Trailer Talk's Frack Talk: Why Food and Fuel Shouldn't Mix -- A Farmer Speaks Out On the Dangers of Fracking
The threat to our local farms throughout the country is epidemic. The threat to farms in the Catskills and the Delaware River Basin in upstate New York and Pennsylvania is at the center of the debate with the Delaware River Basin Commission and its most recent controversy with Exxon-Mobil.
Farmer Greg Swartz (the former director of NOFA-NY) of Willow Wisp Organic Farm grows vegetables in Abrahamsville, Penn. in the Damascus Township just four miles from the bridge over the Delaware River (designated one of the country's most endangered rivers due to proposed drilling). Swartz's growing season is burgeoning, with lettuce, arugula, sorrel, green garlic and radishes in his greenhouses, and fields planted with carrots, potatoes, cabbages, kale, beets, onions and much more to be shared locally as part of the Willow Wisp CSA and at farmers markets throughout the region.
Still, Swartz and his wife, Tannis Kowlachuk, discussed almost two years ago the possibility of leaving. "Our belief in farming as a good business opportunity is there but our faith in the future of that business is being rattled because of natural gas drilling," he said. This threat to farming puts at risk national security by threatening the local production of food; it is destabilizing the long-term economies in the fracking zones and industrializing rural areas. "Because gas production is extremely short-term, what happens to an area when gas production stops?" Swartz asks.
The Delaware River Valley is a place of immense beauty, with bald eagle breeding grounds, blue herons flying overhead, fishermen and recreational activities centered around the Delaware River and a weekly farmers market in the Callicoon Creek Park in Callicoon, NY, where hundreds gather on Sundays. The community efforts to build a local economy are blossoming even in the face of gas drilling and the specter of fracking. On the trip to Willow Wisp Farm, a drive of about 45 minutes from my home in Liberty, New York, there are many farms and much open space, in addition to a natural gas drilling test well I passed on my way to the farm.
Greg Swartz states emphatically that natural gas drilling and farming cannot co-exist, as they are antagonistic land uses.
Swartz and I spoke last night and he said, "There is a severe risk to the quality and quantity of water, there is a severe risk to the health and purity of the soil and there is also a risk to animal agriculture with the industrialization of the landscape."
He went on to say that, "It's a weird thing to do, farming in the face of such a threat, because the way we farm is about the long-term not the short-term, investing in the soil, the ecosystem, and ensuring diversity. We're growing and selling produce now, but much of what we do is the long-view and because of natural gas drilling that future is hazy. We're waiting on the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to decide on their gas drilling regulations."
In the Damascus Township where Greg lives and farms, the majority of the residents have not leased their land for drilling, but 85 percent of the land is leased by 32 percent of the population. Just up the road from Willow Wisp Farm is that "exploratory" well I passed on the way to his farm that is owned by the Woodland Management Partners, an investment group. It was drilled last summer and is on hold until DRBC makes its decision about whether or not to allow gas extraction in the watershed. So this debate of gas drilling is a debate about private property rights, too, and about the United States Constitution, as drilling is exposing a situation where a private decision based on property rights can adversely impact and infringe upon not only upon the rights of another property owner and his business but the entire community, now and in the future.
This brings us to the DRBC and its pending decision about drilling in the watershed. There is outcry from environmental groups such as Catskill Mountainkeeper, which is urging the DRBC to do an environmental impact study, and there are lawsuits pending from two attorneys general. (From the DRBC Web site: XTO Energy is requesting to withdraw up to 250,000 gallons per day of surface water from Oquaga Creek in the Town of Sanford in Broome County to support the company's planned natural gas exploration and production activities within the Delaware River Basin in Broome and Delaware counties in N.Y. Oquaga Creek drains to the West Branch Delaware River.)
