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You Have to See It to Believe It: What It's Like to Have Fracking in Your Backyard

Residents in industry-friendly West Virginia share their experiences, photos and videos.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

Ed Wade’s property straddles the Wetzel and Marsh county lines in rural West Virginia and it has a conventional gas well on it. “You could cover the whole [well] pad with three pickups,” said Wade. And West Virginia has lots of conventional wells — more than 50,000 at last count. West Virginians are so well acquainted with gas drilling that when companies began using high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in 2006 to access areas of the Marcellus Shale that underlie the state, most residents and regulators were unprepared for the massive footprint of the operations and the impact on their communities. 

When it comes to a conventional well and a Marcellus well, “There is no comparison, none whatsoever,” said Wade, who works with the Wetzel County Action Group. “You live in the country for a reason and it just takes that and turns it upside down. You know how they preach all the time that natural gas burns cleaner than coal; well, it may burn cleaner than coal, but it’s a hell of a lot dirtier to extract.” 

To understand what’s at stake, you have to understand the vocabulary. Take the word “fracking” for example. When people say it’s been around since the 1950s, they are referring to vertical fracturing, but what’s causing all the contention lately is a much more destructive process known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Or they’re using "fracking" in a very limited way. “The industry uses [fracking] to refer just to the moment when the shale is fractured using water as the sledgehammer to shatter the shale,” scientist Sandra Steingraber told AlterNet. “With that as the definition they can say truthfully that there are no cases of water contamination associated with fracking. But you don’t get fracking without bringing with it all these other things — mining for the frack sand, depleting water, you have to add the chemicals, you have to drill, you have to dispose of the waste, you have drill cuttings. I refer to them all as fracking, as do most activists.”

The potential impacts that go well beyond the moment the well is fracked are mammoth. What has been most discussed is the concern that the chemicals used in the fracking process, as well as naturally occurring but dangerous substances underground like arsenic, heavy metals and methane, can migrate back to the surface with water through faults, fissures and abandoned mines. That’s deeply concerning, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The footprint of the well site, which now often includes freshwater or wastewater ponds and tankers full of chemicals, has grown expotentially from the size of conventional wells -- they certainly aren't the size of a few pickup trucks. Here's an aerial view of a new home, built in rural West Virginia that is now surrounded by a fracking operation after the owner's neighbor leased to a drilling company.

(Photo credit: Robert Donnan/ Marceullus Air)

Fracking takes rural communities and turns them into industrial zones — and citizens have little recourse. Thanks to the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and there are exemptions also in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. In West Virginia, a state with a long history of energy extraction, industry has a controlling hand in local and state politics and thus far, seems to be calling the shots. To make matters worse, many properties had their mineral rights separated over a century ago. So, people may own their homes and properties, but not the minerals underneath. Their property can be destroyed by drilling and they will have no financial gain. 

 
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