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Trailer Talk's Frack Talk: What Happens When Gas Drillers Ruin Your Home and Water? You Fight Back.

Julie and Craig Sautner of Dimock, Pennsylvania who live on Carter Road and are among one of 14 families there that have lost their water.
 
 
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When they poison your water, destroy your community and call you liars, you fight back.

Julie and Craig Sautner just got back from the Rally for a Statewide Gas Drilling Ban in New York at the Capitol in Albany on Monday May 2nd and have been traveling to numerous anti-fracking events, forums and fund-raisers since they have been living with the consequences of gas drilling for three years. I think of them as messengers and American heroes, Julie and Craig Sautner of Dimock, Pennsylvania who live on Carter Road and are among one of 14 families there that have lost their water.

Let me repeat, they have lost their water because of natural gas drilling in their neighborhood. Their community has become divided and what was once a bucolic town is now a fractured industrialized region. For almost three years Julie and Craig Sautner have had no drinkable well water. This all started once drilling began and they have been fighting back ever since. A lawsuit is pending and they have become the example of what happens when you loose your water, your family undergoes the stress of being in the middle of a contentious battle with the natural gas company and you loose your "home," home as a place of sanctuary and pride, a place of joy and security, of history and belonging.  

When I first traveled to Dimock, PA in the winter of 2009 I was shocked to see white Halliburton company trucks of all sizes speeding along the back roads of town, to see and hear the helicopters overhead charting seismic activity and well sites, to see the fluorescent pink and orange tape marking the side of the roads and the industry signs on fence posts and gates and to experience the chaos in what was once a sleepy community not unlike mine in the Sullivan County Catskills of New York. What was invisible to me as a visitor was the poisoned water, the daily struggles, the asthma attacks and skin rashes, the broken promises, the threats, the fumes and the poor air quality. But what we do see and what is being reported in this sacrifice zone of PA is alarming.  

On April 20th this year (last April 20th it was the BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico) there was a spill of drilling fracking fluids at a Chesapeake Energy site in Canton in Bradford County, PA (sixty miles West of Dimock). A well "blew out" and thousands of gallons of fluid (chemicals) spilled onto farmland and into Towanda creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. Seven families were evacuated and the long-term impacts to the community are unknown. (Here is the entire Notice of Violation to Chesapeake Energy from the Pennsylvania DEP.) The EPA has also stepped in to investigate and once again industry is being asked, this time by the EPA for a list of fracking chemicals. Chesapeake officials have until May 9th to provide details of the incident.  

Where are the Sautner's and the people's rights when they have lost their water, their rural community and much more at hands of the oil and gas companies that are fracking for natural gas in Susquehanna County and throughout PA? Dimock, PA is the ground zero of gas drilling and all that can go wrong. Because Dimock has become the disturbing example of all that can and does go wrong in the natural gas drilling industry, the town is one of the communities being considered for study by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to learn more about hydraulic fracturing and decide on regulations for the industry.  

Julie and Craig Sautner joined Trailer Talk to speak about living in the gas fields at the Catskill Mountainkeeper Barnfest in Beaverkill, N.Y.

Sabrina Artel: Welcome to Trailer Talk. I have joining me Julie and Craig Sautner. You traveled all the way from Pennsylvania. We're here in Beaverkill, New York. This is the Catskill Mountainkeeper Field Day and Barnfest.

Let's start with water. Let's start with where you live, what's happening because of natural gas drilling.

Craig Sautner: We live in Dimock, Pennsylvania, which is also known as "Ground Zero" because of all the contaminated wells that we have down in the area. Ours was contaminated back in September 11 of 2008.

SA: So, how did this begin? When were you first approached? When did you decide what you were going to do, and what was happening with your neighborhood and people on your street and in your community in Dimock. And, as you say, Dimock terribly is "Ground Zero." We're seeing every single thing that can and does go wrong with natural gas drilling going wrong in your home.

CS: We moved there in March of '08, and we didn't think anything about it, and then we started noticing trucks going up and down the road -- all the traffic, and then that's when we had a land man approach us, and he said he wanted us to sign a lease. And he said, "Don't worry -- all the leases are the same." He said, "All your neighbors are signing, and if you don't sign, we're just going to take the gas out from underneath you anyway." And we knew, you know ... so, what choice did we really have? So, we decided to sign the lease. But nobody ever told us any of the things ... any of the wrongs that could happen. We were never informed.

We were told that, "You won't even notice. All you'll see is a little fireplug wherever the well is, and that's about all you're going to notice." We didn't have enough land for them to put a well on our property, so we didn't worry about that. Little did we know that them drilling a well on somebody else's property could contaminate our well like it did.