On April 18, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman demanded the Feds commit to a federal study of the safety impacts of drilling and fracking in the Delaware River Basin or he'll sue. Now the Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler has filed suit to ascertain the gas drilling effect on water. Enter Exxon-Mobil and its request to withdraw water and the public has again responded to the commission with an unprecented 7,000 comments so the docket has been tabled that would have allowed EXXON-Mobil to withdraw water and a public hearing with the DRBC is being held on June 1 in Deposit, New York.
As summer begins and we gather to share fresh produce and meals together, Greg Swartz spoke with me about farming and the natural gas well that sits in wait up the road, to be fracked or not.
You can listen to the audio interview of Sabrina's interview with Greg Swartz on Trailer Talk.
Sabrina Artel: I want to talk to you about your farm, about the vegetables you're sharing with us, and also about the Marcellus Shale and natural gas drilling.
Greg Swartz: Well, fortunately, so far there's no direct impact on this year's harvest from the Marcellus Shale. Here at Willow Wisp we have 12 acres of land, about four of which is intensively cultivated for vegetables, and over the next couple of years there will be more and more land under cultivation. But we grow about 40 different kinds of vegetables as well as herbs and cut flowers. As you said, we're located in Damascus, Pennsylvania, in Wayne County, which is in a sense "Ground Zero" for the fight for and against gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region.
And we're in a pretty interesting situation because 85 percent of the land base in Damascus Township has been leased, and so here at the farm, when you stand on the farm and look around 360 degrees, every single piece of land except for one small half-acre or acre parcel ... every tree and blade of grass and stream is leased land, which means that the gas companies have secured the right to drill on all of that land surrounding us.
The state of things in the Delaware River Basin currently are that they've drilled three test wells, or exploratory wells, in Wayne County this summer. They have -- let's see -- 11 more ready to go that they'll do in the spring. So, they do these test wells as a precursor to full-blown development to do, and their statements -- the gas drilling companies' statements, anyway -- is to do geologic testing to look at the different strata and to get a read on the quality of the gas.
SA: On my way to your farm, Greg, I passed one of these test well sites, about a third of a mile away from your home. Could you share with us who put that there; what's the story with that land; and what has the experience been with the drilling, and knowing that that is so close to your home?
GS: Sure. So, the land where this test well was drilled this summer is owned by a group of investors called the Woodland Management Partners, which, as best as I know, is actually a group of regional investors that have bought land in the region, sometimes for investment in timber, and then recently, in the recent years, as an investment in the Marcellus Shale. So, it's not an owner that lives there; it is purely for an investment reason.
So, in June the bulldozers and excavators arrived to do site prep for the well pad, so that was a couple of weeks of pretty intensive activity. They did all the preparations, and then one night in June illuminated the well site, which was a pretty radical change to the night skyline in this area. Sitting on our front porch looking over barn and field and greenhouse, all of a sudden we had this pretty intense amount of light coming from the well pad.
Then, in July, they erected the drill rig; in fact, it became visible to our eye rising above the tree line on July 18, which is a significant date because it's the day that my son was born. And so, on his second birthday, when we were having a birthday party here outside for him and a friend, suddenly we saw this well rig and the crane erecting the well rig pop up from above the tree line.
Not long after that, they started drilling. They drilled throughout the balance of July and into August, and that was pretty intense in terms of sound, as well as increased truck traffic, you know, servicing the well on Callicoon Road, which is just about a quarter-mile from the farm.
So, it was unpleasant. It was a wakeup call, quite literally, even in the middle of the night, that this development is coming; it is here; it is going to happen. And so, it really brought the whole issue, which has kind of been something of a phantom issue for the past few years for us. We've been engaged and been researching and been learning and been talking, to have suddenly then physically have a rig right there is ... I guess that is a pretty big wakeup call.
SA: And the gas company that set up this test well site? Do you know anything about them? Did you have to do research to find out who they are? And what has the experience been? You're describing it as being a wakeup call for you to have this natural gas well right here now in your neighborhood. So, as you say, it was very bright 24 hours a day for how long?
GS: From June until September. The site was illuminated all night, every night.
