics? And if there was nothing bad to say about fracking, why was it necessary to silence families who had experienced its effects up close? I began to wonder if anyone would continue to stand strong against the gas industry and refuse to sign non-disclosure agreements.
But then we met Ray. A jovial, outspoken, right-wing conservative, Ray used to work for the gas companies, driving their trucks to and from drill sites. But that all ended when employers began asking Ray to dispose of toxic fracking brine in storage tanks that were meant for clean water. Ray didn’t want to take part in this misuse of the equipment, and stopped taking jobs from the industry. Currently unemployed, Ray lives across the street from a giant drilling rig — so close it could cast a shadow across his home. His water became undrinkable after fracking began, sometimes coming out of the tap brown, yellow, or gray, and often fizzing ominously.
After animatedly telling us about all the horrors he’d been going through in the years since drilling began, he finally sighed and took a breath. “I just want my life back.” Ray is now trucking in his own fresh water regularly, which is a drain on his time as well as his pocketbook. His wife left him after he began fighting the gas industry, as she couldn’t take the stress of all that they were going through. And now, he faces a looming foreclosure on his home, as what’s left in his bank account slowly dwindles away. Being a hero is a tough price to pay, when you’re up against one of the most powerful industries on the planet.
Who on earth would want to go through what Ray was experiencing in Dimock? It was no surprise that other families in town had finally fled or given in. I grappled with the question of what I would do, if I had to choose between clean water and free speech.
But I refuse to answer that question. I support a nation-wide ban on fracking, because nobody should ever have to make that choice.
Experiences like Ray’s are one of many reasons why we’re fighting for a ban on fracking. On October 19, people around the world will unite for the Global Frackdown, a coordinated day of action to ban fracking. Check out the video below to learn more.
Jill Pape is an online organizer at Food & Water Watch. She works on educating and engaging activists through online campaigns in the Northeast and Southern regions.