film exposes treachery of fracking

April 3, 2013

josh pribanic and Melissa troutman by mike bagdes-canning

Joshua Pribanic and Melissa Troutman talk about their film “Triple Divide” at a Butler Area Public Library screening. //photo by Michael Bagdes-Canning

I drove through Pennsylvania on the turnpike early Saturday. Past the billboards for “Affordable coal energy: Increasingly green and always red, white and blue” and “Wind dies, sun sets. You need reliable, affordable, clean coal electricity.” Past the giant wind turbines on the mountain ridge near Somerset. I picked up my brother in Pittsburgh, a frack-free zone, and headed for the western Pennsylvania premier of the film “Triple Divide” at the Butler Area Public Library. This part of the state is not frack-free.

“Triple Divide” the documentary is impressive and disturbing storytelling about the free-for-all that is fracking in Pennsylvania. Triple divide the natural phenomenon sends the waters in fracked Potter County, Pa., into three North American watersheds. At this juncture, the Allegheny River heads west to the Ohio River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, the Genesee River finds its way north to Lake Ontario, and the west branch of the Susquehanna River winds southeast through Maryland and into the Chesapeake Bay. As filmmaker Melissa Troutman says in the movie’s narration, “For the triple divide, everything is downstream.” These rivers form the ecological foundation for life in the region, not to mention providing drinking water for millions in and beyond the region.

And with that as backdrop, the farce that is the Pennsylvania government’s disconcerting dealings with the gas industry unfolds. The film is the result of Troutman and Joshua B. Pribanic’s 18 months of interviews with affected landowners, scientists and legal experts, as well as countless hours examining files at the state Department of Environmental Protection and hiking in the Tioga State Forest, where fracking is also ongoing and where, at one point, they were threatened by workers at a drilling site who thought they were “ecoterrorists.”

It includes television footage of then-Environment Secretary Michael Krancer advising the people of Pennsylvania to trust the commonwealth. “We’re on top of it,” he says. Later he tells the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back off because the “states . . . are doing a good job regulating hydraulic fracturing.” Well, not so much, as the film shows. Troutman and Pribanic’s documentary also leaves one wondering whether any amount of regulating will be enough.

Troutman and Pribanic document several cases of people sickened by fracking, of water contaminated with fracking-related chemicals and of drillers not held accountable, of violations with no consequences, of drillers proceeding without authorization, of drillers with violations nevertheless getting new permits, of scientists raising serious questions about the whole mess. Judy Bear, who drills water wells and is interviewed in the film, asks what we all were asking: “Who is protecting the residents of this state if our own state is not willing to do it?”

Pennsylvania General Energy drilled the first well in Potter County, where Troutman grew up and was a reporter covering the natural gas industry for a small weekly newspaper until her position was abruptly terminated. That first drill pad ended up 50 feet closer than allowed to a stream the commonwealth had designated High Quality, warranting strict protection. Oh, well. The company racked up numerous violations, including for erosion, a torn pond liner and spills into the stream. Nevertheless, the film indicates, the company was issued a permit to bury its waste onsite. Turns out the pit was deeper than what is called the Seasonal High Water Table, the highest point the water table might reach. DEP issued a violation, but the company never had to move the buried waste.

One section of the film covers landowner Judy E., who had skin and other health problems and whose previously pristine water her farm animals suddenly refused to drink. Tests of the water showed high levels of methane, arsenic and radon. She was advised not to shower, bathe or brush her teeth with the water. Although Guardian Exploration had drilled on her neighbor’s property, DEP determined that the company wasn’t at fault because Judy E’s complaint came more than six months after the drilling ended. Guardian eventually paid to connect Judy’s home to public water, although she now has a monthly water bill that the driller refuses to pay. Troutman and Pribanic found records that DEP had initially turned down a permit to bury waste on the neighbor’s land because it was too close to the water supply, but Guardian did so anyway. Eventually DEP reversed itself and approved the waste pit. The records, though, included no mention of Judy’s complaint. As Judy says in the film, “One lies for the other.”

The film also covers the aftermath of a huge blowout in 2011 at a drilling rig in Leroy Township in Bradford County that sent 10,000 gallons of flowback into a tributary of Towanda Creek. Pre-drilling water tests at one property showed clean water, but post-accident tests showed high levels of methane, strontium, sodium and other chemicals related to drilling. Chesapeake Energy hired the company that investigated the spill, a company that had a Chesapeake board member on its board, and eventually claimed the pre-drilling test was merely a one-time “snapshot” that didn’t reflect the true water quality. Chesapeake said it was not responsible for the water contamination, and DEP let that stand in the commonwealth’s final evaluation of the spill. If I didn’t hear gasps during this section of the film, everyone was probably too stunned. We are perhaps in even more trouble than we thought if a driller can toss out pre-drill water tests. (Troutman was covering this blowout when her reporter position was terminated. Two weeks later, she wrote in an email, Chesapeake Energy ran large color ads in the otherwise black and white paper).

The film includes landowners who find themselves merely “visitors” on their land because they own only the surface rights.  Land they hoped to farm is bulldozed and fracked while they watch, powerless.

And lest you thought the only problems were sloppiness on the surface, Troutman and Pribanic also take on concerns about the failure, whether immediate or eventual, of the cement casings that line the wells and the migration of the fracking fluid that remains underground. They often use simple and yet incredibly damning chalk drawings to illustrate these points. As hydrogeologist Bob Haag notes, “When you inject that much pressure that you lift all of the overlying rock, even a little bit, you create a new fracture pattern above the hydraulic fracturing zone, and you increase the ability of overlying rock to transmit water.”  Furthermore, the preferred method for disposing of waste fluid is underground injection, “turning the state into a pseudo deep-well injection waste-storage field,” Troutman says during the film.

Filmmakers Troutman and Pribanic, who attended the screening and stayed to answer many audience questions, think their film is making a difference. They screened it in Colorado Springs right before a vote last month to ban fracking there. “We see people getting more and more upset,” said Pribanic, who lives in Ohio but used to fly fish while vacationing in Potter County as a child.

Even by-the-book fracking will not provide a solution, Troutman said. “You can’t regulate away the inevitable impacts” of this process. Pribanic reminded the group that fracking is exempt from many federal regulations that protect drinking water, including the Superfund Act.  Twenty or 30 years from now, he said, “the gas companies won’t be held liable if [fracking fluid] leaks into the water supply.”

The filmmakers were scheduled to come to Annapolis last month, along with landowners harmed by fracking, but an ice storm in Pennsylvania forced a cancellation of the event. Environment Maryland hopes to reschedule in the summer.

The movie is the first project for Public Herald, a non-profit investigative news organization Troutman and Pribanic started. They talked about their precarious finances during the months of working on the film and sold “Triple Divide” T-shirts at the screening. Troutman is also outreach coordinator for the Mountain Watershed Association.  Marcellus Outreach Butler (MOB), a citizens group fighting fracking in northwest Pennsylvania, paid for the Butler screening so it could be shown for free to the public. About 60 people attended, including many who live near land leased for fracking.

“A lot of people feel hopeless about this,” Dianne Arnold, the treasurer of MOB, told those at the screening. ”The power comes from people coming together in communities…and saying,  ‘Enough is enough.’ “

–by elisabeth hoffman


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