Western consumers are inadvertently driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction by eating, washing, and wearing - in cosmetics - the derivatives of a fruit that is destroying the animal's last remaining forest habitat. Jim Wickens reports.
Every day we read about the tragic death of another African elephant slaughter, the world watching in horror at the sight of desiccated carcasses, dried pools of blood and crudely-hewn stumps where tusks once were; snapshots from distant crime scenes feeding a ghoulish market for ivory in the Far East. The African 'elephant wars' make comfortable viewing for Western audiences who assume a moral superiority over the slaughter - a narrative where the rest of the world outside of Africa and China plays little role in the wildlife tragedy unfolding there on a daily basis.
There are around half a million African elephants currently left in the wild, but, by contrast, just 2500 Sumatran elephants remain today. It is - by far - the most endangered elephant in the world, but it is an animal whose fate is largely unreported to the outside world. Coincidence perhaps, or an uncomfortable truth? On my journey into the forested lands of Aceh in Sumatra, I've found that it is not poaching that is driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction, but palm oil expansion, and we are eating it, washing with it, and smearing it on our faces every single day.
Crouching low in the vines, I can smell the diesel fumes wafting up from the chainsaw that whines away just metres away from us. The sound stops, a brief pause followed by a towering crash as an ancient hardwood plummets through the canopy. This is the frontline in the struggle against palm oil, a shifting frontier that is eating away at the most bio-diverse forest on the planet, and it's a dangerous place to be.
Whispering so as not to be heard, our guides urgently beckon us away. To be spotted could be lethal - loggers here are frequently armed, a melting pot mafia of community members, freedom fighters and army personnel whose rule is the law in these remote stretches of Aceh, the Northern most province of Sumatra. This rarely-visited corner of Indonesia is home to the last great forest habitats of the Sumatran elephant in the world. And it is being destroyed for palm oil.
For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.
Communities returning home after the Aceh ceasefire have found themselves facing a new threat to their livelihoods; crop damage caused by roaming herds of elephants, opportunistically-eating their way through croplands and antagonising families already brought to their knees by decades of civil war. And the death toll on both sides of the species divide is rising every month.
Ransomed in frustration
Nicknamed Raja by the people who fed him, the baby elephant cuts a pitiful sight, straining for food at the end of a rusty padlock and chain. Caught in a plantation in Aceh Utara last month, the villagers said they were keeping him here by force. Government vets have tried to remove him, but they refused, demanding compensation for the damage that elephants do to their land first. Farmer Sabaruddin, showed us chewed up banana leaves, missing coco pods and a hut verging on collapse, all surrounded by tell-tale feet marks of thieving elephants, that he says are drastically impacting on the livelihoods of the community here.
'The people are angry when the elephants destroy the fields, because it is not just one or two years waiting to harvest, but sometimes for many years. When we are about to harvest the elephants had already come and destroyed the field. We plant again and then just when it's about time to harvest, it's destroyed again', he said. Deprived of full time veterinarian care, Raja died two weeks later at the end of his chain. He is not alone.
In Geumpang further North, a village chief took us up a winding lane to the sight of fresh mound of earth. It is all that remains of a young male elephant that was electrocuted by a low hanging cable over crops two nights earlier. It's not the elephant's death that worries him however, but the fate of his people.
'There was a conflict here in which one of our people was killed because the elephant stepped on him when he tried to chase them away•Imagine, he has three children, now they don't have any more education.' 'If we talk about the future of elephants, we have also to prioritise the importance on the future of the people. If the future of the people is good, then, the future of the elephants may also be better' he warned.
For years the government response to crop-raiding elephants has been to capture and contain animals deemed as 'problematic'. We visited Saree elephant camp, a government-run containment centre in Aceh, to observe conditions. Despite the best efforts of staff labouring under sparse resources, these holding centres are effectively prisons: barren sites where elephants deemed to be problematic are forcibly taken from the wild and subjected to a life of chained captivity, with no hope of release and little chance of enrichment to break the monotony. Dozens of elephants are living out a life of containment in these camps across Sumatra.
I watched in the dying heat of the day as mahouts barked instructions and scrubbed elephants kneeling to their every word, fearful perhaps of the sharp-pronged bull hooks tucked into the trousers of their masters. One elephant seemed psychologically scarred, repeatedly swinging its head back and forth as it gazed out over rusty barbed wire at life on the outside of the camp.
