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Fracking foes: Some all-out, others just want limits

Matt Zencey is former assistant editorial page editor of The Inquirer Standing in Chip Hollister's front yard on a Saturday night, you could hear a whoosh, a short roar, and then a brief silence before the cycle repeated. Whoosh. Roar. Then quiet.

Matt Zencey

is former assistant editorial page editor of The Inquirer

Standing in Chip Hollister's front yard on a Saturday night, you could hear a whoosh, a short roar, and then a brief silence before the cycle repeated. Whoosh. Roar. Then quiet.

An orange glow flashed across the night's low cloud cover, then faded, then flashed again.

Again and again: Whoosh. Roar. Quiet. Flash.

Hollister bought his mid-1800s farmhouse and a patch of what used to be quiet rural land in western Bradford County nearly 40 years ago. Today he's on the front lines of Pennsylvania's shale gas boom, and he's not happy about it.

Shell Appalachia had just begun flaring a newly drilled well about a half-mile south of his house. It's like living next to a fire-breathing dragon, his grown daughter said.

Flaring is relatively rare. According to Shell spokeswoman Kelly OpDeWeegh, the well near Hollister's house was in a newly explored area and was flared for 10 days "due to not having a pipeline in place for transport of the gas," while the company tested the well's production.

At 11 p.m., Hollister took two visitors for a close look at the flaring well. Every few seconds, atop a thin metal vent stack maybe 40 feet high, a flame surged more than 50 feet in the air. In the cool fall air, you could feel the heat about 100 yards away. It was as if Old Faithful was going off every seven or 10 seconds, belching fire instead of water.

Though Hollister understood that the flaring would go on for about a week, in his eyes, the change in the land he loves is permanent.

This fall, a call went out to Quakers in the Mid-Atlantic region: If you want a firsthand look at the controversy over natural gas fracking in the Marcellus Shale, come to Tioga County. The Quakers of Wellsboro, the meeting Hollister attends, would host a tour.

Though not a Quaker, I got to tag along, and in the process heard a range of views on natural gas drilling.

Shippen Township farmers Carol and Donald Johnson were asked to lease their property for gas years ago, long before the boom. Then, they didn't fully realize what leasing would mean, or even what to ask for in an agreement. Now they know better.

Their lease allowed East Resources to put drilling spoils into a pit on the Johnsons' land. The holding pit leaked, and some of their cows were exposed to the spill and its contaminated liquids, the Johnsons tell visitors. The following season, they lost eight of 11 calves.

The family wanted the well drilled in a less disruptive location, Carol explains, but the company refused. The drillers went to work a short distance uphill of their barn and house.

Carol said she and her husband signed an updated lease in 2000 that is supposed to pay them $2,000 an acre, but payments stopped after they collected just 15 percent of that. They haven't received compensation for the dead calves, and they are not sure they have been properly paid for the pipeline crossing their property. Lawyers are involved.

"I wish we had never entered into the agreement to lease," Carol said.

Shell Appalachia, which obtained the Johnson lease through its acquisition of East Resources this summer, said in a recent e-mail from OpDeWeegh, "We have made attempts to reach out to them and understand their concerns" and had "offered assistance and have not received requests from them."

Elsewhere in Tioga County, we saw numerous big drill pads, about three acres each, clear-cut from the forest or bulldozed into a meadow. When drilling is under way, the site is packed with trucks, trailers, and industrial equipment, and a towering rig hums with activity round the clock. Repeatedly, we saw scores of big, privately owned trucks hauling water back and forth to well sites.

Drilling is not yet everywhere in Tioga County. In many places, the view was still pastoral, a rolling mix of forest and farm. A company can drill multiple wells from one pad, covering an underground area of perhaps one square mile.

But it isn't hard to find signs of drilling. Pipelines are being dug across farmland and carved through what used to be forest. Drillers have built large holding ponds, bermed impoundments surrounded by fencing, to store fresh water for when frackers need it. Some well pads are tidy and dry; others are a muddy mess. Compressor stations - huge, potentially noisy industrial pumps housed in a large metal building - run 24/7, with a big ventilation fan constantly spinning on the outside.

