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.