Elephant containment camps are cruel, say welfare campaigners, but the real tragedy for the elephants may not be so much that individual elephants are contained, but rather that these critically endangered animals have to be removed from the wild, and a rapidly-shrinking gene pool, in the first place.
The question, ask conservationists, is not how to keep wandering elephants away from communities croplands, but why these critically endangered herds are venturing out of their forest homes in the first place.
Mike Griffith's is a leading conservationist in Sumatra and until early 2013, was the deputy director of the Aceh government department that was charged with forest protection.
'We have a major problem and the only way to save the elephants, I believe, is to separate the elephants from the actions of man, that means oil palm, gardens and the impacts of roads and so on, that is why you have national parks, the is why you have reserves, that is why you have the Leuser ecosystem.'
A jagged line of towering peaks that run across much of Aceh, the Leuser ecosystem is the most bio-diverse forest in S.E Asia, 2.2 million hectares of forested hills that stretch across Aceh and the only place on earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos are found together in the wild. It is a cornucopia of biological richness and a sanctuary for hundreds of elephants who live amidst it's hills and hidden valleys that are protected from development under Indonesian law. But it's being eaten alive.
Working closely with local rangers from Aceh, we drove close to the Leuser frontier, keen to get a sense of this wildlife sanctuary famed around the world. Hours of driving through endless palm plantations brought us not to forests but to mud-stained hillsides clogged with debris and freshly torn tree roots.
Bulldozers had taken on where chainsaws had done their work, relentlessly bashing through logs and stumps to drive terraces into the hillsides. Navigating our way through the quagmire, we passed two motorbikes, wildlife traders waving cheerfully on their way to check bird traps that they had laid the night before on the newly-penetrated forest edge. Two howler monkeys clung to a tree stump, silent and motionless, overlooking a thousand hectares of devastation. The only green to be seen were tiny seedlings, their leaves fluttering quietly along the newly-cleared terraces. Oil palm.
It was a sight that left the team, the rangers even who deal with destruction on a weekly basis, speechless. A week earlier these rolling hills had been rainforest, home to many of the rarest large animals on the planet. 'When you replace these forests with oil palm plantations, you create green deserts... Nothing lives there except cockroaches, mosquitoes and rats.' says Mike Griffiths.
In the silence we took in the destruction, a line of brown dotted by bulldozers, a silence broken only by the ceaseless whine of chainsaws eating their way deeper and deeper into the Leuser forest refuge. This expansion is a relentless onslaught taking place every day in Aceh and across Sumatra.
The sticky palm oil trail back to Britain
We eat it as vegetable oil, wash our clothes with it as detergent, we use it in cosmetics, we wash with it as shampoo and soap; soon we will even be burning it in our cars. There are over 30 names for palm oil derivatives, many used daily in the home. According to Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer, companies use palm oil because it's cheap and incredibly versatile. It is an industrial wonder ingredient which has rapidly been incorporated as an invisible fat and filler into dozens of products that permeate our everyday lives.
Under pressure from campaigners, food companies have begun to refer to a plethora of terms which suggest the palm-derived ingredients within are 'sustainably' sourced, endorsed by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated - and heavily criticised - certification body working on palm oil issues.
But this investigation has found that much of the palm oil sold under the guise of sustainability is actually sourced from palm plantations which may not even have passed the weak certification criteria. Two of the four certification methods operating under the RSPO remit allow food companies to use oil from uncertified plantations in food products that are allowed to be mixed or 'offset' from plantations that tick the right boxes elsewhere.
Confused? You are not alone. The RSPO is a mess, say campaigners, misleading consumers and allowing multinational brands and industry-backed NGOs who work within the RSPO process to paint little more than a green tinge over an inherently destructive industry.
'It is criminal that consumer industries are able to hide behind this gross illusion of "sustainable" palm oil when its production is persistently fuelling the wholesale destruction of the world's most vital forests,' says Jo Cary-Elwes from the conservation organisation Elephant Family. Lowland habitats in Sumatra - the only areas where critically endangered elephants can survive in the wild, are the same sought-after areas exploited and planted over in palm oil.
Unless palm oil expansion is halted and reversed, conservationists say, it will be game over for the Sumatran elephant, which, alongside the rhino and tiger, teeters close to the brink of extinction. But you wouldn't know that from palm oil labelling. When you buy organic tomatoes, you get organic tomatoes. When you buy free range eggs, you get free range eggs. But when you buy palm oil labelled as sustainable in some way there is a good chance that what you actually get is oil which has been produced from a plantation built over the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the planet.
