Environment

Fight or Flight: Meet the Residents Taking on Gas Drillers, and Those Packing Their Bags [With Photo Slideshow]

As rural areas become industrialized thanks to gas drilling, residents have to make difficult choices.

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.

Finan, a woodworker, has spent nearly over $60,000 of his own money to equip himself with the latest air and water monitoring equipment. He has traveled across the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania and took his camper to Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, to learn firsthand the impact of fracking and natural gas drilling.

He didn't start out opposed to the industry. At first he was a believer.

"I thought it was kind of cool, " Finan said of the potential to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. That was in 2007. "Then I looked into it, and I found out we were getting screwed financially. The Barnett Shale in Texas had inferior gas compared to us and they were getting 10 times the price. So I tried to get people to be greedy, you know a capitalistic thing."

Frank Finan's thinking changed when he learned more about the water use. The millions of gallons drawn from rivers and streams that is required to frack a well, never goes back into the water table. Rather, it returns as toxic waste or stays in the well.

"When this water is gone, it is gone. And then I realized this is no-go. This is a bad thing, and then the air, and every aspect of our lives is getting screwed up. Friends are getting divided, families are getting divided, and churches are getting divided. I was friends with a pastor, and he thought it was a gift from a God, and I told him it was bad stewardship."

His attempt to sway the pastor had little effect. The church, he said, leased its land, as have many institutions, hunting clubs and schools.

"I've lost friends to this, a lot of them don't tell me to my face, but I heard stories that I'm a troublemaker. I wish I was more of a troublemaker."

By Finan's own account, the fracking issue has consumed him. He works at it seven days a week, sometimes 14-hour days. He's not alone. At any given time, a member of his expanded network of friends is actively cataloguing and disseminating information from water table levels in creeks to the latest drunken vehicular accident involving a gas industry worker.

They are networked and mobilized through Google groups, FaceBook and YouTube pages. They have purchased billboards, flown aerial advertising, organized countless marches and community forums. Some have personal Geiger counters. At the recent Clean Air Council meeting they were learning the most effective strategies to comment on industry permitting applications. They live and breathe fracking and admittedly, find it hard to talk about much else.

"I woke up this morning, and I panicked that I was way behind, I made too many promises, I still have water samples in the refrigerator," Frank Finan said. He takes water samples for people who can't afford their own water tests.

In Pennsylvania where the governor and legislature are firmly in the pro-fracking camp, each week brings another battle, whether it's fighting a proposed compressor station in Sullivan County, (one compressor station can emit tons of hazardous air pollutants including formaldehyde, benzene and nitrogen dioxides) or new Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) residual waste rules that would allow gas well brine to be used for roadway pre-wetting, anti-icing, de-icing and dust suppression.

In the coming days the Pennsylvania Senate will vote to require municipalities to adopt a single state zoning ordinance, which would effectively eliminate any chance at local control over drilling activities. And Cabot Oil and Gas, the company accused of contaminating drinking water in Dimock three years ago, just got a pass from the DEP: Despite continued elevated levels of methane, Cabot no longer needs to continue supplying bottled drinking water. The methane, the company says, is naturally occurring. The company has also petitioned the DEP to allow resumption of drilling activity on Carter Road, the place where the Dimock water problems all started.

"I can't recommend people staying and fighting," Finan said, recognizing the powerful forces in support of drilling industry. But, "I'm obligated to fight. I've always felt a need to give back to the world or the country, and most people do that by military, and I didn't believe in the military, but I still believe in fighting for something that's right, so for me this is my service, and people hate me for it, and it's tough fighting for people that don't' really care." But he adds, "If you're not going to fight you better get out of here."

Thirty miles away, in neighboring Bradford County, Finan's friend, Joe Shervinksi, was preparing to do just that.

"To me there is no beating this," he said. On his kitchen table was a 400-page water test, proof that his water is clean, and a final step before selling his home.

"It's overwhelming. This to me is a beautiful home, a beautiful spot. It's paradise. This was nothing more than a hayfield when I moved here 12 years ago. I have gardens. I have fruit tree orchards. I have a windmill. I helped build the interior of this house. I made a comfortable life for myself, probably the only opportunity in my lifetime to build a place for myself. I thought I would die here. There was nowhere else I needed to go. I've been in Pennsylvania all my life."

Four years ago, a neighbor approached him and told him about gas drilling. "He said I needed to take advantage of it, that it's free money. I trusted him. I thought it was going to be a couple grand a month." He signed a lease.

Then last year, he learned that that several of his neighbors had contaminated well water. Another had to leave his home because of barium poisoning. The river near his home is bubbling methane.

"It set me off," he said. "I started asking questions, and I became really scared that my water might be bad or go bad."

A self-described gun-toting Christian conservative who used to revel in Glenn Beck's show, Shervinksi said his experience in gas land has made him give up on both political parties, seeing them without values.

"Corporate America is running the whole show. Regulations aren't worth the paper they're written on."

Shervinksi's plan is to move to North Carolina to a place he's never seen. As for buyers for his home? Perhaps an industry executive needing to relocate, he suggests.

As the auction day approached, Shervinksi was going over the numbers.

Perhaps he could sell the house, get out of town, but still try to make some money on his lease. He could hold on to 50 percent of his gas rights and wait for the price per acre to go up. "I know someone with 26 acres, getting $180, 000 in royalties, " he said.

WordPress plugin
Nina Berman is a photographer and the author of Purple Hearts: Back From Iraq.