"They Are Afraid Their House Could Blow Up": Meet the Families Whose Lives Have Been Ruined by Gas Drilling [Photos By Award-Winning Photographer Nina Berman]
Editor's Note: Go here to see award-winning photographer Nina Berman's arresting images of the dirty business of gas drilling.
Cassie Spencer said she nearly "had a cow" when she returned home one day and saw her yard sprinkled with little red flags, like land mine markers in a war zone. Her 5-year-old daughter was playing in the midst of them. The family property had become a methane field.
The cause: two Chesapeake gas wells 3,000 feet away that she never saw and doesn't profit from had somehow been sending methane onto her property and into her water, and onto her neighbors' properties on Paradise Road in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. Testing by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) traced the methane to Chesapeake wells but the company has denied responsibility.
The Spencers' house, once valued at $150,000, is now worth $29,000. They have a methane monitor in their basement, a methane water filtration system in a backyard shed. They leave the door open when they take showers because with no bathroom windows they are afraid the house could blow up. Their neighbors were forced to evacuate once already because of high methane levels. In the middle of their yard, a shaft resembling a shrunken flagpole vents gas from their wellhead. Next to the doorway, a huge "water buffalo" storage container, a signature imprint of the collateral damage brought on by gas drilling, sits like a bloated child's pool, filled with water, not fit for drinking.
"We moved here because we love the woods. We wanted to stay here our whole lives," Cassie said, speaking of her family, her husband Scott and their two small children. "We're not asking for a lot and now they're taking it all away. In a million years, I never would have thought that people could do this and get away with it."
All the damage occurred before the wells had even been "fracked," which is set to happen later this year, and could make things even worse. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting a slurry of toxic chemicals, water and sand underground to release gas.
Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett, and most of the state's politicians have embraced gas drilling and the tandem practice of fracking as a terrific boost for the economy and a "clean" alternative to foreign oil. Water well contamination, spills, truck diesel emissions, migrating methane, and radioactivity waste leaked into rivers, have generally been dismissed as minor concerns or isolated problems. There is pressure to keep the picture positive despite more than 750 violations issued by DEP last year alone. A new directive supported by the gas industry now requires inspectors to first get approval from Harrisburg before writing any violations, a move considered unprecedented in the agency's history.
Recent visits to Bradford County, the heart of the Marcellus Shale region, tells a different story of the widespread human impact from gas drilling, not to mention a colossal reshaping of the natural environment. And more information is emerging about the dangers of fracking. A new report about to be released from Cornell University contends that fracking contributes to global warming as much, or even more, than coal. The research sinks the gas industry's long-standing claim that natural gas is a clean energy source. But people who live in gas-drilling areas already know this.
Quiet roads and designated bicycle routes are now major thoroughfares for gas industry trucks. A blue haze can be seen between trees. Trucks routinely carry weight that exceeds limits leaving small rural roads busted and dangerous. Roads are sprayed with drilling waste as a cheap ice suppressant in the winter and dust control in the summer. The waste eventually makes its way back into streams. Accidents, overturned vehicles and speeding violations are everyday occurrences. At night the landscape is transformed as bright lights from drilling rigs appear like mini skyscrapers. Red lights from a long line of trucks, their engines running, pinpoint water intake centers, the lifeblood of the fracking industry. Across from a daycare center and down the road from Wyalusing High School, smoke from a fire at TranZ, a bulk material supply operation for the gas industry, spews noxious odors into the morning sky.
Not far from Paradise Road, methane bubbles percolate from the riverbed, drifting down the Susquehanna River. Residents in the community known as Sugar Run set up an entrapment tarp last fall when the bubbles were discovered, clicked a lighter and then watched flames shoot up the riverbank.
Up the road, in the path of the bubbles, Carl Stiles' home sits abandoned, inches of snow left untouched on the front steps. He left with his fiancé in mid-November after their blood tests showed high levels of barium and their home had radon levels three times the limit. They had been experiencing a myriad of health problems for months.
"I had tremors on my right side, constant headaches, numbness. We both had heart attack symptoms, " said Stiles, 45. Water tests in his well showed high levels of methane. A hole erupted in their front yard and spewed out a mysterious froth. Chesapeake gave the couple bottled drinking water but denied responsibility. Stiles said visits to local doctors were frustrating. He believes they discounted the possibility of chemical poisoning and he suggested there was a conflict of interest because Chesapeake gives so much money to area medical centers. Finally, a toxicologist in Philadelphia told them to stop drinking their water and leave their home. They haven't been back since.
"Between the drill site and our house, there are so many people in Sugar Run who have water buffaloes, and they have a family up a mile away and he has two little kids and the same symptoms as me. Pennsylvania is going to be a wasteland. It's going to be so contaminated no one is going to live there," said Stiles who now lives in an apartment in Cambria County, where drilling is just getting started. He had to quit his job when he left and was just diagnosed with colon cancer. He wonders if the water caused it. As for his $75,000 house in Bradford County, "I couldn't give it away," he said.
All over the region, residents are trying to figure out how to get out.
Adron and Mary Dell'Osa, two young organic farmers, put all they had into building a one room home and starting an organic farm. One month after they settled in, a well pad went up, then another and another. A compressor station is planned. They're concerned about how the diesel fumes from all the trucks were affecting their 2-year-old daughter. They don't know what to do. They're getting water tests.
Joe Shervinski has a 12-acre spread in Wyalusing, with a windmill, solar panels, some cows and three domestic turkeys. He's trying to figure out whether he should sell now while his water is still good and move out of state, but he doesn't know where to go. Each month he fills a water jug and tries to light it as a DIY water test.
Down the road from him, George and Charlene Miller, two retirees from New Jersey, thought they had found the perfect spot: 16 gorgeous acres with a brook, three ponds, space for gardening. George, a disabled veteran, built 40 birdhouses. A sign at the entrance to their home reads "Journey's End" and Charlene spoke of wanting her ashes spread across the woods. "Then, one day I went out to get my mail, and all the trees were gone," she said.
Soon she'll be looking at a huge rig, and the first round of drilling will last 26 days. The noise will be constant. Trucks carrying water, equipment, men and machinery will pass by her home. Another well is planned across the street in the opposite direction. "We'll likely have to get a water buffalo," she said. They've spent $1,000 on a private water test. Next they'll test their pond as a kind of insurance policy in case the drilling ruins it.
"We moved out here to get away from all of this, and it caught up with us quicker then we thought, " she said. She seems more resigned then surprised. She already supplies water to her son, his wife and two young children who live in Montrose, about an hour away, surrounded by gas wells. The young family moved from Michigan to be close to her and George. They're renting a home with an option to buy, but their water went bad and the landlord isn't doing anything. He sends Charlene photos of flaring wells, and trucks with radioactive signage. "They're being crushed, " she said.