A resistance movement is born
Graham Usher is a man on a mission. We meet on the side of a muddy track high up in the midst of another freshly-planted palm concession that lies within the protected confines of the Leuser ecosystem. Crouching under a tent in the blistering midday heat alongside local rangers, he is busy putting the finishing touches to an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, which he is using to map out fresh incursions into the forest. With a shout and the briefest of run-ups, the self-made drone is in the air and recording high-resolution footage that shows the scale of fresh cuts in the lush trees.
'It's a never ending job,' he says. 'It takes them half an hour to chop down a 400yr old tree, but if you want to guard it, it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year... the use of a drone is a game changer,' he says. 'This sort of work, this collection of evidence, provides us with a much stronger case when you go to decision makers and say, look, this is what is going on, these are your laws, why isn't action being taken?'
Faced with dysfunctional governance and a spineless certification system, local communities in Aceh, fearful of floods caused by land clearance upstream, are fighting back. In 2012 over a thousand hectares of illegally grown palm oil was confiscated and chain-sawed down, the terraces bulldozed back into their natural shape. Within two months elephants had returned; within 2 years, orangutans, says Taesar, one of the rangers leading the regeneration project, 'and we have over 5000 hectares more that we are trying to win back at the moment.'
It's heartening to hear that the tide of forest clearance can be slowed, and even turned around, albeit it not by the multi-million dollar 'responsible' palm industry or conservation groups based in Europe and the USA who work so closely with the industry, but instead by grass-roots activism and local communities, many of whom are volunteers.
Despite these efforts however, at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The Governor of Aceh recently issued a controversial 'spatial' plan for Aceh, a dryly-worded policy document concerned with reclassifying land use across Aceh. But the details within, say conservationists, are terrifying. The plan effectively green-lights environmental roll-back and decades of forest protection. It's a carve-up of much of the remaining low-lying forest in Aceh, opening the way for mining and hundreds of thousands of hectares of further palm plantains".
'When you look at the needs of the Sumatran elephant, they need lowland forest to live in every time you disturb them, every time you put in plantations, you put in farming, you get conflict. Who is the loser out of that? It is always the elephant, they will disappear if we do not have large areas of lowland rainforest protected for them...' says Graham. 'If we don't take urgent action a few year down the road we will be looking at the Leuser ecosystems and saying my god, why didn't we do more when we had the chance?'
In response to our request for a statement on the Spatial Plan, a spokesperson for the Indonesian government said the plan is a mess, stating that it is largely driven from political interests in Aceh itself. But he stressed that the authorities in Jakarta are trying to balance the needs of the environment with the livelihood needs of 250 million Indonesians.
Death by chocolate
On our last day in Aceh, the news came through that two more elephants have been found dead further south. Our cameraman flies through the night and arrives to record the grizzly scene. The images show two carcasses that seem to writhe amidst the shadows on the forest floor, an army of maggots feasting upon the flesh of the dead elephants that lie there. Elephants disappear quickly in the jungle. A convenience not lost on the oil palm plantation workers who are accused of frequently lacing chocolate bars with rat poison or phosphates, dropping them temptingly on elephant paths that meander close to valuable oil palm plantations.
The young male and female animals we filmed were one of three elephants poisoned in Sumatra last month, the latest casualties in the ever-growing elephant conflict.
Eclipsed in the media by the slaughter of African elephants for Asian ivory consumption, the fragile fate of the Sumatran elephant remains out of sight, hidden amidst the dark recesses of the rapidly disappearing forests that they call home.
It's not poaching but palm oil that remains the principle threat to the survival of the Sumatran elephant in the wild. Industrially-produced palm oil from Sumatra is a 'liquid ivory', and everybody reading this article inadvertently consumes it every day. Eating, bathing and washing ourselves in a fruit that has displaced forests in the last place on earth where the Sumatran elephant can survive.
Walking away from the chainsaw gangs in Leuser, our ranger turns and confronts me. 'The world must see this destruction, the world must know what is happening now... see the destruction everywhere, we have to rise up and prevent all of these things from happening before it is too late. What people need to do, people from every part of the world need to think smart, think creatively and never to use any product that contains processed palm products. Palm oil destroys the forests', he said. Time perhaps to heed his words.
Going without insurance is described as "going naked" in insurance industry lingo. Going without insurance for the worst hazards in the nuclear power industry is business as usual.