During "fracking," drillers pump a slurry of water and chemicals deep underground to fracture the shale and unleash the gas. The industry uses billions of gallons of water, and some of it comes back up, full of naturally occurring salts and low levels of radiation. That water has to go somewhere. In Pennsylvania, the industry has had some embarrassing spills.

Originally, the gas industry sent the wastewater to municipal treatment plants or commercial facilities. More and more, the water is being recycled to other fracking sites. Some is shipped out of state, often to Ohio, where it is pumped into deep injection wells.

Our driver, Branin Boyd, said the industry was doing an OK job fixing damage the heavy truck traffic inflicts on roads. Shell Appalachia boasts that it is paying the full cost of a paving job underway on one gravel road.

The shale boom has definitely created work in this rural, economically challenged region. However, the crews that run the rigs are highly skilled workers who go wherever they are needed around the world.

"More than 70 percent of the people working at Marcellus Shale drilling sites come from out of state," according to the Feb. 6 Centre Daily Times, citing a report by Tracy Brundage at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. But lower-skilled support jobs, like trucking and security, are available to locals. The influx of workers has sent rents surging, causing a housing crunch for locals on limited incomes.

Wellsboro Quakers had already gone on record with grave concerns about the drilling boom. In May, they issued a statement asking fellow Quakers to support a moratorium "until rigorous regulatory oversight ensures environmental safeguards." The governing body for Friends in this region, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, endorsed that call in September.

In an e-mail after helping lead the day's tour, Bryn Hammarstrom, wrote: "I support a ban on chemical-laced hydraulic fracturing, but realistically would settle for putting all energy exploration under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts."

The visiting Quakers were not all of one mind.

Bruce Anderson, from Columbia County to the south, saw gas drilling as inevitable. He spends a good chunk of his retirement helping landowners negotiate leases that protect them and their land.

"The lease is the most important thing," he said again and again. "It's not the money. Money will not buy your health."

Like opponents of gas drilling, he absolutely does not trust gas companies to operate responsibly unless pushed to do so, though he notes that some are better than others.

Peter Frorer, a retired geologist visiting from the Philadelphia area, said near the end of the day's tour, "This isn't so bad." His son, also named Peter, said of the controversy, "It seems like it's a question not 'if' but 'how' " gas drilling will take place.

During an evening potluck and discussion led by Anderson, he and Chip Hollister politely disagreed on numerous points. Anderson shrugged off the risks of underground water contamination and radiation in the wastewater. Hollister disputed the industry's claims about how much gas is there to be drilled, and suggested the boom was just another destructive economic bubble.

Enid Madaras, a Quaker from Greencastle, welcomed the exchange. "It's good to hear things from all sides," she told the group.

Citing the basic Quaker belief that "God is in every person," Madaras later explained her interest in the issue: "God is also in all things natural. We need to treat the environment with nonviolence. I cut trees, I butcher animals, but I do it with some degree of respect."

To Hollister, Quakerly respect for nature means not fracking for natural gas at all. To Anderson, it means making sure drilling is done right.

Unfortunately, there's no easy agreement on what "doing it right" means.

When a bipartisan bill to tighten Pennsylvania's shale rules emerged in the state Senate this fall, the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania expressed "deep reservations" and complained about the "philosophical tone" of the legislation. The industry prefers a House-passed bill that environmentalists blast as far too weak.

The shale industry has also resisted efforts to tighten laws at the federal level, including efforts to reverse a 2005 law that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing.

The stakes are high; mistakes made today are not easily corrected. Early in the tour, our driver, Boyd, pointed out that the river we drove along, the Tioga, is still contaminated from ongoing acid mine drainage, decades after the area's coal boom played out.

"You won't see anybody fishing that river," he said, "unless it's a kid who doesn't know any better. It's basically a dead river."