“we’re all downstream”

July 12, 2012

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Poster by Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

The stories of bad air and water caught Michael Bagdes-Canning’s attention. His Cherry Valley, PA, home was atop a Marcellus Shale “gold mine,” he said, but his interest in tapping the gas turned to heartbreak when he met families living near rigs in southern Butler County whose homes had black and purple water flowing from taps.

“The air smelled of diesel fumes and the folks complained of headaches, rashes and nosebleeds,” he said. He noticed the stadium lighting piercing homes through the night, the “incessant noise that kept people up all night and the breakdown of community, pitting one neighbor against another.”

“I couldn’t just sit back and let the threat go unanswered,” he said. “I want to tell folks what I’ve seen. I want to raise awareness. I want to stop this thing dead in its tracks.”

Mike, along with husband and wife Jason Bell and Jill Perry, is organizing  the Tour de FRACK: Freedom Ride for Awareness and Community Knowledge. The three started making phone calls and collecting stories in January for the 400-mile bike ride that begins Saturday and ends two weeks later, July 28, at the Stop the Frack Attack protest in Washington, DC.

Mike and his wife, Karen, have long been environmentalists, but the birth of their two grandchildren energized them. In an email, he said: “We want to leave them a world at least as nice as the one we inherited from our parents. I fear my generation has not been good stewards. I remember the first Earth Day. It’s not like we weren’t made aware of the consequences. That’s why we feel called to act. That’s why we’re on the Tour. We think if people become aware of what’s at stake, what’s already being done, they will rise up and say NO!”

“I’m looking forward to sharing our experience,” he said. “Each of the riders has interviewed one of the harmed, and we’re going to be telling their stories. Many of us are community organizers in the shale fields — we’ve been dealing with folks put in harm’s way.”

Jason and Jill’s land is not being drilled, but they are nevertheless surrounded by fracking’s long shadow.  Five miles from where they live, in the community of Woodlands, 11 families started complaining of smelly and discolored water and illnesses in early 2011. The families later learned that Rex Energy had had problems with cement well casings, which separate the drill from the aquifers it penetrates, on at least two wells in the area in 2010. Rex Energy supplied replacement drinking water to the families until February 2012, when the state Department of Environmental Protection declared the water safe to drink. Spurred on by protests by Marcellus Outreach Butler (MOB), Jason worked out a water delivery schedule involving several churches. In a trailer attached to his bike, Jason will be carrying a gallon jug of this DEP-certified safe black water.

Jason, in a recent blog on the Tour de FRACK website, wrote: “Western Pennsylvania was once synonymous with sweet water creeks for kayaking, local ponds for fishing, and slow winding roads for bicycle rides. Is it any wonder why in 2009 tourism overtook agriculture as Butler’s top industry? But what was oft described as an outdoorsman’s paradise now has this new demarcation and all that comes with it. We are promised jobs, environmental stewardship, and sensitivity to the community. More often than not, what we find are industrial shortcuts, unintended consequences, snarling traffic, fractured communities, and an erasure of our outdoor heritage. It must stop!”

Mike, Jason and four other riders form the core of those who will travel the entire route, going 30 to 40 miles a day through rural areas of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. They will mostly follow the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Towpath, staying overnight with hosts, in hostels or campgrounds. Along the way, they will participate in concerts, presentations, movie screenings and webcasts. After the rally in DC, the group plans to lobby at the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House and Congress.

The ride “is designed to educate, unite, and empower the citizens of the shale fields,” Jill said in a video on the Tour de FRACK website. “By participating, you will amplify the voices of those who have experienced and understand the true human, economical and societal costs of high-volume, slick water, hydraulic fracturing otherwise known as ‘fracking.’ ”

“We are undertaking this effort because it has become painfully clear to us that local concerns and circumstances are being steamrolled by powerful out-of-state corporations, their lobbyists and compliant politicians,” she said.

Bikers, experienced or not, are welcome to join at any point, and some local groups have arranged for large  teams to jump in along the way.  The Tour makes two stops in Maryland: Thursday, July 19, in Cumberland and Sunday, July 22, in Williamsport. Welcoming the riders into the state, Save Western Maryland will join Tour de FRACK at 6 p.m. July 19 at the trailhead in Frostburg, adjacent to 10109 New Hope Road, for the 14-mile ride into Cumberland parallel to the historic Western Maryland Railroad. From 7 to 9:30 p.m., music by Nathan Friend and stories are planned at the Canal Place Festival Grounds in Cumberland.

In Williamsport, Chesapeake Climate Action Network is host for a concert by Zach from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Desert Rose Cafe, 42 N. Conococheague St. (To carpool with CCIHC from Columbia to Williamsport or the rally in DC, email hococlimatechange@gmail.com).

In Maryland, only Garrett and parts of Allegany counties have shale entombed miles below the surface. The state is not issuing permits for drilling until Gov. Martin O’Malley gets a final report, due in December 2014, from the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission that he appointed in June 2011. An interim report on best practices is due this December.

Mike admitted: “I’m a little worried about the ride. I’ve never been responsible for a whole group of people on a trip like this before. It was my job to plan the route and I’m hoping I carried that out well — some of our riders have never done a bicycle tour before. None of us are hard-core bike riders. It will be challenging on many levels. It will also be interesting to see how we gel as a team.”

Along the way, they will collect more stories from people hurt by fracking as well as “wish ribbons.” In the Tour website blog, Jason said: “The wish ribbon is a Brazilian tradition where a personal wish is made while tying a ribbon to a fence outside of a church. Our wish is an end to toxic fracking. … We will attach your wishes to our bikes and carry them with us to the rally on the national mall on July 28.” Jason said he will carry two ribbons, one for each of his daughters. (Ribbons should be at least 12 inches long and sturdy enough to endure the ride; include your name and personal wishes.)

In the days leading up to the ride, Mike said in an email: “I guess I’m optimistic about changing the trajectory of extreme energy extraction but I’m also realistic. We’re up against a multibillion-dollar industry with very deep pockets and lots of paid public relations experts. We’re a group of 3 volunteers who started with nothing but an idea, no budget, and full time jobs. … We think we have truth and justice on our side. We think we have compelling stories. We think that when people see Kim’s black water, when they hear how Terry’s and Marilyn’s farm animals died, how Janet’s health has suffered, they’ll know that something is terribly wrong. They’ll know, intuitively, that any government that allows [its] citizens to be treated like that is broken. We believe that we have environmental problems because we have a democracy problem. We also believe that the political upheaval on both the left and right are signs that many people have lost faith — that change is needed. We want to be part of that change.”

Here’s one other item the bikers will collect on their journey: water. They will gather samples from clean rivers, lakes or streams along the way. “We’ll mix them together as we go,” Mike said. “ We’re all downstream. If one source of water is polluted, they are all polluted.”

–elisabeth hoffman

Tour de FRACK is also accepting donations.

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