One need not look back very far to see the problem. In March 2011, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, triggered by an earthquake followed by a tsunami that overwhelmed all of Japan's safeguards, melted down three reactors, displaced 160,000 people and caused an estimated $250 billion in damages and other still-unfolding economic consequences.
Today, in the United States, we have 104 operating nuclear plants producing electricity. The owners, operators, and government regulators who oversee them say an event like Fukushima will not happen here. And even if it did, they insist, there is enough liability insurance in place to cover the damages. The actual amount of that insurance coverage: just $12.6 billion.
You don't need an advanced degree in calculus or risk analysis to see that something doesn't add up, and to start feeling a bit...naked. But when it comes to nuclear insurance, naked is the fashion designed for the American public.
A catastrophic accident in the US could cost way more than $12.6 billion. A worst-case scenario study in 1997 by the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a major accident could cost $566 billion in damages and cause 143,000 possible deaths. Another such study, by Sandia National Laboratories in 1982, calculated the possible costs at $314 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would put both estimates close to the trillion dollar range today. So $12.6 billion wouldn't cover much.
After Fukushima, which was only the second worst such accident behind the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its staff scrambled to reappraise the adequacy of their own safety regimens for nuclear power plants. And they re-examined the sufficiency of the limited insurance available to indemnify the American people against property damage, loss of life and other economic consequences of nuclear accidents. Then the NRC hastened to publish the "lessons learned" from the Japanese catastrophe to show they were on top of things. Though the previously existing US system had been described as virtually fail-safe, federal regulators found that improvements were possible after all and ordered that they be made.
But one not so small thing remained unchanged, post-Fukushima: the tightly capped insurance system. Of course, raising the amount of insurance required to operate nuclear plants would be expensive. The nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of all of the country's electrical power, is not eager to incur additional expenses like higher insurance premiums for more coverage. Oh, but the nuclear power industry doesn't actually pay premiums on most of the insurance coverage that supposedly is available (more about that later.)
First, a little history. After solving the scientific and technological issues of splitting the atom, the biggest problem the nuclear industry faced in its infancy was obtaining accident insurance coverage. Without insurance, investors were unwilling to provide start-up capital. But the insurance industry was nervous. After all, this was back in the 1950s, and who knew then how safe -- or dangerous -- this new power source might turn out to be? So insurers were refusing to assume unlimited levels of liability.
But President Dwight D. Eisenhower was determined to develop "Atoms for Peace," and he worked with a cooperative Congress to remove all roadblocks. Their solution to the insurance obstacle was a new federal law, the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, which simply imposed federally-decreed limits on liability from accidents at non-military nuclear facilities. The law, amended several times since then, allowed the creation of insurance pools to cover accidents. Today the plan has two tiers. The first tier is a $375 million insurance policy for which each nuclear plant must pay premiums ranging between $500,000 and $2 million a year, depending on plant size and other factors. If a plant has an accident and $375 million is not sufficient to cover resulting damages the second tier kicks in and all the other plant operators around the country must chip in up to $111 million each to indemnify victims until the $12.6 billion cap is reached.
By the way, if you live near a nuclear plant, or even many miles away, you cannot buy your own private insurance policy to protect your home against nuclear accidents, thanks to the Price-Anderson law.
The nuclear industry and the insurance industry both understood the hard realities of the risk. In testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on May 24, 2001, John L. Quattrocchi, then senior vice president for underwriting at the American Nuclear Insurers pool, put it bluntly: "The simple fact is there is always a limit on liability -- that limit equal to the assets of the company at fault."
Meanwhile, corporations that own nuclear plants have devised spin-off schemes, erecting legal firewalls to protect the parent company if their limited-liability subsidiary actually operating the plant goes under as the result of an accident.
Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered a partial meltdown in March, 1979. Victor Gilinsky was the senior sitting member on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when that accident happened. According to Gilinsky, now retired, "There is no insurance for an extreme event."
Now, as scientists warn of climate change, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and a host of other environmental threats related to global warming it might not be unreasonable to re-examine protections afforded the public. Small-scale accidents at nuclear plants continue to happen. A big one, like Fukushima or worse, may have a low probability level. But it isn't impossible.
True, nuclear plants contribute little or no greenhouse gas emissions to the overburdened atmosphere compared to the coal-fired plants that add so much to global warming. But there is another factor to consider when weighing the nuclear option. Originally licensed for 40 years of operational life, most US nuclear plants are approaching or have already exceeded that period. So far, 73 such plants have been given 20-year extensions, and with retrofitting and extensive upgrades, some are expected to function to an age of 80 years. Lets all keep our fingers crossed.
