fractured garrett county

August 31, 2012


Map showing extent of Marcellus Shale in Maryland.
//map by

A few years ago, “you could count on two hands the people in our county who knew much about [fracking], even though thousands of acres had been leased for drilling,” says Garrett County farmer and winery co-owner Paul Roberts. 

No longer. 

Since then, Roberts has helped organize a dozen or so public meetings about the problems associated with drilling. And in the meantime, those early leases that paid farmers about $10 an acre have been sold and resold by energy companies, eventually for $10,000 or more an acre. “Think of the millions in profits made at my neighbors’ expense in Maryland,” said Roberts, who is also the citizen representative on the 14-member state Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. “I know an attorney who rode an airplane, headed for Dallas on a Friday afternoon from Pittsburgh, where the gas men drink scotch and laughed about all the poor people, retirees, Amish people, and country bumpkins they ripped off that week,” Roberts said in an email. 

“Several people have been made millionaires already on money made in Maryland — but none of them are Marylanders,” he said. 

Residents remain deeply divided about whether fracking should be allowed in Garrett, one of two counties in Maryland that lie atop the Marcellus Shale. But they have much more knowledge now. Perhaps half are alarmed at what they see from news reports and scientific studies about the environmental and health dangers associated with fracking; they also fear it would hurt tourism. On the other side are those who have a more benign opinion of extractive industries and maintain that the royalties landowners receive and the drillers’ spending  at motels, stores and restaurants could boost the county’s economy. 

The split was evident at back-to-back meetings at Garrett College last week. Roberts, who decided that the industry-arranged visit by commission members to a fracking site and similar fare were “inexcusable” and insufficient, organized a presentation during which residents heard firsthand accounts from neighboring states of sickened children, dead farm animals and poisoned water caused by fracking. “We’ve heard more than one presentation by industry representatives, and devoted an entire monthly meeting to visiting staged conditions at Chevron fracking sites,” Roberts said. “Yet, there are two states full of people right next door with important experiences to relate, and our commission has not heard a peep from them.” Roberts invited a Pennsylvania attorney whose clients were harmed by fracking and a West Virginia rancher who lives near drilling sites and who showed slides of a dead cow and industrial operations next to homes on hillsides. They traveled at their own expense. 

Directly after this presentation, and during the only nighttime commission session thus far,   farmers and other business owners, parents and a small-town mayor, health professionals and a real estate agent spoke with passion during the three minutes allotted to each about their fears or their hopes from shale drilling in the county. At the meeting, the 10th since being appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to determine under what conditions fracking might be allowed in Maryland, close to 50 people testified in the nearly full auditorium that can hold 300 people. About 30 people called for no fracking or at least a moratorium; about a dozen, including one who represented perhaps 15 Farm Bureau members who raised their hands in the room, thought fracking could be “done right” and urged the commission to expedite permits.

 Sometimes the divide seemed to be between those born in the county and those considered outsiders, but not always. Or between farmers and non-farmers, but again not always. Undeniable was the split between those who trust the industry to get it right and those who don’t. 

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said Liz McDowell of New Germany, and so far “all we’ve needed is a little blue paint.” She called fracking a “game changer” and asked, “Where can we buy fencing that can keep the quantity and quality of the water safe?” Or keep out air, noise and light pollution, she added. “Any fracking in my neighborhood will impact my property rights.”    

Some of those wary of fracking asked for a legislative moratorium because they feared no legislation relating to best practices or even funding for the commission could ever be passed. More than 20 bills to set safety standards and fees for gas leases were introduced during the last General Assembly session, but only one passed – a law that says that if drinking water sources are contaminated within 2,500 feet of a well, the driller is presumed responsible. 

The gas industry is very powerful and “doesn’t have our best interests at heart,” Matia Vanderbilt told the commission. It “kills bills. … Any bills we put forward to protect people, they kill.” 

“Drilling is going to come,” predicted Eric Robison, but he urged a legislative moratorium. “We’ve seen the consequences of going quick,” he said. “We need the best information to go forward, so we need the money” and time for a study. Instead, he said, the state Department of the Environment “is shaking the couches for change.”

Others were concerned about roads, the integrity of concrete casings that separate the hazardous drilling fluids from the aquifers, and about contaminating water for future generations.

Leo Martin, the mayor of Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County, said his town voted to ban drilling. Even the traditional 1950s drilling created a mess, he said, because companies left equipment, trash, mud and ponds. To the commissioners, he said: “Your job is to recommend pollution or no pollution. Your job is to recommend trashing the county or not trashing the county. We hope you recommend not trashing.” 

“We are all concerned with the truth,” said Stephan Moylan, “but industry influences the truth” by funding scientific studies and lobbying in Annapolis. Industry claims that only a small amount of chemicals are in the fluid. “I don’t know how much poison my small children need to drink to get sick,” he said. “Probably a small amount.” He said he bought a “little piece of paradise” in Garrett County. “People won’t want to move to a place where kids can’t drink the water. … Go slow. Get the truth.” 

Patrick Riley pointed out that he is a Republican and opposes “overregulation.” Nevertheless, he remains concerned that residents won’t be able to “stand up to corporations with unlimited pockets.” He said he can call the sheriff about noise from a loud party, but “if I call the sheriff about loud noise at a compressor station, the sheriff won’t come.” 

Nadine Grabania, who owns Deep Creek Cellars Winery in Friendsville with her husband, Paul Roberts, urged the commission to study “the economic problems this will cause,” not just the economic promises. She wants to know  the effect on property values and the existing tax base and whether enough emergency response personnel would live nearby to handle an accident with hazardous materials. What criteria will be considered when determining if fracking is safe, she asked. 

