‘in the shadow of the beast’
December 21, 2012
Michael Bagdes-Canning is a retired teacher turned tour guide. He spends many days driving up and down the winding, two-lane back roads of Butler County, north of Pittsburgh. He’s keeping track of fracking sites, watching for flaring, talking to nearby homeowners, giving tours to environmental groups and reporters. He takes anyone who is willing to visit those who live, as he puts it, “in the shadow of the beast.”
Suddenly a tall, metal fracking rig pops into view. “Whoa, that wasn’t here before,” he says. The rig wasn’t there last week? Or a few days ago? “It wasn’t here this morning,” he says, with astonishment.
Farther along, we stop at another site where a rig has been dismantled and equipment removed, leaving a flattened gravel landscape and a small metal structure. The rig can be resurrected and the well refracked in the future.
At another site, the drilling rig has been disassembled, but several large, sealed containers of fracking fluid remain — as well as a frack pond at least the size of a football field. A tanker turns into the site, most likely to dump wastewater into the pond.
Mike also biked from Butler to Washington, DC, this summer with others in the Tour de Frack, which he helped organize to protest fracking, collect stories from those in harmed communities and to educate others, particularly legislators.
As we ascend a hill, trying to get a better view of a fracking rig, an enormous water tanker suddenly appears, coming toward us. Mike keeps to the far right as it passes and turns into the access road to the industrial site. The operation, with generators running incessantly, is in a large field but directly behind a small house on the rural road. The homeowner complained to officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection when he measured the distance from his property and found it to be 122 feet closer than the newly mandated 500 feet. The owner wanted it moved. Mike said the fracking company offered the homeowner $5,000 in exchange for a waiver of the 500-foot rule. The man declined, concerned about what he would do if his water became contaminated. The company offered him six months of water if that happened. The resident said he planned to live in the house another 30 years, so what good was a promise of six months of water. The drillers moved the site to the required 500 feet. A symbolic victory for this homeowner who still has a fracking rig basically in his back yard.
Traveling more winding, hilly roads, we pass a processing plant, an enormous industrial facility that turns fracked gas into pipeline-quality natural gas. It is at an abandoned farm and across the street from a small landfill. On the nearby hillsides are mini-mansions as well as smaller homes, all predating this facility.
Our last stop is a one-story home on Glenwood Avenue in Evans City, Pa., where Vincent and Ruth Watson have lived since 1971. They used to look out their living room window onto silos, a dairy farm and cows. In 2011, they noticed construction activity on the Marburger Farm Dairy land and thought a new barn was being built. Soon, though, they learned that Marburger had leased the land to a company that would frack for natural gas within hollering distance of the couple’s front door.
Now they look out onto a drilling rig. This site was built before the state set the minimum 500-foot buffer. Connoquenessing Creek flows at the end of this narrow road. The houses across the street from the Watsons’ are a couple hundred feet from the drilling site. The homeowners at the end of the street tried to refinance, but the bank turned them down because of their proximity to the drilling. If the Watsons wanted to move, they said, they doubt they would be able to sell their home.
Initially, the round-the-clock bright lights from the site were aimed toward the houses; after complaints, they were pointed toward the farm. When the company was drilling the wells, “a glass on the table would shake,” Vincent said. The actual fracking was not very noticeable, but “the noise was unbelievable” during the 48 hours the previous week when the company had been burning off gases from the rig, or flaring. Ruth said she could smell gasoline the first day of flaring but nothing the second day. An elderly neighbor couldn’t sleep because of the noise. The Watsons have no idea when or if the flaring will begin again. “Imagine waking up at 5 a.m. and all the light in the room is flickering. You see the window is red,” and “if you go in the back yard, you can read at night,” Vincent said. Here’s the video Vincent took during the flaring.
Flares emit air pollutants, depending on the chemical composition of the natural gas and byproducts formed from the chemicals used to frack the wells. Flaring can exacerbate asthma and trigger other respiratory and health problems. It also contributes to climate change, because natural gas is mostly methane, which is 21 times as efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Vincent said in a later email that he was anxious during the flaring. He had the air quality tested, but the emissions were within legal limits. He said the noise and lights upset the other residents the most — and “the fact that we had no say at all. If someone burns trash or has a loud party, one can complain — but not this.”
“Basically anything they’ve said has been a lie,” said Vincent, a retired Earth and space science teacher. He has never been able to get information on when the drilling or the fracking or the flaring will start or end.
Part of his thinking on fracking’s dangers is from the long view he takes as a science teacher. The Earth’s resources are finite; everyone on the planet is intricately connected. In the 1970s, he said, PCBs used in far-off lands showed up in polar bear tissue. “At the rate we’re going at this point,” he said, “we’re going to pollute the whole world.” Drilling companies are forcing a secret combination of known hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into the water cycle — and that should be of concern whether one has public water or well water, he said.
His message to Marylanders? “Don’t do it.”