Quebec Officials Tour Bradford County Gas Sites
By Rick Hiduk
It was brief. It was without fanfare. And it was by design.
A group of 55 government officials and environmental advocates from the Province of Quebec, including at least five city mayors, visited Bradford County on Oct. 15 to get a first-hand look at natural gas operations in the area and to hear stories from people who have been impacted by the burgeoning industry. Their tour, which began in Wyalusing, was unheralded because its organizers wanted to prevent administrators of drilling operations and support businesses from scaling back activity or making any last minute changes that would alter the appearance or daily effects of the industry on both the environment and the community.
Despite the expressed intentions of the Canadians, the entourage did not have enough time in Wyalusing to “get to know the population” and “what it means to deal with the gas situation,” as Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets mayor Jean-Guy Paré stated as his primary goal as he disembarked from the large touring bus in the borough’s municipal building parking lot.
“They are at our doorsteps,” Paré said of the gas companies looking for approval to tap the vast Utica shale formation that lies under the St. Lawrence Lowlands of Quebec. “We want to see what it will look like in 10 or 15 years and apply the appropriate measures before we open the door.”
Most of the individuals who comprised the group have gone on the record in the Canadian press as being opposed to gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing for a variety of reasons. Some fear contamination of drinking water, while others are concerned about air pollution and the effects of gas exploration and extraction on agriculture. Their American hosts, led in Bradford County by noted environmental advocate Diane Siegmund, made sure that they saw what they wanted to see.
From Wyalusing, the Canadians were taken to Chesapeake Energy’s wastewater treatment facility near the boundary of Terry and Asylum Townships, better-known locally as the Arnold Site. While Pennsylvania DEP and Chesapeake officials maintain that the operations there are legal and environmentally sound, nearby resident Dave Bohlander told the visitors a different story. In addition to his concerns about the potential contamination of the local watershed, Bohlander pointed out the impact on the once pastoral lifestyle by hundreds of heavy tankers per day visiting the site.
According to Siegmund, the touring group got their first unobstructed view of a drilling rig at a Chief Oil and Gas Company site in French Azilum, where Bradford County resident Crystal Stroud told the story of her personal struggles with Chief after water tests showed elevated levels of barium in the family’s drinking water supply that were attributed to a Chief drilling site 1,200 feet from her property. The high levels of barium in Stroud’s blood stream left her extremely ill.
After a lunch stop in Towanda, the entourage moved on to Granville Center, where resident Sherry Vargson shared her family’s experiences with high levels of migrating methane gas in their primary water supply and the recent construction of a compressor station, the gathering lines for which will likely crisscross her property. The Quebec officials got as close as they were able to a Talisman Energy compressor station on Buckwheat Hollow Road, which, nearby residents contend, has polluted the air there with benzene, styrene, toluene, phenol and other gasses that, in high concentrations, can irritate the respiratory system.
Erwin Brown met the tour group as they arrived in Troy, where word of their arrival reached enough people in advance to prevent the bus from parking where the tour organizers had planned. Brown maintains that Troy Borough has sold out to Talisman Energy, allowing the company to extract millions of gallons of fresh water per day from its aquifers, while forfeiting its peace and quiet and the safety of its pedestrians.
“He really struck a chord with them,” Siegmund said of Brown’s presentation to the Canadians.
The Pennsylvania tour wrapped up in Dickson City, where participants heard a final speech by Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, TX, who claims that he resigned from his post when he realized that there was nothing that the town could do to prevent gas drilling, fracking, or any adverse effects on the community. A few months later, he moved from the town, asserting that he feared for the health of his family and their pets.
“We can summarize our trip in two words; courage and despair,” anti-fracking advocate Pierre Bluteau of Leclersville, Quebec, said of the Pennsylvania tour afterward. He admired the courage of the people in Bradford County who had related to the entourage their struggles with the development of shale gas in the area. He expressed concern for a community whose residents’ voices, in his opinion, are stifled. “They have no recourse, and they are not heard by the authorities who would be expected to protect them,” Bluteau stated.
The swift and choreographed one-day tour unfortunately did not provide the opportunity sought by Mayor Paré to speak with members of the community at large to garner their collective opinions about the overall impact of gas drilling on the area, as well as a prognosis of the future of the industry here that might have differed significantly from those who showed the Canadians around Bradford County. Canadians—and residents of Quebec in particular—are considering a long-term moratorium on natural gas exploration, and the recent visit by this group to our area and the perspectives that it generated are likely to play a large role in the opinions of the constituents to whom the officials will report.