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January 16th, 2009
America in Gridlock
[RADIO] There's Gas in Them Thar Hills

Over the past few years, prospectors have been combing the hills of Pennsylvania. They’re not looking for gold. The mineral that’s setting off the frenzy is shale. It’s a mile or more below ground, and it’s full of natural gas — maybe enough to fuel the entire U.S. for two years.

The gas rush could make some Pennsylvanians rich. But, it could also pollute the state’s air and water as the gas-grab can put serious stress on a community’s infrastructure.

And, that’s set up a conflict between natives of the area and weekenders — mostly New Yorkers — who own second homes there. Blueprint America — with Weekend America — goes to Northeastern Pennsylvania to look into what’s pitting neighbor against neighbor in what could unsettle the area’s infrastructure.

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Over the past few years, prospectors have been combing the hills of Pennsylvania. They aren’t looking for gold – instead, the mineral that’s setting off the frenzy is shale. It’s known as the Marcellus Shale, it lies a mile or more below ground, and it’s full of natural gas – maybe enough to fuel the entire United States for two years.

The “gas rush” could make some Pennsylvanians rich. But it could also pollute the state’s air and water. And that’s set up a conflict between natives of the area and “weekenders” – mostly New Yorkers – who own second homes there.

Bill Bryant’s family moved to Damascus Township, Pennsylvania close to a hundred and seventy years ago – in 1841. I observe that that means he has pretty deep roots there. “Yeah, they cleared the land here,” he laughs. “They were Connecticut Yankees.”

It’s gorgeous land – pretty much the definition of “bucolic” – with lush, gentle hills and a view of the Catskill Mountains in the distance. Bryant’s a dairy farmer. But he’s also watching a gas company – slowly – move into the area.

“That whole side hill over there is signed up with Cheaspeake,” he says, gesturing to the north. “And like I say, the guy across the road is signed up with Cheaspeake. The guy across the road probably only signed for $1,400. And that guy” — he gestures back to the north — “signed for a couple thousand. But they did get up to about $2,800 here.”

That’s how much the gas companies were paying per acre just as a signing bonus. At that rate, Bryant would’ve earned $728,000 on his 260 acres. And once the wells started pumping gas from under his land, he’d earn a percentage of the revenues.

But he didn’t sign – in part because he and his family have questions about the environmental impact of drilling.

Here’s why: The fuel’s actually trapped in little pockets in the shale. Tom Murphy of the Penn State Cooperative Extension says that to get the gas OUT of those pockets, energy companies use a technique called hydraulic fracturing — forcing millions of gallons of water into bore-holes at extremely high pressure to break open the brittle shale. Then the gas companies pump sand into the holes; the grains prop open the tiny cracks in the rock. Once the water gets pumped out, the gas can flow up to the surface – and ultimately to your furnace.

The thing is, energy companies aren’t pumping just water and sand into the ground. The fluid that they use is actually a soup that contains scores of chemicals – and some of those ingredients are toxic. They can cause brain and kidney damage, even cancer. And environmentalists say, given the track record of operations like this in Texas and across the West, there’s almost no oversight when it comes to disposing of the fluid. So it might end up in the water table, or in lakes and streams, or even evaporating. And because of those risks, they want the drilling to stop.

Every weekend, Joe Levine and Jane Ciphers leave their home in Brooklyn for a barn that they converted into a weekend home not far from Bryant’s farm. It’s where the anti-drilling movement meets to talk strategy.

Levine and Ciphers helped organize a group called Damascus Citizens for Sustainability. A lot of locals think they’re nothing but NIMBYs. But Pat Carullo, another of the group’s organizers, said there’s something much bigger at stake. “This is not our back yard. This is the drinking water source for 15 million Americans.”

As he talks, he gestures out a wall of windows in Levine and Ciphgers’ weekend home with a sweeping view of the Delaware River a couple hundred feet downhill. New York City’s reservoirs are upstream, and Philadelphia and Wilmington tap the Delaware Watershed downstream.

The locals say they understand that – that, as farmers, they’re well aware of the environmental risks, and they’re trying to minimize them. They accuse the city people of being condescending, treating them like ignorant rubes. They say it’s like the two sides aren’t even speaking the same language.

Pat Carullo says he knows what language he’s speaking “I’m speaking English. I don’t exactly know what language someone might be speaking who says, ‘We understand that the gas and oil industry is operating under total Federal deregulation, we understand that there’s going to be a catastrophic result from thousands of gas wells in a watershed which is protected by a sitting act of Congress, and we’re going to proceed anyway.’ I don’t understand – that doesn’t seem to me like English.”

