Sunday, June 10, 2012

What Does Fracking Look Like?

Oh what these eyes have seen!

Over the last month I have seen more of the transformed landscape that was once Pennsylvania and is now turned gas fields than I can even understand, or fully explain. I will only attempt a synopsis of the journey.  I visited 12 different places that all had unique stories and situations, but had one thing in common: gas development has changed their lives, and not for the better.

I first went to Butler County, then Washington County, Fayette County and all over the Moshannon Forest. My mission was to see, first hand, what living in the gas fields is like for some people and to assist some of these families with independent air testing. I had already met at least 4 families that have lost their water, in Butler alone. I know that there are at least 12. Their situation is still dire, still haphazard.  Although, many kind citizens have helped to collect and deliver water to these families, a solution has yet to be found and help from the state is rather non-existent.  If anyone would like to make a donation to this water drive, please contact me directly-, and I can make that happen.

On this day I ran into my favorite little girl, Skylar, who was enjoying a sponge bath on the porch in the warm sun. They are leaving. They are cutting their losses and getting the heck out and resuming a normal life, free of fear of further harm, for themselves and Skylar. I was so happy to hear that, but outraged that it had come to this for them. Leave the home and save your family, another family forced to live like refugees, here in PA. While we were there, black water ran out of her faucet in the bathroom and then dried back up as she worked to collect whatever water came out so that they could put it in a gallon container to use to flush the toilet.

This is how they live; this has been their life for too long.

Not everyone in that area can do what they are doing. Moving is not always an option, not everyone can afford that loss.  Too many families outright own the property, have everything in their life invested in it and have no means to start over, adding on a new mortgage payment or rent. The land they dreamed of working is now a constant nightmare for them.

I also met a dog this time around, Sam, who lived with another family that has lost their water. He has since had to be put down, less than a week after I patted his head and told him I was sorry that this was allowed to happen to him. It was heartbreaking. He reminded me so much of my best friend, and sadly, his owners feared that he had continued to drink out of a spring, nearby that may no longer have been potable. His nose and face was inflamed and infected and he seemed like he was in a lot of pain.  To be honest, I have never seen anything quite like it. If it was cancer, it was one of the most unusual cancers I have ever seen. I left there sad beyond belief and sick to my stomach. He was a very good old boy, and family that has already lost so much had to put him down, without any answers and with fear in their hearts.

Next, I saw a frack pond full of toxic waste and a drill site right next to newly tilled land that will grow food. I saw the homes of many, who once enjoyed a serene lifestyle, filled with fields and crickets that now live downwind of toxic dumps and have no choice but to wonder just what is in that air that they are now forced to breathe. All day I thought: do you know where your food is coming from? Well, you should. We must demand frack free food and frack free farming, or this will be part of the food chain for Pennsylvanians in the future. Your vegetables could be fortified with barium and radiation. Local now may mean tilled with toxins and carcinogens. Not even organic farms are safe, as many of those farmers have leased as well. Do your homework people. You are what you eat.

The next day, I met a woman who was afraid to go out on her porch and her friends were afraid to visit and sit outside, like they always have, because the fumes in the evening envelop them.  We had to encourage her to stay inside, and sadly, no one would want to buy this property now, and anyway,  she, in her 70′s, lives alone, and is in no shape to go. These are now her golden years.

I saw property value after property value slashed as shiny new compressor stations roar and spit and spew god knows what across from nicely manicured lawns and dream homes. I pulled up to the gate of one of these compressor stations, one that only seems to be getting bigger and bigger, and my companion told me to roll down the window.  I got my first big gulp of air that is created there, and the only words that came out were “OH MY GOD!” and I quickly wound the window back up and immediately wanted to leave. It was disgusting to smell, let alone breathe.

My friend said that he should have taped the moment, just to capture the expression on my face. Well, imagine that combination of shock, horror and fear. That is what my face looked like. The days we spent in Gaslandistan, I developed this strange scratch in my throat. A constant clearing of a tickle that never let up, until some time had passed and I was no longer breathing that air. It made me think that I needed to bring a respirator next time, and yet somehow, our neighbors have to breathe this 24/7.

