You Have to See It to Believe It: What It's Like to Have Fracking in Your Backyard
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Ed Wade’s property straddles the Wetzel and Marsh county lines in rural West Virginia and it has a conventional gas well on it. “You could cover the whole [well] pad with three pickups,” said Wade. And West Virginia has lots of conventional wells — more than 50,000 at last count. West Virginians are so well acquainted with gas drilling that when companies began using high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in 2006 to access areas of the Marcellus Shale that underlie the state, most residents and regulators were unprepared for the massive footprint of the operations and the impact on their communities.
When it comes to a conventional well and a Marcellus well, “There is no comparison, none whatsoever,” said Wade, who works with the Wetzel County Action Group. “You live in the country for a reason and it just takes that and turns it upside down. You know how they preach all the time that natural gas burns cleaner than coal; well, it may burn cleaner than coal, but it’s a hell of a lot dirtier to extract.”
To understand what’s at stake, you have to understand the vocabulary. Take the word “fracking” for example. When people say it’s been around since the 1950s, they are referring to vertical fracturing, but what’s causing all the contention lately is a much more destructive process known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Or they’re using "fracking" in a very limited way. “The industry uses [fracking] to refer just to the moment when the shale is fractured using water as the sledgehammer to shatter the shale,” scientist Sandra Steingraber told AlterNet. “With that as the definition they can say truthfully that there are no cases of water contamination associated with fracking. But you don’t get fracking without bringing with it all these other things — mining for the frack sand, depleting water, you have to add the chemicals, you have to drill, you have to dispose of the waste, you have drill cuttings. I refer to them all as fracking, as do most activists.”
The potential impacts that go well beyond the moment the well is fracked are mammoth. What has been most discussed is the concern that the chemicals used in the fracking process, as well as naturally occurring but dangerous substances underground like arsenic, heavy metals and methane, can migrate back to the surface with water through faults, fissures and abandoned mines. That’s deeply concerning, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The footprint of the well site, which now often includes freshwater or wastewater ponds and tankers full of chemicals, has grown expotentially from the size of conventional wells -- they certainly aren't the size of a few pickup trucks. Here's an aerial view of a new home, built in rural West Virginia that is now surrounded by a fracking operation after the owner's neighbor leased to a drilling company.
(Photo credit: Robert Donnan/ Marceullus Air)
Fracking takes rural communities and turns them into industrial zones — and citizens have little recourse. Thanks to the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and there are exemptions also in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. In West Virginia, a state with a long history of energy extraction, industry has a controlling hand in local and state politics and thus far, seems to be calling the shots. To make matters worse, many properties had their mineral rights separated over a century ago. So, people may own their homes and properties, but not the minerals underneath. Their property can be destroyed by drilling and they will have no financial gain.
Or, they can lose virtually everything, simply by living next door to someone who does lease. A story by WDTV reporter Zach Maskell gives a glimpse of what life is like for those people. Here’s his interview with Leanne Kiner who lives in Harrison County, West Virginia.
As if the disruptions to her quality of life and property values weren’t bad enough, Kiner’s water well became contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic. She came home from work one day to find that, without any notice, someone working for the drilling company had disconnected her house from her well and installed a large “water buffalo” tank outside her home. Companies have been known to supply water tanks to affected residents (although usually with no admission of guilt) temporarily, and then leave the residents high and dry months or years down the road, even when water pollution problems persist.
Water is a big and multifaceted issue when it comes to fracking. Horizontal wells in the Marcellus can take upward of 5 million gallons of water during fracking. The wells can be fracked multiple times and there can be as many as 10 wells drilled on a single well pad. Multiple that by the thousands of wells that have been fracked thus far and that's a lot of water. All those hundreds of millions of gallons are often taken from local streams and creeks.
Then there is the wastewater to contend with, beginning with “drilling brine” which can contain high levels of salts, as well as arsenic, mercury, chromium and naturally occurring radioactive materials. What to do with this wastewater? “In the past, the drilling brine, with the cuttings have been put in pits, and after the solids are settled, the liquid has been sprayed on the land,” reports the West Virginia Sierra Club. “If too concentrated it kills vegetation, so even if sprayed thinly enough not to be deadly, it cannot be helping the land. The pits with remaining solids and plastic liner, if used, are buried on site.”