SA: And speaking of that, I've been carrying around with me some of your well water, from Dimock, PA ...

CS: Don't drink it.

Julie Sautner: Don't drink it.

SA: And, you know, this -- here it is -- and the water that you brought here today looks even worse. And this water does not look anything like my well water right now, right?

JS: Right.

SA: So, to see that yellow, murky water. And what you brought here today is even worse. So, what does this mean, then, at this point? What's happened to the quality of your life? You're in this fight now to spread the word, to share with us what can happen with fracking and with natural gas drilling.

CS: Our life is ... has been turned upside-down ... If you don't have fresh water, how can you survive? You can't survive without fresh water. So, when we noticed it happening, we called the gas company, and they said they would be out and do some things to try to see what was going on, and they said that ... I talked to them on the phone when I was at work, and they said they wanted to purge the well. You know, they said that would clear it up, probably. And I said, "Don't do it 'cause the pump is old -- it's 18 years old."

And by the time I got home it was done -- it was already done -- and we were out of water. They purged my well and we had no water. So now, they had to come up with a plan to do something, so they put a roll-back truck in the driveway with a water buffalo on the back of it to give us water for the day.

JS: And this is the first time we had a buffalo. And then it became winter and the buffalo was going to freeze because it was sitting outside, so they decided to put in a filtration system.

CS: But not the one that she picked out.

JS: No. They put their own filtration system in, and it was basically a carbon filter, and it filtered the water -- took the color out of the water.

CS: But that's all. See, we were the lucky ones. We were the lucky ones. We could tell we had a problem just by the color of the water. What about the poor kids that were still drinking the water that didn't know they had bad wells, and that were throwing up, and diarrhea, and sores on their mouth and everything like that, and couldn't figure out for the life of them what was wrong with them? They had no idea what was wrong with them. They had clear water. But the wells were contaminated.

So, we were fortunate in that sense, you know. And it was just a system they put in the house, and it was an add-on system. The more problems, the more they added on to it.

JS: The more it wasn't cleaning the water, the more they added on to it. So, we have a big science lab down in our basement right now.

SA: And so, this science lab ... so, is it the gas company that's coming? What's happening at this point? What's their involvement been, and what kind of recourse have you had?

CS: They were the ones that picked out the system that we should get; had it installed; they paid for it all. And really, what it was, they were just trying something out. We were like guinea pigs.

JS: Yeah. Covering up the problem, basically, I would say.

CS: Yeah, that's all they were doing. It's like putting a band-aid on something, just masking the problem, and that's what they did -- they put the system in our house, and we used that system for almost a year with that water going through there. Okay -- it might have cleared the water up -- what about all the other contaminants? How do you know what even to test for, because you don't know what chemicals they're using to frack? How do you know what to test for if they don't have to disclose it?

So, we used that system for almost a year, and there's a carbon filter down there; that would go bad within three months. That's how much stuff is in our water.

JS: And not only that -- not only was our water dirty -- we also had methane in our water, so they also added a methane remover down in the basement to try to remove the methane, which was not working as well. So, to make a long story short, the DEP took the system offline, and the wells ...

CS: At the end of October.

JS: ... decided to bring another water buffalo in for the second time for us, and we're still living out of a buffalo in our garage.

CS: That's what we have. We have a water buffalo in the garage now, with a hose that runs out of the back, through a hole in the wall that they drilled, and ran a hose out, and it goes into a spigot in the back of the house.

SA: So, Julie and Craig, what kind of life were you hoping for when you moved to Dimock? What was it like before natural gas drilling?

CS: I was planning on retiring there. We moved back to Dimock area because my kids wanted to go back to Elk Lake High School. In 2008, I had seven years to go and I could retire. I don't want to retire there. How can I? I don't have any fresh water. Am I ever going to have fresh water? I don't know. Are they going to bring water in? They're going to pump it in or something? We don't know what they're going to do yet.

JS: Our lives are basically on hold. Both of our children want to go to college, but we're on hold because we don't know what the future's going to bring. So, here we sit, being still invaded ...

CS: There's things we want to do to the house, and we can't even ... we don't even want to do it, because why put money into a house that you can't sell anyway? Why would you want to make it any better?

JS: We don't know if it's that dangerous where they're going to say, "Okay, you know, you people need to move out of the area." We don't know. We're waiting; it's a waiting game.

SA: So, you're waiting. And how about your health; your neighbors' health; the farm animals; your companion animals? The air quality, the noise? I went to Dimock -- I went to Dimock in the wintertime with the mayor from Dish, Texas, Calvin Tillman, and I do want to go back and bring Trailer Talk to your home and to your neighborhood. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and what clearly used to be a small rural town, and that no longer was. It had been so industrialized.