Miles Benson is a correspondent for Link TV's Earth Focus. He has a distinguished career as a daily print journalist. From 1969 till his retirement in 2005, was a correspondent for the Newhouse Newspaper group, which included 30 daily newspapers. He covered the US Congress for 15 years and then the White House for 16 years, wrote a weekly political column and covered national politics and public policy.
When Sheila Russell decided to move back to her ancestral home in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, she wanted to start a new life. A seventh-generation Russell, whose family had settled the land in 1796, the last year of George Washington’s presidency, she left her corporate job at a catalog company to do what she loved best: farming.
There was only one problem: shale gas. As luck would have it, the Russell farm happened to sit on top of the Marcellus shale, a large underground formation rich in natural gas. In 2010, just as Ms. Russell was embarking on her new career in organic farming, Chesapeake Energy drilled two shale-gas wells across the road, less a thousand feet from the farm.
Although not worried at first and even hopeful that future royalties from the gas may help her expand her business, Ms. Russell soon found herself in a nightmare, when she discovered that one of the wells on her property had been leaking methane gas into the ground, due to a faulty casing, for over a year.
Today, Sheila Russell has stopped drinking the water from her private well and even refuses to water her produce with it, preferring instead a nearby spring-fed pond. Water tests have shown elevated levels of methane and metals, still within state norms, but she does not want to take any chances.
"It's a concern for me, it's a concern for my customers," she says. "We all thought [the gas] was a lot of money coming and that it was safe. And it’s neither safe, nor a money-maker. Do I stay on this seventh-generation farm and keep it going? I don’t know."
Sheila Russell's case is hardly an exception. Bradford County, a bucolic region in northern Pennsylvania full of woodlands, rolling hills, and pastures dotted by red barns and hay bales, with a population of just 63,000 people, has been undergoing a massive industrial transformation for the past few years, as both American and international companies have joined the rush for gas.
This is not the first natural-resource boom in Bradford County. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coal mining and logging were big economic drivers -- until the coal ran out and the hills were hills were stripped bare -- but the shale gas may prove to be the biggest industry yet.
About 2,000 shale-gas wells have been drilled and permitted in the county so far, making it the most heavily drilled region in Pennsylvania and the Marcellus as a whole. And while the economic benefits for companies, larger leaseholders, and some local businesses have been significant, the gas rush threatens to undermine the venerable farming and dairy operations in the area, while creating a host of environmental and social problems.
The changes are hard to ignore. From a sleepy Pennsylvania town on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Towanda, the county's seat, has metamorphosed into a real boomtown, with industry trucks and large pickups jamming the single main street. Crime has gone up by about 40 percent, while rents and food prices have skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, new restaurants and hotels have sprung up along the river valley to service the rig and pipeline workers, many of them coming here from as far as Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.
Since 2008, when drilling for shale gas began in the county, revenues from sales tax have jumped up 61 percent, while unemployment has hovered at around six percent, lower than the national average. So far, local landowners have received $160 million in leases, which have boosted spending, as well as the county's tax base.
"The shale gas industry has had a very positive economic impact on the region" says Anthony Ventello, the executive director of Progress Authority, the local chamber of commerce, pointing out that the gas industry continues to bring in new investments. A new 800 MW gas-fired power plant, worth between 600 and 800 million dollars, has been already planned, while other, smaller gas-related projects are soon to follow.
"We're looking to create a value-added economy and not just ship natural gas out of here like a third-world country," he says.
Yet, behind the upbeat statistics, a darker side lurks. Blowouts, toxic spills, water contamination, and gas migration have accompanied development.
Chesapeake Energy, the company with the most substantial presence, was fined $900,000 -- the largest environmental fine in the state’s history -- for allowing gas migration to contaminate the water of 16 families in the county in 2010. Later, a blowout of one of the company’s wells caused large amounts of "produced water" -- liquid waste associated with shale gas extraction -- to spill into Towanda creek. In Bradford County, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, overall there have been more than 600 violations so far.
Most often, accidents occur due to faulty casing and cementing, with gas and a variety of dangerous metals migrating into the water table. The industry calculates that six percent of all new wells have some kind of casing or cementing problem, but in reality that percentage could be much higher.
