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Air Too Dangerous to Breathe: How Gas Drilling Can Turn Rural Communities Into Industrial Wastelands [With Photos]

Drilling is just the tip of the iceberg. Compressor stations have been associated with significant headaches, bloody noses, skin lesions, blisters, and rashes.

Photo Credit: Nina Berman/NOOR


View a slideshow from award-winning photographer Nina Berman below. You can see more of Nina's work at NOOR.

The exploding faucet may have launched the movement against fracking, but it's the unsexy compressor station that is pushing it to maturity.

Last week, more than a hundred activists from Pennsylvania and New York, including actor Mark Ruffalo, brought thousands of gallons of drinking water to 11 families in Dimock, Pa., who had been left dry after Cabot Oil and Gas stopped their water deliveries.

The mess Cabot created in 2009 from shale gas drilling had now been cleaned, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which meant no more water for the Dimock 11, the holdout families in a long-running feud over water contamination and cleanup.

At issue was the safety of well water symbolized by a jug filled with brown fluid taken from Dimock resident Scott Ely's well. Held aloft by Ruffalo, who was flanked by families and Gasland director Josh Fox, the crowd challenged officials to come and take a swig if the water was so safe. Paul Rubin, a hydrogeologist, painted a grim picture, laying out a future of continued water contamination. The Ely water had arsenic, manganese, aluminum, iron, and lead at several times the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for safe drinking water.

The visuals were dramatic, and the anti-frack action ended with supporters triumphantly holding a huge water line that snaked from a tanker truck on Carter Road to a family's "water buffalo" — a large storage tank. The Dimock 11 were now supplied.

Next door pro-gas families and a Cabot industry representative held a dueling press conference calling their anti-frack neighbors liars and greedy for money. They bemoaned the besmirching of Dimock by their neighbors and outside agitators.

How the water went bad, how it was tested, when it was tested, who tested it and for what are just some of the issues confronting residents of the Marcellus Shale region and lawyers around the country suing drilling companies for alleged water contamination.

Many of these legal cases have lagged on for years, leaving residents dependent on bottled drinking water and "good neighbor" gestures by drilling companies that deny blame but temporarily supply water, until they decide to stop as Cabot did in Dimock.

Missing from this debate is what many environmentalists see as an equally important issue in shale gas exploration: the air quality.

An invisible product of the huge industrialization of the Marcellus Shale region is the air pollution created not just from thousands of transport trucks used in well construction and fracking, but the added infrastructure required to bring gas to market, most significantly the compressor stations.

These stations are essential to push gas through the pipelines. They can be loud; they emit methane, and BTEX compounds, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes. They have been associated with significant headaches, bloody noses, skin lesions, blisters, and rashes. They operate continuously and permanently.

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"Compressor stations are not just accessories to gas production facilities — they are large-scale industrial installations. In some parts of the West, compressor engines contribute an average of nearly 60 percent of all nitrogen oxide emissions from oil and gas operations," said Nadia Steinzor, the Marcellus Shale Regional Organizer for Earthworks.

The same day activists staged the water mercy mission to Dimock, a remarkable but largely unnoticed event occurred a few miles north, in Montrose.

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