Driving out to Western Pennsylvania, away from the East’s sprawling cities and out to the open space of Appalachia, I am quickly reminded of the debate Americans are waging over energy.
The further I drive down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the more I am reminded: Bold billboards claim energy taxes are ruining the lives of the everyday Pennsylvanian. Yet other equally large roadside displays read, “More methane, more smog, more [insert image of an asthmatic child with an inhaler here].” The white steel skeletons of hydraulic fracturing towers mark each natural gas well pad. Stark signs staked at the side of major highways exclaim: “BLASTING ZONE – 1,000 FEET,” and I can see giant yellow bulldozers toting around tons of dug-up earth, spreading it away from freshly leveled mountaintops.
I didn’t give much thought to mining and fracking when I set out for Westmoreland County on a reporting trip this past Wednesday. After all, I came here to write about animals, not energy. But the more billboards, oil wells, blasting zones and bulldozers I see, the more I realize both industries are a big—if not important—part of life here.
Western Pennsylvania’s economy relies on revenues from resource extraction—that is, bituminous coal and natural gas. With more people aware of the negative health impacts of mining (both in underground and surface—or mountaintop—mines) and hydraulic fracturing—not to mention the ever-increasing threats posed by climate change—economic reliance on these industries is coming under increased scrutiny by concerned residents. Or so I’ve learned.
* * * * * *
Wednesday evening, after a full afternoon of reporting and a quick dinner to refuel, I head to my hotel, located in the town of Donegal, to catch up on emails and review my notes. Those leveled mountains and well pads fresh in my mind, I first Google “Donegal fracking.” What I find shocks me: There are eight wells located in this town alone…eight of 251 wells in the county, three of 51 in the county which have safety violations. Local people are concerned about their town’s future. Local people are scared about water contamination. Yet industry permits continue to be approved.
Naturally, I must investigate.
Being born and raised on Long Island, New York, I grew up around polluting industries, sure. That includes lots of industries that pose environmental contamination and human health risks, from military manufacturing to laboratory research to chemical production to a nuclear power plant that never opened. We have our fare share of toxic plumes and cancer clusters. But on the Island—and elsewhere in New York, for that matter—we don’t have fracking. (Or coal mining.)
As I powered down my laptop, my phone buzzed. “What are you up to? XO Mom” read a text.
"I'm researching fracking."
"You know...natural gas extraction wells. There are three here with violations. One apparently contaminated drinking water here. I need to see it."
"Be careful, Erin. I am sure people will not like you poking around. Your job makes me a bit nervous. Oye...."
I smile. I have to admit, it’s kind of cool to be compared to Erin Brockovich, even if it’s my own mother doing the comparing.
I explain to her that it’s still light out, and that I’ll text her as soon as I get back from exploring. I’m not a troublemaker, just curious. I want to see what these wells are all about. The one I want to see, Kalp I-9H, apparently has a tailings pond that leaked chemicals into the local aquifer. I use my investigative skills to pinpoint the location of the well, which, according to NPR's ShalePlay project, has the highest number of violations in Donegal.
It's simple for me to locate the well. But I find that seeing the well is a lot easier said than done. You see, some energy companies—like WPX Energy, LLC.—do a pretty good job of hiding their operations from the public view.
There really isn’t much to see. There's a long dirt driveway and up on a hill I spot the tops of a few green dumpsters. I drive back to my hotel and text Mom. “I’m back, all fine. Love you.” Then I doze off.
I sleep well, but fracking is still on my mind when I wake. In the breakfast room, a round, blond woman in a black apron arranges trays of steaming biscuits, gravy, sausage and grits on the counter, chatting with another guest about local jobs (or the lack thereof):
“Good biscuits,” says a large, tired-looking man in a red flannel shirt, fraying jeans, cowboy hat and muddy leather work boots. “I need my energy today. Hard at work this week.”
“Thank you, sir,” the cook says sweetly in a clearly Appalachian accent. “Where you working?”
I sit down with a bowl of oatmeal, yogurt, banana and a hot green tea (all the while thinking about the integrity of the water used to make my oats and tea) and listen.
“Out on the oil wells round here, came out from New Mexico. Needed the extra cash.”
“I hear you. I’ve been working mornings here, and bartend six nights a week. It’s all I can do to keep food on the table.”
Classic story: Small town, lots of energy, lack of cash. When the man leaves, I wave down the cook.
“Good morning,” I say. “I’m here from New York. I saw a few gas wells around here, and heard you talking to that man. What’s the consensus on fracking here?”
The cook’s smile dissolves into a look of dismay. She looks around before leaning in and whispers, “To tell you the truth, a lot of people around here don’t like it. There’s been a few issues, and people are scared. I don’t want my kids to get sick. I don’t want to get sick. But the town just approved a new permit, sadly.”
Later that day, I’m chatting with another local—a researcher I was working with for my story. “So, I know there’s fracking going on here….”
He looks at me a bit dejectedly, and then readjusts his glasses. “You know, it’s such a weird issue. I spoke out about it at a town meeting recently. But fracking brings a lot of money to this area. So some people want it around, even with the health scares.”
I spend one more night in Westmoreland County, among beautiful mountains, lakes and wildlife…and fracking towers, well pads and tailings ponds. I leave midmorning so I can meet a friend living in Montgomery County for lunch. We plan to meet at a hip vegan place in Pottstown, 30 minutes from her house and on my way back to N.Y.
The rain is coming down, and it’s foggy, making it tough to navigate my hatchback, which has a penchant for hydroplaning on slick roads. I blast the radio to stay alert. Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, suddenly the rain abates and the fog lifts long enough for me to see the Somerset Wind Farm, five turbines tucked along a mountain ridge. About an hour later, I see dozens of solar panels on a farm.
I smile to see renewable energy make an appearance in this state so dominated by oil and coal: I mean, look at all these coal mines. Look at all these gas wells. It’s so much, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suggests residents living near mines purchase “Mine Subsidence Insurance.”
* * * * * *
My positive mood fades about a hundred miles later, when my cellphone’s GPS function stops working when driving into Pottstown, P.A., a suburban college town off the Schuylkill River. Frustrated, I pull over and fumble with it for a few minutes. There is absolutely no service…I can’t find the restaurant, I can’t even call my friend. Then I look up at the sky and notice two huge gray, steaming towers: two reactors of a nuclear power station.
You can’t make this stuff up. It’s Limerick Generating Station. I feel like Energy, Inc., is watching me. Okay, not exactly. But there’s no arguing it’s omnipresent in this state.
I see my friend’s car crawling down the street and flag it down. Somehow, we’ve both found the restaurant without the miracle that is mobile electronic technology.
“Dude, my phone stopped working!” says my friend as she slowly gets out of her car, looking angrily at the device in her hand.
“Mine too—and I wonder if it has anything to do with that,” I say, pointing up at the hulking power station.
“You know, I remember my dad mentioning once that for some reason there’s no service around power plants. Like, for security or something.”
I shake my head and sigh. I’m tired and disheartened. Can’t we create clean energy jobs? Can’t we stop polluting the Earth? Can’t we take away some power from energy companies?
As my friend and I chat about how good it is to see each other, but I’m preoccupied. In the back of my mind I try not to worry about the chemical composition of the water we’re about to drink.