The locals also say that the gas companies are in Pennsylvania to stay; that drilling is inevitable. But Barbara Arrindell – another organizer of Damascus Citizens – says nothing is inevitable. “The inevitability of someone who was born into an African-American, a Negro, or whatever terminology of dark skin – in this country – it was inevitable that they were going to be a slave,” she argues. “Now, that’s not the case today.”

“But it took a war to establish that,” I say.

“Well, it might take a war to do this,” she snaps back, and her fellow environmentalists laugh. “If someone’s only looking at what’s gonna go in [their] pocket, and [they] don’t care about anything else, then that’s the language that they might have to understand – that they will be sued. That there are costs involved in this beyond what is just going to go into their pocket.”

A lot of the farmers in the area just roll their eyes when you mention the Damascus Citizens. They see the environmentalists as carpetbaggers who just don’t understand farm life. Some of the group’s members are “weekenders”; others live in the area full-time. But most of its leaders are New Yorkers – city people. They’re part of a wave of city people who’ve been moving into the area for years now. As they buy and build homes, property taxes rise. And it gets harder to run dairy farms.

Bill Bryant, the farmer whose family’s been working the land here for nearly a hundred seventy years, says he’s tried to adapt to the changes by opening an artisanal cheesemaking operation. But not without some misgivings. “I’m personally maybe a little bit anti-city-people,” he says. “but the cheese thing works better with the city people. So we’re trying to take advantage of what’s happened in the area. Because the trend in dairy farmers is just to keep getting bigger, and we’re almost the biggest in the county now and we don’t wanna get any bigger, so at that point you gotta look to do something else.”

Fort some of his neighbors, “something else” comes down to two choices: Either sign a gas lease … or sell off the land. “And those places are basically in jeopardy of being subdivided, and somebody from the city would get a hold of them,” he says. “So are we better off with those places subdivided and more city people in the area, or are we better off with the people who’ve been here a hundred years keeping those tracts in the family and getting some money from gas to pay their taxes and keep the land? I don’t know which is worse.”

Bill Bryant has time to make up his mind: Gas companies have cut back on signing new leases thanks to the economy. Meanwhile, else where in Pennsylvania drilling’s already taking place. Its opponents are lobbying lawmakers to stop it before it goes any farther.

# # #

  • Pat Carullo

    It is unfortunate that the editors & producers of this report – choose to frame the issue as “us against them”. The gas drilling issue is not about city people or farmers – it is about the fact that the gas & oil industry [alone] now enjoy a “total federal deregulation” – and they wish to drill thousands of gas wells in protected watersheds – using secret toxic chemicals. Private property rights do not include injecting millions-of-gallons of our water into the ground mixed with 30,000 gallons of toxic chemicals.

  • Diane Townsend

    It is really too bad that farmers in Damascus Township, where I live, see city folks or gas drilling as a choice of what to do with their land. There are many people here with small properties that earn a living just like everyone else. The health of us all is at stake here, and we should not allow big oil and gas to take the land and spoil it for our future generations weather they be city folk or country folk.

  • James Barth

    Rick Karr’s report trivializes a vital health concern: the threat to the drinking water of more than 15 million Americans who depend upon the Delaware River Basin as their water source. He does this by turning his narrative into a “natives” vs. New York City “weekender” conflict.

    That story is worthy of exploration in itself, yet Mr. Karr also manages to present only a very small part of one side of that issue. Listening to his report, one would think that all those who leased their land for drilling are impoverished dairy farmers, which is so far from the truth that my head is spinning. Listening to his report, one is led to believe that “outsiders” who move to that part of Pennsylvania and build homes are responsible for the rising taxes that we all have to pay. That is ridiculous. He quotes a “local” describing the Damascus Citizens as “carpetbaggers”, and yet he allows no time in his report for a response by Damascus Citizens to any of these views and characterizations.

    This comment section is far too short to allow me to provide many counter points. I will say that as a member of the Damascus Citizens steering committee, I attended the “strategy meeting” that we held for Mr. Karr’s benefit that Saturday morning, during which Mr. Karr ran out of audio tape. In a way, his report reflects that fact.

    My wife and I bought 25 acres twenty years ago. We designed and had a house built (by a local contractor) in 2003. I was able to live full time in that house for five years, four of which I volunteered for the local fire department. The “natives” are the ones who have children who attend school locally, and it is the school tax that
    is the greatest burden by far. Wayne County is a low service area: volunteer fire, volunteer ambulance, about four State troopers for the county. What services do second home owners receive for their taxes? “Natives” run the local town boards and county commissions. They determine tax assessments and rates. “Weekenders” just pay the taxes so the “dairy farmer’s” kids can go to a nice school.