There is also the wastewater from the fracking process, and what's called "produced water," which flows from the well as it it producing. This can contain some of the toxic mix of chemicals (which most companies won’t reveal) that doesn’t remain underground. WV Sierra Club reports, “Because of the increased volume of wastewater to be disposed of from Marcellus wells, the WV DEP [Department of Enivornmental Protection] is asking drillers to dispose of it by injection in underground injection wells.” Much has been written about the potential risks (including earthquakes) from this manner of disposal and some companies have been nabbed for illegally dumping this toxic wastewater into storm drains, creeks and other waterways. And there have been reports of it dumped on roads.
On May 26, 2012 Christina Woods was mowing the lawn when a truck dumped water on her road for dust suppression. Christina and her husband Wayne had made numerous complaints about the road condition since fracking operations began. At times, the dust from constant truck traffic had made it impossible for them to even open their windows or sit outdoors. After the truck went by on May 26, Christina Woods immediately got a sore throat and her tongue felt numb. They quickly realized it wasn’t clean water that was being sprayed on the road. “The emergency response team didn’t come until three days after,” said Wayne, “and the morning they did the air quality samples it rained.” The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did find that the company, Jay-Bee, had sprayed “wastewaters from natural gas production” on their road and issued a fine.
But water is just one of the issues. For those living near fracking sites, life itself is drastically changed. Diane Pitcock and her husband and son moved from near Baltimore, Maryland to a rural haven of over 100 acres in New Milton, West Virginia six years ago. Their timing couldn’t have been worse. “It's so sad because we never moved here expecting this,” said Pitcock, who has started an organization called West Virginia Host Farms Program to call attention to what is happening in her community. Her neighbor leased his property to Antero Resources and now the Pitcock’s land abuts a drilling site known as the Ruckman well pad of the Erwin Valley Project. “It’s four separate well pads on his land, having 27 individual permits for horizontal legs,” she explained.
By July of last year, the forest at her property border was so think you couldn’t see the sky, she said. Three weeks later the forest had been cleared with earthmovers and much of it burned in massive piles.
Here’s Pitcock's husband viewing the scene from their property line in August 2012.
(Photo credit: Tara Lohan)
By March 2013, this is what the Pitcocks saw from their property line:
(View a video of the scene on the WV Host Farms Facebook page)
Operations can go on around the clock, with constant noise, light and air pollution. A cornerstone of the industrialization that comes with fracking is all the truck traffic -- hundreds of trucks a day travel on country roads never built for large trucks or the amount of wear and tear. Accidents are common. Wade took this photo after two dump trucks crashed, one of which was carrying drill cuttings:
(Photo credit: Ed Wade/Wetzel County Action Group)
And this was a sand truck traveling too quickly:
(Photo credit: Ed Wade/Wetzel County Action Group)
West Virginia Host Farms posted this photo of a truck reported to be carrying friction reducer (part of the fracking cocktail) that ended up in Meat House Fork Creek not far from the Pitcocks in Doddridge County:
(Photo credit: WV Host Farms Program)
Truck traffic is also a nightmare for residents. Another Doddridge County resident, Maryanne Daggett took this picture of the line of trucks, delaying traffic, headed for construction of a well site near her home:
(Photo credit: Maryanne Daggett)
Truck traffic, accidents and road damage is now something residents endure daily. It's not just inconvenient, it's dangerous. "The overcrowded highways and dangerous fracking trucks already have crushed and killed two children, ages 6 and 10, in northcentral West Virginia," wrote Charlotte Pritt, a former state senator and delegate from Kanawha County, in an op-ed.
The entire process is dangerous. Wade took this photo of an explosion at a well site on Sept. 9, 2010:
(Photo credit: Ed Wade/Wetzel County Action Group)
"It burned for something like nine days," said Wade. "But the DEP said there were no cases of air pollution. You believe that?"
Explosions have occurred at well sites and pipelines in West Virginia, taking the lives of workers and injuring others.
"Many of these dangers, risks and deaths could have been averted if the Legislature had acted on behalf of the citizens rather than the fracking industry," wrote Pitt. "The West Virginia Legislature must pass legislation to protect us, or West Virginia will become the dumping ground of the hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste of the entire Marcellus Shale area. I have been calling my legislators, good people who have made some outrageously bad decisions, and asking them to make amends by protecting me and the other citizens of our state. For the sake of your property, health, children and grandchildren, you must call yours as well. We need a moratorium on hydrofracking now until our legislators have an opportunity to study the costs and impacts, but also to have dialogue with their constituents."
A moratorium on fracking in West Virginia seems a long way off, but as Wade said, "People think they can't do nothing against big money. And some are gaining from it -- they're trading their livelihoods and their health and everything else for it. They're too damn blinded by the money to see it. I prefer to be poor and have clean air and clear water. You sacrifice something for a little gain and you really need to ask yourself: is it worth it?"