I am sure it was coincidental, it’s just anecdotal evidence, just like every other persons’ complaints to the DEP, and the EPA, and to local government agencies.  Sure, you didn’t ever have these problems before drilling came to an area near you. Sure, your story and symptoms are similar to hundreds of others across the state, but we have the power and we can assure you that this onslaught of bad water and wretched air is coincidental, or all in your mind, and since nothing can ever be definitively proven, the burden continues to fall on the victims to prove the unprovable. Drillers just continue on with business as usual; they do not have to prove it is safe.

Why? All these families ask for and want is a life free of harm.

I went to see a family whose story I know well and to meet some of their neighbors that have had similar symptoms and experiences.  They fear for their safety, all the time.  The stress is so thick, you can see it in their eyes.  As hope diminishes, the eyes change. I saw that again and again when I had to sit in the chemo ward.  Post traumatic stress is no joke.  Anger and depression oozes from their pores. These families are surrounded. Compressor engines everywhere.  Their small country road now faces truck traffic and accidents that seem impossible. The story is the same.  The industry owns everything and everyone in these parts.  People that are suffering are just crazy or envious. Even the local radio station is now run by industry hacks. Neighbors that have known each other for generations are turning their backs on each other and on the suffering and reality for those that are in harm’s way.

Yes there are many that will continue to sing the praises of Marcellus Shale, but there are also many landowners that were bamboozled. They have realized too late that they were misled. Or, now they see what their profit has cost their neighbor.  They are surrounded by pipelines, industrial construction, toxic ponds, un-breathable air, dangerous trucks and traffic that can kill. This is their story. This is their Range Resources commercial. Sadly, this is the commercial everyone should see, but never will, and so the corporate takeover of our state continues.

(Sorry for the terrible quality of film. I wasn’t trying to film, I was just protecting myself with my phone rolling just in case any industry security folk showed up. But their stories need to be told).
The following week, HOPE made a comeback. I saw a farmer and a philosopher stand for his love and his land. I stood with him and 50 others in his stated rebellion on top of a hill, overlooking his goats and his farm. The beauty that I have always known as Pennsylvania- its rolling hills with wildflowers, dotted with farms, barns, and little white houses- not well pads and drill rigs and clear cut land.

I am proud to call him a friend. We spent 2 glorious days in Paradise with 90 happy goats, chickens roaming freely, and a pack of dogs in what really must be dog heaven, and yet outside of the bubble of the farm the development and devastation was everywhere apparent.

My boyfriend that has actively followed and stood with me in this fight was forever changed on this trip. I watched it happen. It made me realize that this is why I have such a hard time, here in Allegheny County.  I can tell you this is coming to a neighborhood near you, but until you see it, until you see well pad after well pad and truck after truck and smell the smells that your brain tells you to run from, it just doesn’t fully sink it. By the time you see the first rig,  it’s too late. The gravity of the situation only comes when the first hand experience is encountered. It is what Calvin Tillman says again and again, “Once you know, you can’t not know.”

It is not until you hear a story from a woman that explains what it was like when she had no water, and no one cared, and how her dog died later that winter from licking the salty frack fluid from his paws, that you know. You see the truth in her eyes.  She takes you to the site up the road, the one that poisoned her water, where you clearly see the toxic waste buried and imagine what harm all of this has done and what it will continue to do. Her orchards hang in the balance. Her obvious love for her land, animals, orchards and her family is only bested by her fear for their health and their future and her justified anger at what has already been done. Understandably so.

I saw a forest destroyed: an industrial wasteland now where trees and animals once lived. No trespassing signs everywhere. Nature violated at every turn.  A pipeline runs here, and there and there. Well pad after well pad after well pad. A compressor station, another compressor station.  Toxic waste buried, bad air, fouled water….more of the same, just in a different corner of the state. The land is forever scarred. It was, again, terribly depressing and completely overwhelming.

We saw this type of clearing and industry 20x over in a 2 mile radius of the Moshannon Forest.
But remarkably, in this broken forest, we also found strength in the form of standing up and fighting back. The beginnings of a rebellion. A man who spread the ashes of his wife in defiance on a hill and stated that no drill would ever permeate this land. A woman that stood up for her land and her family, and stopped a frack pond from being built across the road from her house, and now, she is winning. A group that provides independent testing to people that have no hope of help from the state.  You see, the tide is turning and its the grassroots, boots on the ground that is making that happen. We will win the PR battle with truth and we will challenge and dismiss the politicians that only serve the industry. This will not happen quickly, there are many more battles and rebellions to wage, but I know, in time, that we will win this war.


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