My Frack-Finding Weekend in West Virginia - Southern Maryland Headline News

My Frack-Finding Weekend in West Virginia

Environmental Commentary by Chris Bolgiano

A shiny new drill rises like a monument to risk-taking in the view from Diane Pitcock’s porch; its low rumble, like a perpetually busy superhighway, rolling across the half-mile of fields between them.

“West Virginia is the heart of the Marcellus shale gas formation, but nobody had heard of that when we retired here seven years ago,” Pitcock said.

Since 2005, when Congress gave gas developers a key exemption from provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act, a form of drilling called “fracking” has exploded, sometimes literally. Fracking involves drilling thousands of feet vertically and then horizontally, then pumping water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals down to crack the shale and release gas.

Thousands of wells have been fracked in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and thousands more are proposed. State regulations tend to be patchy.

“Gas companies know they can do anything,” Pitcock said, “especially where people are poor and poorly educated.”

Pitcock happens to have a master’s degree in education. When drilling started next door, she organized a network of Host Farms where people can stay to learn about fracking. I recently camped in her yard and followed Pitcock up narrow, curving roads to find wells, compressor stations, extraction plants, truck “farms” and swarms of large machines buzzing like distant bee hives. Most were tucked nearly out of sight among the hills.

This rolling landscape is dotted with modest houses, weathered barn, and grazing cattle. Landowners often sold off their mineral rights, typically to large corporations, during hard times over the last century. “Mineral rights trump surface rights,” Pitcock said, “even if they were signed away in the 1890s.”

Today, entire forested hills are being clear-cut, burned and bulldozed into flat pads of five to ten acres. A guard at one site confirmed that the nearby denuded hillside was being “taken down for another compressor plant” and the dirt would “fill in holes elsewhere.” Pitcock speculated later that the dirt would elevate pads beside streams “to dodge any flood plain issues.” Hundreds of miles of deforested swaths for roads and pipelines also snake across the land, fragmenting wildlife habitats.

Trucks carrying the million gallons of water, plus chemicals, needed for each frack travel 24/7. So do trucks carrying away the “flowback,” or used, contaminated water — where to, no one knows. Accidents occur regularly. Sometimes, gas company men rope off a spill and prohibit all media.

Roads crumble from the outside in. “Dust from truck traffic enveloped my home,” said Christina Woods, one of Pitcock’s neighbors. At a conference videotaped for YouTube, Woods described how she documented the spraying of contaminated flowback to dampen the dust. Tests revealed arsenic, strontium and other toxics. After weeks of coughing, she was diagnosed with a form of asthma.

Another neighbor wasn’t home when we stopped at the finished, producing well across the road from their yard strewn with toys. Only a few pieces of heavy equipment remained, including a vent stack emitting visible fumes. According to the West Virginia Division of Air Quality, emissions of less than 6 pounds of volatile organic compounds per hour don’t require permits. No one aggregates total emissions.

Some homeowners around the region have won settlements from the industry for illnesses caused by air and well-water pollution, but these usually come with a non-disclosure order.

At night, we hiked up the hill behind Pitcock’s house to peer at an industrial park illuminated by blazing lights. Unidentified fluid trickled out of equipment connecting two large above-ground reservoirs lined with black plastic, which sat just beyond a barbed wire fence studded with “No Trespassing” signs.

The chemicals used are trade secrets protected by law from disclosure. Trucks that may be carrying thousands of gallons of carcinogens are labeled “Residual Waste.”

Driving those trucks is one of the biggest job opportunities for local people. “The industry brings its own managers,” Pitcock said, “and a transient work force follows the drilling.”

Back on Pitcock’s porch, the East Run Band entertained us with the music for which Appalachia is famous. Ten-year-old Silas Powell played the mandolin with his father on guitar and his grandfather on bass.

By the time Silas grows up, fracking will likely be over. Other shale gas developments have an average well lifespan of eight years. Then the industry caps the well and moves out. Decades could pass before fracking fluids may show up in groundwater beneath millions of acres.

I returned to my home powered by ever-cheaper solar panels, and to news that the first Atlantic offshore wind plant has been permitted. With alternatives now nearly as cheap as coal, why are we sacrificing Silas to the incalculable risks of fracking?

Chris Bolgiano has written or edited six books and many articles. She lives largely off the grid in Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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