Saturday, March 13, 2010

Marcellus Shale: Are the Risks Worth the Rewards?

"Update: PEMA urges residents to prepare now for possible flooding.”

“DEP directs gas drillers to replace water.”

“Man killed by fall off Towanda drilling rig.”

I read these three stories in that order. The first two were in the Pike County [Pennsylvania] Courier, the third in the Binghamton [New York] Press & Sun Bulletin. The headlines of the first (get ready for a flood) and third (a man died in a gas-drilling accident) are self-explanatory. The second, about “replacing” water, went like this:

“The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) . . . ordered Schreiner Oil and Gas Co. to provide a permanent solution to water supply issues at two homes the company’s drilling activity impacted near Hedgehog Lane, McKean County.

“DEP previously determined that the company, based in Massillon, Ohio, was liable for affecting the water supplies of homes. . . . mong the contaminants identified were total dissolved solids, chlorides, manganese, iron, dissolved methane and ethane gas.”

Does this not terrify everyone who lives in the huge gas-drilling and potential gas-drilling region? (The Marcellus Shale encompasses large swaths of New York State, almost all of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, and parts of Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. A total of 31 or 32 states have deposits of so-called “natural” gas, more properly termed “fossil-fuel gas.”)

Here are some facts:

1) The horizontal, slick-water hydraulic fracturing process of gas drilling (“chemo-fracking”) uses and releases numerous toxic chemicals — carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, naturally occurring radioactive materials.

2) Accidents happen.

3) People make mistakes.

4) Floods occur.

Anyone who has ever experienced a flash flood knows that you’re going to run for your life and your loved ones' lives first, and for your most expensive and/or most precious possessions next.

Even if gas companies had our best interests at heart — and you’d have to be a total naïf to think they do — there is simply no way to protect us from all these toxins that would go streaming into our water systems in the event of a flood, let alone the inevitable accidents and mistakes that will occur.

Because they will.

In the cases where the gas companies have to “replace” water, what are we talking about?

You can’t “replace” water that has been contaminated with poisons. You can bring in huge “water buffaloes” with 300 or 500 gallons of “fresh” water from elsewhere (and who is monitoring that water? Where does it come from?) to resupply a family with drinking, cooking, and bathing water, but the ground is still contaminated.

The vegetables and flowers and shrubs in the family’s garden are still reliant on that water for survival. The squirrels, bunnies, and raccoons . . . the chickadees, warblers, and woodpeckers . . . the frogs, fish, and turtles . . . the crickets, bees, and peepers . . . the family cat and dog . . . all drink the water from that contaminated ground. Toddlers in sandboxes eat the dirt. Kiddie pools and grown-ups’ pools, bird baths, ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes . . . all can be contaminated from just one spill.

You can’t “replace” bad water with good. Period.

There is not enough recompense in the world to mitigate this kind of permanent damage to a person’s home and property or to our surrounds, or to our own health and our children’s health.

It is up to communities to decide if the risks are worth the riches that will go to the gas companies and to a few members of the communities.

Let’s think about these risks for a moment: Someone in my community will die because of fracking. It’s inevitable. The man who was killed on a gas rig in Towanda, Pennsylvania, has a name: Greg Allen Henry. He was from Athens, Tennessee. He was 31 years old and was killed when he fell from a rig and suffered massive head trauma.

Are the risks worth the rewards? How many lives are worth how many dollars? The job (remember the many promised to Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers) came, no doubt, with pretty good pay to bring a Tennesseean so far from home. But was it enough for Greg Henry's family? Will it help ease their grief?

Will you be getting free energy for life, if you lease your land and it’s fracked? Will you ever feel safe drinking the water? Will the royalty fees cover the loss of your home’s value? Where will you go if you are forced to leave your valueless home? What will happen to the investments of time, equity, sweat, and tears—let alone cash—you’ve poured into it? How much money is enough? Are the risks worth the rewards?

Is a Tennessee man’s life worth as much as a Towanda child’s life? If your child drinks contaminated water today and develops cancer in five years, will a gas company come forward to help you pay for your child’s chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and hold your hand while you wait for the latest medical test results that will tell you if she will live or die?

Whose risks? Whose rewards?

Are the risks worth the rewards?

Every community must come up with its answer.