Fight or Flight: Meet the Residents Taking on Gas Drillers, and Those Packing Their Bags [With Photo Slideshow]
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View a photo slideshow by award-winning photojournalist Nina Berman at the end of this story.
The flare had been raging for more than a week, night and day, the sound as loud as jet engines. The flames lit up the sky and danced in the windows of the now locked-up home of Anna and Maurice Aubree. An elderly couple from Long Island, N.Y. the Aubrees had moved to Forest Lake near Montrose, PA, in the early 1990s seeking peace and paradise in a small prefabricated house set on a few acres.
Instead, they found themselves in a "doughnut hole," the last holdouts in a methane sweet spot. All their neighbors had leased property to Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation, seeking fortunes in the natural gas rush. But it was the Aubrees who paid the price.
In their promotions, gas companies emphasize images of completed well pads, tidied up and seemingly benign. But it can take eight months just to prepare one well site for fracking. During that time trees are cut down, roads are cleared, ground is leveled, seismic tests are done, an entire infrastructure is laid down so a behemoth rig, equivalent to a 15-story-building, with supports, lights, containers, and manpower, can start drilling down. Activity is 24/7. To frack one well -- and the Marcellus Shale region is mapped for potentially 30,000 wells -- requires millions of gallons of water and 1,000 trucks.
At night, the noise was so bad, Anna Aubree piled into her vehicle and tried to sleep bundled up in the calm of the high school parking lot. "I see ourselves as the silent sufferers here," she said. "Who can speak for me? Where can my voice be heard?" she told Elizabeth McGowan of Solve Climate News.
When the flares started raging and methane filled the air, the Aubrees were nowhere to be found. Their house was locked up, most signs of life eliminated, except for the clothesline that led to an apple tree. In the midnight sky, glowing an eerie orange from the flare, the apple tree appeared otherworldly, not a fruit tree, but something else.
Down the road from the flare, on the other side of the woods, a recent widow, too frightened to give her name but desperate for help, opened her home to a group of strangers she had met earlier in the day at a Clean Air Council forum. She was complaining of headaches, earaches and throat problems. She's kept awake at night by images of the flare reflected through her windows. She didn't know what to do. There was nothing to do.
Frank Finan, a neighbor and local anti-fracking activist, opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a Summa air sampler that measures volatile organic compounds (VOCs). He planted it in her front yard. Then he unfolded his tripod, and powered up his personal FLIR infrared video camera, a sophisticated device used by industry and regulators to see emissions undetectable to the human eye.
Finan is one of a dedicated group of committed activists -- the industry would call them "crazies." They have taken it upon themselves to play policemen to the gas industry at a time when regulators are over-stretched, or as many activists say, more interested in using regulations as enablers of industry rather than watchdogs of industry.
"We have no regulators. We're on our own. We're 100 percent on our own. We have virtually no help. There are some individuals in agencies that are personally involved and want to do something, but the agencies themselves are not interested, " Finan said.