Carol French, a long-time dairy farmer, experienced the adverse consequences of shale-gas drilling first hand, when her well water turned white and murky in 2011. Soon, her whole family started having skin rashes, while her 24-year old daughter fell extremely ill with intestinal, liver and spleen problems (she quickly improved when she moved away from the farm). Meanwhile, the family's cattle began suffering from skin rashes and breeding issues.
"I got to see my farm lose 90 percent of its property value," she says. “I’m losing my milk market and probably I won’t be able to sell my cows. The gas industry had negatively impacted our health, our water, our business, our society."
Mrs. French has made the conscious decision to keep her dairy operation going, despite the fact that there are about 340 shale-gas wells within a ten-mile radius of her farm. Many of her neighbors, on the other hand, have simply opted to take the money from their gas leases and sell their dairy herds. Out of about 12 dairy farmers in the immediate vicinity, only three have kept their farms running, according to Mrs. French's estimates. Even the local milk hauler has gone on to work as a truck driver for the shale-gas industry.
Another serious impact has been the fragmentation of farmland by the wells pads, compressor stations, and the thousands of miles of pipelines already crisscrossing the hills or currently under construction.
Certainly, there are other factors contributing to the decline of dairy farms in Bradford County, beyond the gas industry. Low milk prices and expensive feed have kept the business on the edge of survival for years and many have seen the windfall from gas leases and royalties as the perfect exit.
The choice was clear for Howard Keir, a neighbor of Carol French. After leasing the mineral rights of his property to Chesapeake Energy, he immediately sold off his dairy herd. He believes shale-gas extraction is generally safe and today has three wells on his property, out of which he soon expects to receive royalties.
"With the price of milk going mostly down, farmers were going out of business anyway, so you can’t blame it all on the industry," he says.
Anthony Ventello, of the chamber of commerce, agrees. "Don’t get me wrong, but farming is doomed, no matter what you do. It has to do with milk prices mostly. Yes, things will change, but I don’t see that as a danger."
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some farmers use the proceeds from gas exploration to upgrade their operations, but the general trend has been in the opposite direction.
A 2012 study by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences draws a direct correlation between the decline of cow numbers and dairy production in areas with higher drilling activity. Between 2007 and 2010, in counties with 150 or more gas wells cow numbers have decreased by 18.7 percent on average, compared to only 1.2 percent decrease in counties with no Marcellus wells. In Bradford County the decline has been 18.8 percent for that time period.
Timothy Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics and a co-author of the study, sees a danger for the entire dairy industry in the region if the decline continues.
"If the number of farms and agricultural activity fall too low, these essential supporting businesses [like feed stores, large animal veterinarians, machinery dealers, and agricultural processors] will leave or quit, making it difficult for remaining farmers to access needed inputs and markets and thus remain in business," he writes.
If such domino effect takes place and farming and dairy production in Bradford County collapse along with the entire supply chain, even the large financial inflow from the shale gas industry might not be able to make up for the difference.
A law that came into effect last year in Pennsylvania, Act 13, tries to mitigate some of the negative effects of shale gas drilling by providing an impact fee. In 2012, Bradford County received $8.2 million with another $6.8 million projected for 2013.
"It's a chunk of change that Bradford County never had before," says Mark Smith, one of the county commissioners. "Is it enough? I don't think we know that answer yet."
Without a doubt shale gas has made a serious contribution to the economy of Bradford County and Pennsylvania as a whole, yet risking a sustainable industry like farming for an unsustainable one like fossil-fuel extraction may prove too expensive in the end.
Already a bust is on the horizon: drilling in the county has seen a substantial decline, from 408 shale-gas wells drilled in 2011 to 149 well through November of 2012, due to low gas prices. The construction of thousands of miles of pipeline continues in preparation for the new boom when prices pick up, but it is far from certain whether farming in the area could recover so easily.
"The story is always different at the kitchen table where they come to sign you on than it is out in the field," says Bruce Kennedy, a long-time farmer whose family roots in Pennsylvania go back 200 years. In 2011, three accidents related to shale gas extraction happened on his property, including a large diesel spill.
"My grandfather always taught me to leave a place better than you found it. I don’t mind people going after the gas, but it doesn't entitle them to abuse the place. You have to be a good steward of the land."
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media. Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page.
There was a saying in Youngstown that the day you didn't have to sweep soot off your porch was the day that spelled trouble. That was more than thirty-five years ago, when the city, nestled in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, was one of the great steel manufacturers in the United States – "the Ruhr Valley of America" – with dozens of foundries, their smokestacks belching black plumes into a black sky.