SA: And we're talking about farmland here, rural community. I mean, there are no streetlights ... very, very peaceful place, looking out the windows, to your farm and to these fields and these beautiful rolling hills. And not far from here is the Delaware River, and that's another thing to be mentioned.
GS: Indeed. And what's particularly curious about this well site is that a portion of the actual parcel that the well sits on does in fact lay within the River District, which is curious. The well itself is not within the River District, and I guess background to what I mean by "River District," it is a zoning designation within the township that is put there to limit certain activities, to protect the health of the river. That's one layer of what a river district is.
And then, of course, there is the federal designation of what the river corridor is, as interpreted through the River Management Plan, National Park Service, etc. All that mumbo-jumbo is to say, it is really close to the river. In fact, when you look at aerial photos of this well site, you see the well pad on the top of this ridge, and then you see how that ridge cascades down immediately into the Delaware River.
You would also notice that the base of the ridge, where the driveway entrance off the state road is, that there is a high-quality creek called Hollister Creek, which that, as well, flows within the course of less than a mile as a creek flows, directly into the Delaware River.
So, concerns there are obviously that for any surface accident, that any accident, any mishap, any mistake, is going to have very quick and swift impact on the entire Delaware from here downriver.
SA: And we're talking about fracking, because that's the technique that is being used currently, and this is the Halliburton-designed technique of accessing this gas in the shale. And so ...
GS: So, we should say to be clear, too, that the drilling that has happened in the Delaware River Basin thus far in this woodland site by our farm was not fracked. They do not have permission yet from the Delaware River Basin Commission to frack. These are "test wells" which have some vagueness in terms of ... in terms of their regulatory status. But what it means is that it was a vertical test drill -- it was just a vertical drill. There was some water and other fluids used in the process, but it was not hydraulically fractured. That is what will be coming; that is the next stage of development.
SA: And at this point they don't have the green light to go ahead, but they're set up and ready if they're given that.
SA: And what are they testing at this point? Do you know what that means?
GS: I have not put a lot of time into researching the particulars, but I do know that they are taking core samples for the whole length of the drill -- of the well bore -- to be looking at what the different geological formations and all the different strata are, as well as to get a read on the quality of gas that they hit when they just do that vertical well into the Marcellus.
SA: And Greg, for you, how did you come to the decision that you've come to, that you want to see more studies done; that you are fighting to stop fracking? Could you could share with us how you came to your decision, and also how that ties into what you're doing with organic farming?
GS: The first really big red flag that I learned -- and I learned it early on once we started hearing about what fracking was the fact that, as has been often quoted and stated, that in the 2005 Energy Act, that gas and oil exploration was exempted from the Clean Water Act. Now, you should go read the Clean Water Act; it's pretty interesting reading if you have a little bit of patience.
The Clean Water Act is not extreme environmental legislation. It's actually baseline legislation. And of particular interest in this area is that the Delaware River was quite a mess in the 50s and 60s, and in large part it got cleaned up because of legislation like the Clean Water Act. I mean, Clean Water Act -- you can boil it down and say, "No, you cannot dump chemicals into a river or a stream. You have to treat it; that has to be regulated in terms of volumes and content, etc."
So, you have to ask yourself the question, if this process -- which the gas companies and lessors have repeatedly stated is inherently safe -- why did they need the exemption in the 2005 Energy Act from the Clean Water Act? It's also noteworthy to realize that the gas lobbyists in 2005 spent tens of millions of dollars on the lobbying effort to get that exemption included.
And when you ask people that are in favor of this technology, they can't answer that. I've asked repeatedly; I've asked gas company representatives; I've asked my neighbors. I've asked other drilling advocates, and I've not yet heard a good answer. You know, people want to dance around and say, "Well, it was new at that point, and the technology was new at that point ..." You know, that's how they finish the answer. They can't ... Because there's no way to evade the clear and rational fact that there is an inherent contradiction with utilizing this technology and what the Clean Water Act is legislating.
