April Proves Tough Month for Gas Drillers
Mounting Protests and Government Crackdowns Challenge Industry
April has perhaps been the most difficult stretch of time yet faced by companies related to the natural gas drilling industry, especially in Bradford County. The heated rancor of the public was already reaching a fever pitch when Chesapeake Energy’s Atgas 2H well in Leroy Township experienced a serious malfunction on April 19 that spewed thousands of gallons of toxic fracking water, much of which ran off into a tributary of Towanda Creek.
Earlier in the month, state environmental regulators asked the gas companies to voluntarily suspend the controversial practice of discharging extracted fracking water into rivers and streams. Meanwhile, local municipalities are refusing to allow the companies to construct wastewater treatment plants. Citizens in towns along both branches of the Susquehanna River are mounting objections to additional drafting of river water for fracking purposes.
The gas well blow-out and mounting public opposition to almost every aspect of gas drilling prompted Bradford County Commissioner Mark W. Smith to compose a stern letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
“Issue after issue has arisen in Bradford County in relation to the development of natural gas,” Smith stated at the beginning of his letter. Smith went on to detail several key gas-related issues that have affected the residents of Bradford County in ways, he asserts, that are not being addressed at the state level.
Among his concerns are recent reports that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spends an average of 35 minutes deliberating the approval of new gas well permits. “This is an appalling statistic considering the significant impact of a natural gas drilling site and even more appalling considering that there have been nearly 2,000 gas wells permitted in Bradford County.”
Smith also opposed a new policy that steers Marcellus Shale violation to top DEP officials before any fines are levied or action can be taken against the gas companies. In addition to usurping the integrity of the agency, Smith wrote, “It does irreparable damage to the local areas in the Marcellus Shale with the environmental damage that has become an everyday reality in Bradford County.”
On the topic of well water contamination, Smith blasted the governor for ignoring a serious issue that is diminishing the quality of life for area residents, as well as their property values. “Water buffalos and temporary storage tanks now lay claim to peoples’ yards as a stark reminder of the extreme negative impact that natural gas development is having on our local communities,” Smith stated.
Smith is a supporter of having some sort of impact tax levied on gas companies that can be returned to the local communities for repair of infrastructure and bolstering civil services. He questioned the lack of financial or logistical support from the state for emergency responders, police and fire companies, and dispatchers who “are working at breakneck pace to respond to immense traffic accident increases, well site accidents, and other related issues.”
The commissioner also chided the governor for the county’s lack of representation on the state’s Marcellus Shale Commission, despite statistics that show Bradford County to be the most drilled-in county in the state. “What a shame that a county with the most experience dealing with the impact of natural gas development seems to have been blackballed from comment to what will be your basis for setting Marcellus Shale policy,” Smith stated.
Many of the same topics were on the minds of dozens of citizens and advocates who took part in a protest rally across from Chesapeake Energy’s South Towanda headquarters on April 22. Despite the fact that it was Good Friday, and the office building and its parking lot appeared to be all but empty, residents from Bradford and Susquehanna Counties held signs that read “Drilling is Toxic,” “Say ‘No’ to Frack,” and “You Can’t Drink Money.” Passing motorists honked their horns as the protestors shouted “Save our Water!” Some held up jugs of dirty tap water drawn from their residences as attorney Todd O’Malley, who is representing three families on Paradise Road in Terry Township whose property values have plummeted in the wake of their respective water woes, joined the infuriated crowd in calling for a moratorium in new well drilling in the county until the gas companies can be held accountable for problems caused so far and trusted to prevent such situations in the future.
It was reported that Chesapeake Energy has voluntarily halted the completion process at other drilling sites in the area until the exact cause of the Leroy Township blow-out can be determined and other sites can be inspected to ensure that the same type of accident does not happen again. With so much of the company’s focus devoted to the blow-out, however, Chesapeake has become silent on other drilling-related issues that the Rocket-Courier has been pursuing recently as part of the publication’s ongoing series of feature stories about the impact of the natural gas industry on the region. Reporting fair and accurate stories with the assistance of gas company representatives remains a goal of both the editors and publisher of the paper, but the overall situation has suddenly become nearly overwhelming, and trying to incorporate exclusive statements by the gas companies into every story has become daunting.