    Two hunting clubs own the more than 1,500 acres that lie between us and the Delaware River. They have leased to Chesapeake, and to my knowledge, Chesapeake will be allowed to drill up to 52 wells in that 2.4 square mile area. The club members are not “poor dairy farmers”, they are the local elite lawyers and business owners from the Honesdale (county seat) area.

    In retrospect, perhaps I expectied too much from Mr. Karr’s report. First, I thought I lived in America, and that even “weekenders” from NYC are American. I also thought that the threat drilling poses threatens us all. I guess not in the “natives” eyes, or in Mr. Karr’s.

    Second, I think that horizontal drilling/hydraulic fracturing using toxic chemicals; an inherently poisonous process that will threaten the drinking water supply of fifteen million Americans in the Delaware River Basin area, is the important story. I guess it takes the backseat in Mr. Karr’s eyes.

    This vital issue demands serious journalism. Who will step up to the plate?

  • Allan Rubin

    Hmmm, which is worse, controlled development of housing or uncontrolled, unregulated industrialization and pollution? Tough call. (sarcasm). No one should have the right to profit while destroying other people’s lives.

  • Joanne Wasserman

    I did not like the “us” vs “them” slant of this report. I am a “local”. Although I am not a farmer, I have lived and worked in this area my entire life in a small business started by my husband, who’s great-grandparents first came to the area as carpenters. My son was born and raised here. We are not talking about one or two gas wells out in some farmer’s back field. If drilling is allowed in this Watershed, we are talking about a total industrialization of this so-called “bucolic” landscape. We are talking about a serious threat to an entire Watershed and to the recreational businesses who make their living here. We are talking about the destruction of our total way of life in these small communities up and down the Delaware River. Individual landowners need to consider EVERYONE who resides here. The health and well-being of our future depends on what these landowners ultimately decide to do. We are all in this togehter whether we like it or not.

  • Susan Blankensop

    Your coverage of the gas drilling issue is irresponsibly over-simplified. It is not a ‘rich city folks vs poor dairy farmer’ argument.It is about unregulated energy Co.s using their money and lobbying power to get exemptions to environmental laws put in place to protect ALL of us. You should also understand the local tax laws to understand the ‘poor’ dairy farmers tax advantages and what non-farmers pay.

  • Allan Rubin

    I bought a 150 year old house here 20 years ago and was assessed a very high tax rate which I paid without complaint because I was making city money and was able to spend it in the country and help my neighbors ease their taxes. I neither received nor required any special added services. Now I live here full time and they blame me for all our high taxes. It is not fair and they should stop scapegoating the former city people. We all came from somewhere else originally. Our efforts are now to save the area for all of us from a horrible mistake.

  • Robin Scala

    The report is spot-on. It IS us against them. People from the city who have a second home in the country do not deal with the same issues that the landowners who LIVE here do. It is apples and oranges.
    Besides, Damascus Citizens and the obstructionist groups they associate with fabricate information. They use no fact. Everything is “disaster!” and yet for some reason I believe they are cooking on their gas ranges, heating with natural gas, using electricity created by gas powered plants to spread misinformation, and so on. I don’t see their bicycles parked outside the meetings they go to. Come on, Damascus, shut down the power and heat if you feel natural gas is so terrible.
    What you are really objecting to is the fact that NYC should have built a water treatment plant years ago. And you are objecting to the change of economic status that resident landowners would enjoy. For some reason it is alright for YOU to make money, but not the poverty stricken farmer who’s land you get to view from your vacation home.
    If you want to concern yourself with water, then start in your own backyard – NYC. All the toxic chemicals you pour down your drains and the trash you throw in the streets gets dumped straight into the OCEAN, where it runs like a river down the east coast, poisoning the sea life. Why doesn’t that concern you? It makes a terribly disgusting photograph, I can tell you that! Start cleaning up your act before you tell anyone else what to do.

  • Tony DiNovo

    There was a report on NPR describing theeffects of hydraulic fracturing this week, descriping some of the ill effects that were having to the people who leased there land around these sites. They said That HBO was carrying a feature on this on Monday (6-14) but I can not find it listed. I believe the documentary was titled “Gas Land” but can find nothing on HBO or any place else on this program. Do you have any information?

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