A Gas Boom, a Farm Bust in Pennsylvania

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.

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
Here in Youngstown: The Promise and Curse of Shale Gas
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.
 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
China: 'People's Search' Engine Crashes and Burns

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
The Social Media Nuke: Northeast Asia Reacts

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
Soccer-Mad Japan Reacts to Match-Fixing Scandal

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
Press Freedom Slipping Fast Across Asia
(LinkAsia: February 1, 2013)
Thuy Vu:
A survey on press freedom shows Asia is slipping. In fact, no Asian country made the top 25 in guaranteeing journalists' freedom. Here's Japan's public broadcaster, NHK with a report.

--

NHK World NEWSLINE
Airdate: January 30, 2012

Reporter:
Reporters Without Borders released its annual survey assessing the commitment by governments to protect freedom of the press. Japan plunged 31 spots to 53rd place out 179 countries and territories. The non-profit group says the Japanese government lacked transparency and failed to give the media sufficient access to information following the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima. Reporters Without Borders spokespersons say Japan's fall from its normally high ranking should serve as a warning.

The survey says media in Finland enjoy the most freedom followed by other European nations such as the Netherlands and Norway. Myanmar rose 18 places to 151st. It abolished official censorship in 2012. China ranked 173rd, almost unchanged from 2011. And North Korea remained second to last at 178. Eritrea remains last on the World Press Freedom Index.
 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
Mistress' Viral Love Diary Ends Career of Chinese Official

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
'Tech Cheating' Overwhelms China's Online Train Ticket System

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
China: Web Users Attack Press Censorship

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 
Youth Voter Apathy Threatening 'Breakdown' in Japanese Democracy

 
 

Comments (0)

 
Digg it!Add to RedditAdd to Del.icio.usShare on Facebook
 

 

Link TV Blog

Keep up to date with the latest programming news on Link TV


Mosaic Blog

Link TV's Mosaic producers give unique insight on major newsworthy stories of the Middle East

 

World Music Blog

Insight into Link's musical offerings, reports on concerts, and interviews with musicians


LinkAsia Blog

Get the latest analysis on news and key issues from around Asia


World Cinema Blog

A personal insight to CINEMONDO and other Link TV feature film acquisitions


Global Spirit

Updates about Global Spirit - an unprecedented inquiry into the universe of human consciousness