Many Sullivan County Residents Share Skepticism over Drilling
The following is the third installment in our series about how the natural gas industry is impacting various communities in our coverage area. We continue this week with Dushore and eastern Sullivan County. In the coming weeks, the series will explore the effects of the industry on the Towanda and Wyalusing areas.
Sullivan County is one of the most forested regions in Pennsylvania. It is home to two extremely popular state parks, as well as thousands of square miles of state forest. Its homey festivals and fall foliage activities attract thousands of tourists to the area each year who fill its quaint eateries and specialty shops to capacity.
Most all of that which isn’t wooded or residential in Sullivan County is farmed. These are assets that those living in the borough of Dushore, and in Cherry, Colley, and Forks Townships and points west aren’t willing to sacrifice for the promise of riches from the gas boom that has already taken hold of Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties and exceedingly dominates the economy and landscape in adjacent Bradford County.
For this installment of our Impact series, residents, local politicians, and leaders in commerce, education, and conservation voiced serious concerns about the expansion of the gas industry in Sullivan County. While some of those interviewed via phone and email feel little can be done to halt the progression of drilling and transferring natural gas from their relatively small slice of the Marcellus shale, most expressed hope that the industry and legislators will act responsibly to help maintain the integrity and viability of the area. There are yet others who believe that the fight has just begun and that Sullivan County is still in a solid position to stand up to feared exploitation of its natural resources.
Sullivan County Commissioners Darla M. Bortz, Betty Reibson, and Robert Getz issued a joint response to a questionnaire prepared specifically for them. When asked to gauge the public’s response to gas drilling in the area, they suggested that it was “initially positive,” but has been regarded more recently with “some skepticism.”
According to John Trallo of Sonestown, the skepticism has deep roots. When Chief Energy approached him about three years ago to secure a lease for the mineral rights under his land, he had already made the acquaintance of a number of gas company employees who warned him of water contamination and other consequences of drilling that they had seen in Texas.
Trallo attended a fire hall meeting sponsored by Chief in hopes of gathering more facts about the industry and the impact it would have on the county. “They told us that we were all going to get rich and that we wouldn’t even know they were in the area,” he recalled, adding that those in attendance were also told that the process of using pressurized water and sand to fracture the shale and release the natural gas was 100-percent safe. Although the $900 sign-on bonus for his eight-tenths of an acre was tantalizing, Trallo opted to take his copy of the contract home, which, he related, gas company representatives tried to prevent.
After consulting with a lawyer, Trallo deemed that the lease agreement had too many faults. Despite aggressive attempts by Chief and Tidelands Geophysical—a seismic testing company that works in tandem with the gas industry—Trallo has not signed a contract, though he concedes that the gas company could literally frack in a ring around his property and extract the gas anyway.
Sullivan County Conservation District (SCCD) manager Jacquelyn Rouse sought counsel from four additional SCCD managers, three farm directors, one public director, and other staff members for the agency’s response to a questionnaire.
SCCD notes that Penn State Cooperative Extension has conducted well-conceived gas industry forums for the public, but the wheels of the industry were already in motion. “It’s too bad those meetings didn't take place five years ago when the gas companies were coming to the landowners for renewing leases at $5 to $65 per acre instead of the latter $5,750 per acre,” the SCCD statement relates.
A serious lack of foresight on the parts of municipal authorities and the gas companies is a recurring theme in discussions with people in the Dushore area. In fact, drilling new wells in Sullivan County may turn out to have less of an impact on the environment and infrastructure than will the laying of the controversial Marc 1 pipeline across the region.
The most noticeable impact of the gas industry is the increase in traffic, namely water tankers and heavy equipment haulers. “Many roadways and intersections are not designed to accommodate (the increased) load size and volume,” the commissioners noted. “It’s too bad the roads weren’t fixed before they were destroyed, instead of vice versa,” SCCD added. “Northeast Pennsylvania cannot be compared to Texas, and the construction schedule used by the industry has to take into consideration the dynamic, changing weather conditions that we have here.”
Many roadways fell apart this spring, they related, because the gas companies insisted in “pressing on,” when they would have been better off—and less destructive—by waiting for the spring freeze/thaw cycle to come to an end. Perhaps because Sullivan County residents are accustomed to a seasonal influx of so many tourists each year, the slight increase in population reported by the commissioners has gone largely unnoticed, although restaurants that operate with skeleton staffs during winter months seem to be busier, and auto supply and hardware stores in the area are bustling.
Sullivan County School District superintendent Steve Gobble related that there were a few new students this year, which did curb a 16-year decline in enrollment. The district is in communication with the outfits that conduct the seismic testing for the gas companies, but no leases have been signed or considered. Gobble’s biggest concern is that an expected influx of gas workers will bring a number of “transient” students to the school, as happened in Bradford County. The youths in question have often attended several school districts already when they arrive, giving them a fragmented education that can be hard to assimilate.
“The bottom line is that we are a very small school, and that’s a challenge for us,” Gobble explained. In the meantime, the district has focused on providing more technical skills for graduating seniors through its career center. Additional changes in the curriculum, geared toward preparing youths for well-paying jobs offered by the gas industry, are under consideration. He credited the county commissioners and the Chamber of Commerce for working with the school district to ensure that they are prepared for the future.
In the meantime, however, even the school district gets to battle with the traffic. “We have had to modify our bus routes a number of times,” Gobble reported. The daily face-off between farmers and the gas companies is another ongoing challenge that SCCD representatives fear could worsen. They contend that the tanker and rig drivers are largely from out-of-state and are unfamiliar with local driving habits, which include moving farm equipment over highways at the same time that convoys of tanker trucks are moving through the area.
“Anyone operating (farm) equipment has to be mindful of the risks and must try to plan their activities, when possible, to avoid traffic,” SCCD representatives stated. “Some of the truck drivers—even on secondary roads—refuse to slow down.” There were few purely positive remarks about gas drilling in Sullivan County from any of the people or entities interviewed for this story, although there were hopeful statements suggesting that conditions and procedures might improve with more cooperation between agencies, municipalities, and the public.
“The industry is dynamic and changing frequently with new companies and services moving into the area, making it difficult to be adequately prepared, though businesses have been able to change quickly to meet the industry needs,” the commissioners noted. “We have met with other counties in the northeastern region and have discussed different problems to be considered as drilling activity proceeds.”
SCCD representatives hope that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which cut them out of the permitting and monitoring process as the gas companies arrived a few years ago, will re-engage them in the coming year, “particularly as the rapid increases in pipeline activities accelerate (which) will require a great deal of oversight.”
“The positive impacts will be economic development and increases in local employment opportunities,” the commissioners’ report maintains. “The negative impacts will include more traffic and road impacts; increased demand on law enforcement, the court system, housing, and other human services; potential losses in local business revenue as tourism declines and environmental impacts.”
The majority of people interviewed cited potential contamination of drinking water, streams, and wetlands as a primary concern. “Some people say, ‘We can do it right,’ but I don’t know if we can,” said Trallo, who suggested that the demand for drilling moved ahead of the technology, which, in turn, has moved ahead of the science. Trallo would like to see a New York state-like moratorium on drilling until more scientific studies are completed. “I am not saying that we shouldn’t drill, but the way that we are doing it right now doesn’t work.”