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

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.

At the local high school, for the first time ever in Pennsylvania history, the DEP allowed a public hearing on a compressor station.

The Shields station slated for Dimock is the fifth compressor station proposed in the last four months for Susquehanna County.

That the meeting even happened was considered by activists to be a great victory, given the longstanding secrecy and industry bias, which has characterized the Pennsylvania DEP.

"Pennsylvania has a history of welcoming extractive industries, so there is definitely more of a culture of let's move forward quickly on these," said Jay Duffy, a staff attorney for the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia. Canvassing door to door the past two months generated such a large number of written comments on the Shields application to convince the DEP to hold a hearing.

Residents who had never attended a protest, who didn't see themselves in the pro-fracking or anti-fracking camp, showed up to learn and express their concerns about air quality. They left with few answers.

"They are not providing the public with full files. When we request file reviews, they have been just allowing us to see the applications. They are not allowing us to see the full permit, " Duffy said. Last month, the Clean Air Council asked the EPA to step in, charging that the Pennsylvania DEP has consistently failed to comply with public input requirements regarding Marcellus Shale permitting activity.

A culture of secrecy and industry favoritism is just one problem. The other is that the Pennsylvania DEP refuses to acknowledge any kind of cumulative impact that occurs when one compressor station is followed by another and then another.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, for example, there are now 10 compressor stations and a processing plant in a 13-mile radius.

"The DEP says these are all small sources, but when you have a house that is in the middle of it all, sucking in 900 tons a year of pollutants. Only the DEP is looking at them individually, the community is breathing them in cumulatively," Duffy said. The Clean Air Council is suing the DEP on the cumulative impact issue.

"They have a lot of exemptions for the industry. They have the failure to do inventory, the failure to do long-term monitoring. These are all things that are fairly unique in Pennsylvania — kind of kowtowing to the natural gas industry here," Duffy said.

Organic farmers Mary and Adron Delarosa and their young daughter sat through half of the hearing before leaving. Matt Walker, a Clean Air Council organizer had visited their one-room home earlier in the evening to urge them to attend. For more than a year, they had experienced the anxiety of living within a mile of four wells and not knowing if their water was safe. A compressor station is planned nearby. Already, farmers they know have been told their products are no longer wanted, because they are grown in Susquehanna County. The Delarosas left the meeting knowing one thing for certain. They won't be living by the new compressor station. In February, they're giving up their farm, putting their house on a trailer and leaving Pennsylvania.


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