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Author, Researcher Speak at Wysox Program Databases Urged for Tracking Natural Gas Industry

Tara Meixsell thought she was moving to "a nice, quiet little farm" to rural Garfield County on the western mountain slopes of the Rockies in Colorado. She was vaguely aware at the time, almost a dozen years ago, that there was some natural gas drilling activity going on in the state, but it seemed of little consequence to her life. It was when she took a long drive across the state in quest of cheaper hay for her horses that she became acquainted with a whole new world.

"The further I got from the Colorado River, I started noticing some weird things," she told an audience of about 150 people Sunday, the first day of spring, at the Wysox Fire Hall. "I started seeing what looked like Apollo rocket launch sites."

By the time she got to the farm where they were selling hay for four dollars a bale, compared to the $10 they were charging in Garfield County, she says she was no longer in a rural landscape. The people running the farm were selling their hay cheap, because they were getting out of there. The gas drillers were "forcing them out," Meixsell was told. If all of your neighbors are leasing their land to the drillers, they informed her, there is no way to continue life as you have known it, whether you go along or not.

This was an eye-opener for Meixsell, and, she confesses, she should have started taking a serious look at the natural gas industry then. She didn't. Two years later, the fliers were showing up in her own county, and the message was that "drilling is coming to our valley." That's when she started getting educated about all phases of the gas industry, learning about health impacts that were occurring. This journey culminated in a book written at the behest of a friend called "Collateral Damage."

She Wasn't Alone

She was unwittingly joining a growing movement of people who are combining their resources to determine, in her words, "the common realities among people who live close to wells." The friend who encouraged her to do the research that led to the book recently died from the effects of her illness, but Meixsell went from a seeker of solitude to something of an expert on all aspects of gas drilling, good and bad. In truth, it is mostly about the bad.

During the course of her research, which had become so extensive that she reached out to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a research assistant there, Meixsell became familiar with the research of Theo Coburn regarding the gas industry and her findings related to what are known as endocrine disruptors directly linked to the chemicals used in gas well fracking. It was Coburn who first identified the 278 different chemicals used in fracking, a recipe that is essentially proprietary and doesn't have to be shared with the public.

The book has been described as "a chronicle of lives devastated by gas and oil development" and a grassroots effort to fight that development through political action and the combined resources and power of people working together and keeping each other informed.

Meixsell came to Wysox at the behest of the Pennsylvania Landowners Group for Awareness and Solutions (PLGAS), headed by local activists, Carol French and Carolyn Knapp, not just to tell an entertaining story, or even as a precautionary tale. Meixsell was there for a greater purpose, and that is to spread the word that it is up to the people to learn what is going on around them when it comes to the gas and oil industry. The industry has essentially been given a pass on what they have to tell the public, they argue, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies that are supposed to be monitoring this activity are sharing only the most basic information, which is often after the fact.

What Stays in Ground?

The other featured speaker was Christopher Csikszentmihaly, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, and he gave an overview of hydraulic fracturing, noting that as much as 40 percent of the water forced into the well, with the purpose of creating fissures and essentially opening up the shale entrapping the gas, doesn't come back up. He acknowledged that it is true that, as the industry reports, 98 percent of what goes into the ground in those millions of gallons is water and sand. But what of those chemicals that Coburn identified, including toluene and benzene? How much of that is staying in the ground?

Csikszentmihaly noted that some of these chemicals, regarded as too dangerous to transport on our roadways, are allowed to evaporate into the atmosphere at well sites as frack water is forced back to the surface like a giant aerosol.

The issue of what is actually available to the citizenry was the real point of the PLGAS gathering in Wysox, and Csikszentmihaly said that the greater the damage when things go wrong the less is revealed to the public. For example, aside from chemicals used by the industry being protected as trade secrets, the landowners who received the biggest settlements aren't allowed to talk about it publicly. That's part of the settlement, he explained. You talk about it and any compensation for damages is cut off.

"The industry itself is not even keeping track," Csikszentmihaly said, and that is why it is critical for the people to pool their resources and track the health impact, damages and activities at the wells themselves and the land men who sell the leases and royalties. "What makes this really difficult is a lot of it is unknown."

A poll of those attending, by a show of hands, revealed that there were five or six people there whose drinking water had been tainted by gas drilling. A large majority rose their hands when asked how many have had their water tested.

Thousands of Wells Coming

In Garfield County, which is now the 12th most populated of the 64 counties in Colorado, there are more well sites than residences, Csikszentmihaly reported. He suggested this is a likely probability for Bradford County a handful of years into the future.

The best weapon to bring some of this information out of the dark, it was proposed repeatedly, is a database relying on websites to which people can go to import information or even record journals of well activities near them. Perhaps the best of them is wellwatch.org and there is even one to track and describe the actions and conduct of the land men, landmanreportcard.com. Also recommended for those educating themselves on the Marcellus Shale is earthworksaction.org.

This may be as close to a nonpartisan issue as you'll find, even though those concerned about environmental issues are often stereotyped as left-leaning liberals. Attending the session was a man who said that he was actively involved with the Tea Party in Pennsylvania and they are moving toward taking an aggressive stand on the issue, with hopes of convincing the national leadership to become involved.

This prompted one woman, a resident of Tompkins County, NY, to make this observation: "Politics does make strange bedfellows."

It is more about health and well-being, but politics is usually the path that has to be taken to protect both.

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