Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has leaned heavily on his working-class Mon Valley roots to raise his national profile, becoming a cable news star during the aftermath of the presidential election. But while he is soaking up the national spotlight, environmental injustice threatens the former Braddock mayor’s hometown, leaving many residents asking: Will he show up and stand with the community?
Fracking in Pennsylvania was one of the big stories of the presidential election. While Donald Trump attempted to whip up fears about a fracking ban here, the national media — with the help of leaders like Fetterman, who has sidestepped fracking as a “complicated” issue — often portrayed Pennsylvania as being strongly protective of the drilling industry. In such a telling, the fracking boom had created desperately needed jobs.
However, the truth is that the supposed surge in fossil fuel employment has always been massively overstated. Before the dramatic drop in fossil fuel employment due to the pandemic, fracking accounted for just about 26,000 jobs in Pennsylvania — a far cry from the hundreds of thousands claimed by the drilling industry and pro-fracking politicians. Over the last few years, job growth in the clean energy industries has outpaced gas and coal. Our recent research shows that public investment in wind and solar manufacturing is a more efficient way to create local jobs than betting on a drilling-linked petrochemical boom.
For many of us, the important stories about fracking right now are the local communities organizing to rein it in to protect their neighborhoods. It’s easy to understand why this is happening: mountains of evidence show how fracking harms our health, our air, and our water. People who live near fracking wells are more likely to suffer from increased asthma attacks, headaches, and severe fatigue, while recent studies point to lower birth weights and infant health problems in communities near wells. Fracking exacerbates air pollution problems like ground-level ozone and has been linked to hundreds of cases of water contamination or other drinking water impacts, as well as pollution of streams and rivers.
The fracking well proposed right in Fetterman’s backyard could be even more dangerous. A New Mexico-based company called Merrion Oil & Gas proposed to drill a new fracking well in East Pittsburgh dangerously close to the densely populated communities of East Pittsburgh, Braddock, and North Braddock, which have all been forced to deal with a history of air pollution from the steel industry.
This new fracking well proposal was set to be the next in a long line of environmental injustices that our region has faced — until the people of the Mon Valley simply said no. North Braddock Residents for Our Future have organized their friends and neighbors for years, and that hard work has paid off. In a poll of Democratic voters we commissioned in April to cover the region (where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost four to one), 70% opposed the well.
That widespread opposition came to a head in June, when the East Pittsburgh Borough Council took the courageous action to protect their community by refusing to allow work to be done under a lapsed permit. In October, that decision was affirmed by the borough’s zoning hearing board, which moved to reject Merrion’s appeal of that denial. And on Dec. 8, the Department of Environmental Protection notified the company that they are no longer reviewing the company’s application “unless and until Merrion obtains zoning approval from the appropriate governmental entity” (the East Pittsburgh Borough Zoning Board).
This should be the end of the story. However, Merrion is trying to tie up the tiny borough in court with another appeal — one more attempt to force local residents to live with more dirty fossil fuel pollution.
It’s time for state officials to step in — and Lt. Gov. Fetterman should lead the way. An out-of-state corporate polluter that could not even properly complete the paperwork to apply for a drilling permit is bullying a small town for daring to protect its residents. It’s an issue perfectly made for the John Fetterman we see on cable television and portrayed in national media profiles.
Those of us who have followed his career have seen Fetterman shift his positions on fracking. In 2016, he wanted to halt fracking; two years later, he spoke out in favor of the Merrion well. These days, the lieutenant governor tries to steer a middle path by saying that fracking can be done safely and gas can act as a bridge to clean energy — even though the evidence of the dangers of fracking is clear, and fracked gas is slowing that transition to renewables by extending our reliance on fossil fuels.
Right now, the majority of his neighbors value their health and safety over a fracking company’s profits. It’s time for Fetterman to stand with the Mon Valley and call on Merrion Oil & Gas to respect the community’s decision and stop pursuing this fracking well.
Megan McDonough is the Pennsylvania state director for Food & Water Watch. She lives in Elizabeth Township.