For the environmental community, including the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County,  that has called for a fracking moratorium or ban, the number of speakers urging caution was encouraging. A poll commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) in March showed that 71 percent of Marylanders surveyed (65% of Western Marylanders) wanted to study fracking before allowing it (and 81% wanted industry to pay for such a study), but this was the first time so many had stepped up to a microphone to tell the commission that fracking could be the undoing of their county known mostly for its hiking trails and forests, boating, fishing and swimming,  as well as farming. Garrett is second only to Ocean City as a tourist destination in the state. And Garrett residents who oppose fracking said speaking publicly is not easy. One resident emailed afterward: “I was pleasantly surprised at all the people who turned out and a little surprised that many others who are equally concerned didn’t speak. I hope they will make their opinions known at some time.” 

Among those in favor of drilling without further delay were representatives of the Garrett Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cumberland Committee and some farmers, including William Bishoff, representing the county Farm Bureau and more than a dozen people who raised hands in the auditorium. Bishoff said the companies would be heavily bonded and the water guaranteed. “MDE did a good job with the coal industry,” he said, and he expects the same with the drilling industry. “Let’s see what they can do before we tell them they can’t.”

Bill Aiken said he would rather have drilling than new houses, which bring floodlights, four-wheelers and “septic tanks that are more threat to my water” than drilling. He said fracking offers an opportunity for jobs, a broader tax base, low-cost energy, help for struggling farmers, and it can be done “with a minimum of damage.”   

Nicole Christian, president of the Garrett Chamber of Commerce said, “Shale gas and tourism can coexist.” But Barbara Pritts, a real estate agent who said she will be 80 in December and had lived in Garrett her entire life, insisted “fracking and tourism will not mix.” Olen Beitzel, who said he had lived for 72 years in Garrett, said he had “confidence in the regulators.” He noted that Deep Creek Lake was also controversial and could never have been built today. “I support it if it’s done right,” he said. 

At the presentation prior to the commissioners’ meeting, Tom Bond, a rancher with 500 acres near Jane Lew, W.Va., and John M. Smith, an attorney in Canonsburg, Pa., who represents several families who are suing energy companies, spoke to about 100 people in a nearby Garrett College classroom. 

Smith said his clients signed leases for drilling on their property but have had to move.

The four neighbors in four homes have benzene, toluene, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals in their urine. The children fare even worse. He said he saw children clutching their stomachs; some “have had their stomachs ripped away.” Children are particularly vulnerable because they are shorter, and vapors hover closer to the ground, he said. Their arsenic levels “are through the roof.” 

Gases vented during flaring are also heavier than the air and sink, “gassing the population.” His clients, he said, have lost their sense of smell because of the hydrogen sulfide emitted during flaring. 

Some of his clients’ cows, horses and dogs have died or had stillborn offspring. 

His clients tested the water before drilling began, and it was “pristine.” The industry has disputed the tests on the contaminated water, saying, for example, that a client “must have dumped nail polish remover in the drain.” 

“It is life-changing,” Smith said of the drillers’ presence. “It has no hours of operation,” continuing around the clock. 

Frack ponds and surface contamination from spills were the biggest menace, he said. Some municipalities are banning the ponds, although existing ones are typically  grandfathered in. Some of the ponds “let go.” Commissioner Roberts said, “It’s hard to imagine this sort of pond being allowed” in Maryland. 

Bond, the rancher who is also a retired teacher with a doctorate in organic chemistry, has four of the “old-fashioned” gas wells on his property. Around him, though, are hydraulically fracked wells. While some proponents of fracking say the two are the same, “that is not true,” he said. The pressure is “far, far greater” in the fracked wells, and he said he endures significant light and noise pollution. He showed a slide of a hillside farm that hadn’t leased land adjacent to another farm with drilling. “Inevitably, there is tremendous property devaluation,” he said. 

The drillers “have externalized the costs,” he said. “The legitimate costs of doing business are put off on somebody else … on people who get sick, on hunters who can’t hunt, fishermen who can’t fish,” on farmers and on businesses that cater to tourists. 

Following the meetings, Roberts said in an email: “Today in my county, thousands of people are educated about gas leasing and gas-drilling. No matter what happens with drilling, the new leases will not be bought for $7 an acre. … It’s going to be very expensive for the industry to operate in Maryland. Industry supporters say Maryland has a bad climate for business. Really? Every elected representative in Garrett and Allegany County demands that drilling should go forward. Really? Who do they represent?” 



Food & Water Watch’s logo for its ban fracking campaign.

Concerned about fracking’s contribution to global warming, the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County recently signed on with CCAN to support a moratorium on fracking in Maryland until the industry can prove that drilling can be done safely. Delegate Heather Mizeur has said she intends to introduce that legislation in the next General Assembly session. CCIHC also signed on with Food & Water Watch’s campaign that calls for a ban on fracking.  As Jennifer Krill of Earthworks pointed out in a conference call recently, we in the environmental community should not let the ban-vs.-regulate debate divide us. Fracking is ongoing, she said, and we need to call for strict regulations for those areas while at the same time moving for a ban in areas we want to protect from fracking.    

Fracking poses threats to human and animal health, air, land, forests and water, but also to the climate. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil and coal, but it produces more methane, a shorter-lived but more powerful greenhouse gas, during processing and through leaky pipes. The International Energy Agency has concluded that even if the world shifts quickly to natural gas, the planet would still warm a catastrophic 6 degrees F by the end of the century. Sign CCAN’s petition calling for a legislative moratorium here and Food & Water Watch’s call for a ban here.

Turns out, also, that the Marcellus basin in Western Maryland is only the tip of the shale under our state. The US Geological Survey reports additional shale basins on the Eastern Shore and in southern and central Maryland.

—elisabeth hoffman 






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