SA: So, for you, you said that was your first red flag. And what has continued as you have educated and informed yourself about this process of extracting natural gas?
GS: First is the water consumption for each well -- 5 to 7 million gallons per fracking job per well -- and you need to remember that some wells are fracked multiple times. When you multiply 5 to 7 million gallons times however many wells are in any given watershed, it becomes a significant consumptive water use that can change the hydrology of that watershed.
SA: And you have an organic produce farm. So, could you talk about the water that's needed for growing the vegetables and the herbs and the flowers that are part of your business here?
GS: Yep. We rely on clean potable water, not only for our drinking use, but also for the irrigation of our crops and for the washing of all of our vegetables. Everything gets washed and processed before it goes to market.
So, without water, we would be out of business pretty quickly. So, it's a very big deal, and it's symbolic, I think, for all of us, because our business is about growing food for sustaining people. And so, if a vegetable farm requires water to feed people, then it's not really all that big of a leap to say that we need water in order to sustain humans in general, and that we should really consider any actions that we take that are going to threaten the quality of water.
SA: And what could happen ... you're very involved with organic farming throughout the northeast. You were the director of NOFA-New York [Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York]. And there is a philosophy that goes along with that organization and what you're doing here with sustainability, and the methods which you use, and the oath that you've taken as a farmer, and your relationship to the land.
So, what potentially could happen if natural gas drilling is allowed to move forward unregulated and unsafe?
GS: Well, water quality and quantity could be compromised. Now, that means a lot of different things. That means that the aquifer could be contaminated; that means that we could have ground surface water contamination that would thereby impact soil quality. If you were standing here at the farm, you'd see that we are in a valley bottom, and that in fact there are a number of square miles -- I've never done the math -- but some are between 10 and 15 square miles of land that actually drain through our farm -- through the creek and drainage areas and wetland that are right on our farm.
So, any potential surface spills could migrate right here, thereby compromising the life and soil.
You know, that is a key piece of this that we have to ... I mean, this goes into the larger issue of what organic farming is. Briefly, by having healthy soil, you grow healthy crops and healthy animals to give sustenance to humans. The quality and nutrient density of food is based on the quality and diversity of soil. Soil is a living organism. When you take a handful of soil -- pick up a handful of soil -- there are billions of organisms in that one handful. And the complexity of that, and diversity of that soil community is what creates the end product of a healthy plant.
So, that goes to how you farm, but it also goes to how the environmental impacts of any given activity are going to have implications on the ability to grow food and the quality of that food. So, it's big. It's big.
Now, there's another really big potential impact from gas drilling that is not often talked about. There's the immediacy of the possibility of contaminating an aquifer, or changing the way in which water flows underground to decrease the volume of water coming from an aquifer. There's the obvious contamination issues of a surface spill. But then we also really need to talk about what happens when you inject 5 to 7 million gallons of water, chemicals and sand under pressure underground with X percentage coming back out -- you know, that's the wastewater that gets then trucked away and "treated."
But then the other issue is, what about water that stays down there? What happens in the different strata of the earth over time? And I'm not talking about month; I'm not even talking about a year. What are the long-term implications of mixing the different strata as well as injecting these chemicals down there? That is a big, big issue, and, you know, as a measure of any human activity, when "sustainability" is this buzzword now ... Well, the best definition --and everyone that is listening to this has heard this a million times -- but the best definition, the best formula for measuring our activities, has to go back to the Iroquois formulation that says that, "Anything that I do shall have no adverse impacts seven generations forward."
SA: You're talking about being responsible to the land and to future generations, and you've committed your life to this as an organic farmer. And you would be considered a new generation of farmer, or a younger farmer who's coming into this business now. So, this is very relevant, because if we locally, regionally, and then nationally lose our farmland and we lose farmers and we lose a younger generation of farmer who wants to make this their life's work, we're in trouble, aren't we?