JS: Right. It went from residential to industrial. So now we live in an industrial city, I guess you would say. It's "Gas City." It's no longer our home.

CS: My biggest thing is, the property value, yes -- but what did you do to the kids? What's the long-term effect health-wise on the kids? Here we have a vent -- a 6-inch PVC pipe on our well head, 10 foot tall, that vents gas out into the air. Is that healthy for everybody?

JS: You can hear it. You can hear it gurgling, the methane bubbling ...

CS: ... coming out through the well.

JS: And our son, he said, "Dad, are we going to be okay? Are we going to wake up in the morning?"

SA: Because of explosions?

JS: It gets scary. It gets really bubbling, you know.

CS: I mean, my major thing is the kids. What did they do to the kids, long-term effect? Did they take any years off their lives?

JS: People can talk about the money, and our kids didn't ask for any of this; they didn't know anything like this was going to happen, nor are they benefitting. They're suffering because of the gas drilling.

CS: And it's so intrusive. I mean, the many ... all the tests that were done; the filtration system; people in and out; the DEP in and out. Everything. I mean, it was just almost an everyday thing for almost two years now.

JS: We haven't been living our normal lives for two years.

CS: And that's why we're out speaking out now, because we want to educate people ... let them know what we went through so they can make a wise decision instead of a hasty decision, and before it's too late. If you wrong something, how do you right a wrong? You can't with water. Like I said before, I can live without gas; I can't live without water. We have to have our water. I mean, it's a precious commodity that we've got to ... we'd better protect it. We have to protect it.

And we have constitutional rights, too, you know, in the U.S. and the state, for clean water and clean air.

JS: They've taken that away from us; they definitely have.

CS: Right. And our lease says that they have to return our water ... original, if not better, condition. And they haven't done that. So, that's a breach of contract. And now, all of a sudden, they're having this big picnic in town in two weeks. They're celebrating their 101st well that they drilled.

SA: Where all of this devastation is happening, they're having a picnic? An oil company picnic?

JS: Yes. A kick in the face for us.

CS: And you can read the article. The article says, "What does the picnic do for the Carter Road residents?" and they said, "It's going to educate them ... continued education."

JS: They've been good neighbors, and they expect us to do the same. ...

SA: Did either of you ever think that you would be in this kind of situation, and that you would be treated in this kind of way?

JS: No. Not as an American citizen, no. Absolutely not.

CS: Never, ever. We thought, you know, they would just come in, drill the wells ...

JS: ... do their thing and leave.

CS: And luck out, you might get a little bit of royalty money, and that's all you thought, and life would go on as it did everyday. That's what we thought.

So now, at least ... the people now, if we can tell it, let them hear it, and maybe they can make their own decision about it. We're not doing this for fame or glory or anything like that; we just do it so nobody else ...

JS: It's to raise awareness. So nobody has to go through what we went through, and at least they're going to be forewarned where we never were forewarned.

CS: We never knew ... not a clue ...

JS: ... that this could happen. Our land man didn't tell us. We weren't warned of anything.

SA: And to imagine myself at my home that I love, on my road that I love -- to imagine that that would completely shift where it becomes poisoned, and my quality of life -- every moment -- is really filled with a question of whether I will wake up safely; whether the people that I love and my neighbors are okay; whether all of it. So, it's surrounding you. You're really immersed in something that I don't think anybody would ever want.

And, what has happened to your relationships, then? You're on Carter Road in Dimock, PA. What has happened to your relationships with your other neighbors?

CS: It has brought us a lot closer to our neighbors. We didn't even know a lot of them. And we know ... I mean, Ron and Jean Carter live down the road from us -- great people. We're down there; we try to go there at least once, maybe twice a week, sit on their porch and just talk to them. They're like ... maybe early 70s. We just go down there just to talk to them and everything like that, you know? We don't show up, they call us, "Where have you guys been?" And we love them. They're decent people. And it has brought us a lot closer.

JS: Now, that's the people on Carter Road. Now, you extend out further where you have landowners, and they don't appreciate what we're talking about.

SA: And why is that? Is it because they haven't been adversely impacted as you have on Carter Road?

CS: In a different way. They've been impacted not with the water issue, but with less royalty money, because they had to plug up three of the wells.

JS: Yeah. It's taken away their livelihood, whether it be jobs -- and we're not after anybody's jobs or anybody's royalties. We just want clean air, clean water. We want to live a normal life. That's what we would like. We would like some normalcy back in our lives.

 

Sabrina Artel is the creator and host of Trailer Talk, stories from America's kitchen table. Her weekly radio show explores community engagement through conversations about culture, politics, the arts and the environment. To find out more about Trailer Talk's Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project please visit Trailer Talk.
 
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