Then the soot gradually disappeared, but so did the jobs, as automation and cheap imports drove the industry away. The steel mills shut down, one by one, like the organs of a dying patient. By the end, more than 50,000 people lost their employment and the city's population shrank by nearly 65 percent, to just over 60,000.
Today, brownfields and empty factories litter the landscape and ghostly, boarded-up houses haunt the neighborhoods. Tattered American flags flutter from skeletal poles. Junkies roam the streets listlessly. If the Rust Belt had a buckle, it would be right here.
But the world is changing, and so is Youngstown. The shale gas boom in the Marcellus formation of neighboring Pennsylvania has lifted up hopes in the city– while raising fears of new industrial-scale pollution.
A slick 650-million dollar plant with 350 employees, V&M Star, making steel tubes for the gas industry, opened last October to great fanfare, where once stood the Brier Hill Works of Youngstown Sheet & Tube. A few smaller steel shops have also made a comeback, while restaurants and motels are getting busier, according to interview with owners.
"The shale gas could be a game changer, but I think in truth it's a very strong diversifier of our regional economy," says Eric Planey, vice president of the International Business Attraction, Youngstown’s chamber of commerce. "It's almost like a steroid for the economy."
Drilling for shale gas, too, has recently made its entrance into the Mahoning Valley, as the local Utica Shale has proven rich in profitable "wet gas," saturated with natural gas liquids like propane, butane and ethane. So far, there are just a few shale gas wells in the county area – overall, 196 have been drilled in Ohio and 477 have been permitted – but many more are in the planning stages. Like smokestacks turned upside down, the boreholes seem to promise a new industrial revival for Youngstown.
In truth, for the past several years the city has been attempting to reinvent itself as a high-tech hub for software startups, but success has so far been limited. General Motors remains the largest employer in the area and blue-collar jobs are the most popular.
"Shale gas could really turn our economy around and produce jobs in the future," Charles Sammarone, the mayor of Youngstown, says.
The city council recently approved an ordinance to allow the lease of the mineral rights of 180 acres of city-owned land. The potential revenue, the mayor hopes, could fund the demolition of abandoned houses and buildings, and give Youngstown a facelift. A 2010 survey by the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative showed that there are 3,246 vacant structures within the city limits, or about 44.8 structures per 1,000 residents, a figure 20 times the national average.
At the same time, unemployment has been kept relatively low at 7.9 percent, the national average, but only because so many people have been leaving the area.
"We want to clean up our neighborhoods, so we can keep people from moving out," Sammarone says.
Patching and cleaning up Youngstown with shale gas, though, may prove its own ironic pitfall. Shale gas harvesting requires an invasive technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, whereby millions of gallons of frack fluid – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic – are injected in the ground under high pressure to crack the impermeable rock and release the trapped hydrocarbons.
Much of that mixture then comes back as "produced water" or "brine," laced underground with high concentrations of salts, a variety of heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactivity, making it very difficult for treatment or disposal.
"All oil and gas production brings certain risks of contamination to ground and surface water, [but] through appropriate oversight, training, maintenance, and enforcement of regulations, spills can be greatly minimized," says Jeffrey Dick, director of Youngstown’s Natural Gas and Water Research Institute.
However, cases of groundwater contamination and gas migration into aquifers due to faulty casings, as well as blowouts and spills have been quite common and well documented in Pennsylvania, right across the state border. Between January 2008 and August 2011, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recorded 2,988 violations related to shale gas extraction, 1,144 of which involved environmental threats or substantial environmental damage.
Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States, was fined last year $900,000, the biggest environmental fine in Pennsylvania's history, for allowing gas to contaminate private water wells in Bradford County. In 2009, another company, Cabot Oil & Gas received a fine of over $500,000 for similar violations in Dimock, Pennsylvania.
Industry statics indicate that six percent of cement casings in new wells fail and leak gas and liquid contaminants in the environment, while that percentage climbs precipitously to 50 after the first 30 years of exploitation.
"The gas industry could revitalize the town, but you can't also look the other way. The rivers have been polluted, the land has been polluted by the steel industry, and they left us pretty much in shambles," says Robert Hagan, an Ohio state representative and a Youngstown native, who had worked as a locomotive engineer for decades, ferrying steel products across the region. "You have to think very clearly about what could happen with the shale gas and oil industry... so we don't repeat the same mistakes that we've done in the past."