GS: Yeah. I mean, I am an extremely good example -- and I'm saying this with no exceedingly high opinion of myself -- but I'm an extremely good example of, first and foremost, strong long-term sustainable economic development. And secondly, an example of what the next generation of farmers are going to look like. I don't come from a farming background; I spent a lot of years learning the craft of farming from mentors and books and traveling and conferences, etc. And after spending all that time learning it, pulled the trigger and invested six figures -- big six figures of dollars into this operation in terms of not only buying the land, but also investing in all the equipment and infrastructure to make it happen.
So, now, that investment and that decision is ... it's questionable whether it was a good investment decision. And in fact, last winter -- the winter of 2009 into 2010 -- my wife Tannis and I had the very hard conversation, "Do we pull out now?" We had already invested money in the farm in terms of the land, and some infrastructure, but this past year we invested a lot more money in the infrastructure, and we had the conversation. We said, "Do we pull out now; save at least some of that capital; and leave? Or, do we stay?" And we're talking right now, so we decided to stay.
The reasons were this: Number one, we had both invested more than a decade in terms of living in this community. We're really deeply vested in this community through our work, through our friends, our relationships, through all the organizations we're involved with -- Tannis in terms of creating a space for performance and creating work -- she's an actor.
All these things that we've invested -- not money when I say "invested" in this sense -- not in terms of what we've invested in money, but in terms of place and in terms of people. And we decided we weren't willing to give that up ... with a caveat -- we were not willing to give it up yet. I mean, there may come a point where we have to make a decision first for our health and the health of our son; and probably not too far after that decision is made, we have to make the decision that we cannot in good conscience sell vegetables to people if there is any possibility of contamination.
So, that is looming there, and that is a daily thought. It has made it very complicated to do the work of farming, which is a long-term work. You know, actions today are going to yield things years or decades down the line.
And so, we made this decision on this calculation.
If we decide we have to leave, we are hoping that we'll be able to sell our land. My calculation is that I think, based on what happens in other areas where fracking is occurring, that we'll get at least 50 percent of the value of our land. If we do get that, we'll be able to wipe out our debt, and that means that we'll be able to leave here debt-free and broke. And Tannis and I both decided we can do that -- we can start over broke without debt. You can't start over broke with debt -- that's impossible to unbury yourself from.
So, we're going for it. We're putting our everything into this, and in the meantime hoping that we won't be put out of business.
SA: And these are big decisions, and it's challenging, isn't it, to live with this sort of decision looming, because it's personal, and it's also representing what's happening -- a mentality that is happening throughout the country. But we can even look globally to what's happening still with fossil fuel extraction.
GS: And the complexity of that system, and that decision -- you can evaluate that in an intellectual way. You can even start to evaluate it emotionally when things are starting to percolate in your community.
But I said before that the intensity of gas drilling in our region ratcheted up as soon as we saw this rig in July. Well, things took another step up in September. I'm saying that at some point we may have to make the decision based on the health of my family, and the ability to grow and sell healthy food is based on what's happening around us.
Well, in September, this Woodland Management Partners site -- at that stage they had completed the drilling; they moved the rig from here to Milanville, to the Crum site, where they were doing the next test well. So, the rig was gone. And on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we were picking for market -- picking vegetables for market -- and we smelled this really strong intense sulphur odor. Smelled it -- said, "Huh?" -- didn't quite know what to do with it. We were running around getting for market -- didn't do anything about -- went to market.
The next day, Monday, Labor Day, the smell was there again. So, we called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's emergency response line. There was an answering service. They said that they would immediately page the appropriate person ... it was Labor Day, so they didn't have a staff person there. The way it's supposed to work, they're supposed to page the person ... we never heard anything.
So, as you might imagine, we were slightly concerned that the government agency specifically charged with regulating and inspecting oil and gas activity, as enabled by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, were AWOL -- they were not there.
SA: My conversation with Greg Swartz, to be continued. To find out more, you can go to willowwisporganic.com; and about Tannis Kowlachuk, you can go to nacl.org.
You can listen to the audio interview of Sabrina's interview with Greg on Trailer Talk.