Although there is no substantial drilling in the area yet, with just over a dozen wells in various stages of development, Youngstown has already felt the shockwaves, literally. With no previous history of major seismicity, the city experienced 12 earthquakes in 2011, the strongest one a 4.0 on the Richter scale.
A preliminary report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) linked the tremors to a deep injection well, Northstar 1, used for the disposal of brine from Pennsylvania's shale gas industry. Located right across the new V&M Star pipe plant, on the opposite bank of the Mahoning River, the well was a reminder of the other, dirtier end-product of fossil-fuel extraction.
"Everybody is saying how great the new jobs are but they're being willfully ignorant about the whole big picture," says Raymond Beiersdorfer, a professor of geology at Youngstown State University, who used to work in oil exploration. "You can't have a sustainable environment when you're developing shale gas in such a polluting manner. There are problems all through the whole chain of the process."
Northstar 1 was eventually shut down and ODNR implemented stricter rules for waste disposal in all the 192 deep injection wells in Ohio, but a potential for seismic events or serious leaks nonetheless remains, experts say. For that reason, the nearby town of Niles recently banned injection wells on its territory.
"The earthquakes shook people up and made them realize the risks of the gas industry," says John Williams, 55, a Niles native, both of whose grandfathers worked in the steel mills.
At the end of 2011, Williams and a few other local residents organized a grassroots movement against injection wells and fracking, Frackfree Mahoning Valley, which has since grown in popularity, staging a number of rallies and information sessions. And although some Youngstown residents see anti-fracking organizations as an obstacle to economic recovery, the area's long tradition of unionism and populist activism have generally cast environmental protests in a positive light.
But Williams has gone even further. When the company Consol Energy was recently allowed to drill a shale gas well in the protection area of Meander Creek Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to all the residents of Youngstown and adjoining residential areas, he started his own private monitoring initiative, PEEPS (People's Essential Environmental Protection Service).
Almost daily, Williams measures samples with professional water-testing equipment from a nearby creek that empties directly into the reservoir.
So far, he has not noticed any problems, but he keeps his guard up.
"It's a way that people can defend their property, their water and air. Government agencies are not protecting us the way we think they should, but the technology exists so we can protect ourselves," he says.
"Chances are there won't be an accident. But if there is one at Meander Creek Reservoir, it would be a lot more than just jobs that people would have to worry about."
But shale gas from the Utica and the Marcellus is just one side of the today's fossil-fuel boom around the Youngstown area. Although much smaller in scale and overall impact, a number of gas wells are being drilled in a shallower rock formation called Clinton sandstones. And reports of groundwater pollution are already coming in.
Jaime Frederick, 34, of Coitsville, Ohio, just east of Youngstown, has ten gas wells within half a mile of her house. Three years ago, just as she moved in, she started experiencing a number of mysterious liver, kidney and intestinal problems. After five surgeries and the removal of her gallbladder, she tested her water and found that it was polluted with high levels of barium, strontium and toluene – chemicals associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
It was only when she stopped drinking her water that her medical condition improved. Today, Frederick has a massive filtration system in her house, as well as gas detectors on every floor.
"How can they say it’s OK you're getting sick because somebody is getting a job? To me that’s not OK. It's going to make this area a place where people wouldn’t want to live anymore. And it’s already been that for so long. Companies are turning residential land into an industrial warzone," she says.
Yet, despite the dangers of gas drilling, many residents of Youngstown continue to feel this is a good chance for the city to come back to life and maybe revive its old manufacturing glory. The question is how much "soot" the new industry would produce and how much of it residents are willing to bear for better jobs.
"It's a fact of life. It's going to happen. We may cry or complain, but the economic impact is too big to be stopped," says Jack Kravitz, the owner of the oldest deli in Youngstown, whose business has jumped up by 20 percent in the past year.
Both opponents and proponents of shale gas development, however, agree the state has to institute a stricter regulatory regime to ensure environmental safety and people's health. There are also calls for much higher taxes on the industry -- the current proposal of Ohio's governor John Kasich envisions just 1.5 percent tax on annual gross sales in the first year and 4 percent annually after that -- so the whole region could better benefit from its own resources.
"People are cautiously optimistic," says Phil Kidd, a community organizer and owner of Youngstown Nation, a popular gift shop in the downtown area. "There's a desire to see this happen, because we desperately need the economic development, but we are also concerned about the environmental aspects of it because once this resource is extracted these companies are gone. If Youngstown, Ohio, can't learn from its past, I don't know what community can."
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media. Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page.