Many Susquehanna Countians Accept 'Growing Pains'
The village of Dimock in Susquehanna County found itself on the national stage early in 2009 when the contamination of dozens of drinking water wells was confirmed. Anti-gas drilling activists descended on the area to—in many instances—speak for the people who were affected by the industry. While there is no downplaying the seriousness of the issue of contamination, the views expressed by the advocates were not always representative of the opinions of the public at large.
Western Susquehanna County, in particular, is unique in that its largest school district is a key benefactor of natural gas drilling, taking in nearly $50,000 per month in gas royalties from two completed pads on the 187 acres owned by the Elk Lake School District. Business owners and residents in the area who were interviewed for this article indicated that the benefits of gas drilling and the prominence of Cabot and Southwestern gas companies in the region extend far beyond the school. Representatives of environmental protection groups, such as Montrose-based Citizens For Clean Water (CFCW), contend that drilling in the area continues to wreak havoc on the water supply and atmosphere.
“From a business standpoint, it has been good. They are bringing people in, and they need to eat,” said Stables Restaurant owner Bruce Legg, who caters to gas workers and locals. He related that the stone quarry business began to peak in 2008-09, and the influx of new workers has enabled him to retain his full staff of cooks and servers. It is not unusual for the restaurant to receive an order by phone for as many as 30 steak dinners at a time.
Legg has witnessed additional trades in the area receiving a boost from gas drilling as support businesses for the industry. “We had one rental outfit that was struggling to stay afloat,” Legg recalled. “Now, there are two outfits renting heavy equipment to the gas companies.” Farmers now have money to buy new equipment, Legg added.
“Plain and simple, it’s a plus. It’s going to improve a lot of people’s lives,” said restaurant patron Chancey Kelley, who owns and operates a stone quarry in the Elk Lake area, in reference to the booming gas industry. “It has already pumped a lot of money into the community.”
“From what I’ve been told, this summer will be busy, and next summer will be twice as busy,” Legg related.
The expansion of the industry in the area is one of CFCW director Vera Scroggins’ greatest concerns. As if the first three years of drilling have not produced enough environmental challenges, she explained, the proposed expansion of drilling will “fill the whole county from top to bottom with pipelines and well sites about every mile or less and compressor stations every so-many miles.” In addition to concerns of water and air contamination and a lack of zoning laws, Scroggins continued, “We have eco-system and habitat destruction from all of the infrastructure, with the pipelines and noise from the compressor stations and well sites.” She is also worried about a lack of regulation on the disposal of post-fracking wastewater.
Whether or not they support natural gas exploration and production in the area, most of those who were interviewed agree that the drilling took the affected communities by surprise.
“As everybody looks back now, we were at a severe disadvantage,” said Elk Lake School District superintendent William Bush. “Nobody knew about gas drilling.” When approached by the gas companies four years ago, few people in the region were aware that Susquehanna and Bradford Counties were only the newest targets for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Unaware of any precedent, reaching a decision about whether or not to sign a contract or whom one could trust was perplexing. “Some were more forthright than others,” Bush said of gas company representatives. He turned to a school superintendent in West Virginia, where a natural gas company was already operating on school property, for advice.
“He was very supportive of the drilling and how it helped the district financially,” Bush remarked. The school district eventually signed a contract with Cabot, which began drilling on the lower end of the campus in the summer of 2009 and began production in February 2010. The relationship between Cabot and the school district has been nothing less than superb, Bush asserted. For example, when the drilling outfit thought it would be more advantageous to develop a dirt road at the backside of the campus into an access road for the drilling pad, school officials explained that the area in question was actually a problem for the district. Local residents had been using it illegally for recreation for a number of years.
“We asked them to gate the open access to the field below the pad,” Bush explained. Additionally, he noted, Cabot improved an existing roadway to the pad that is also used by nearby farmers. “That has been a plus for us,” said Bush.
Another plus is that the money received by the school district has helped board members avoid the drastic cuts made necessary in neighboring districts by the shortfall in state subsidies for education. “Our tax millage has stayed the same for the past four years,” Bush added.
That’s good news to Kelley, who is aware that the district is simultaneously facing an influx of new students brought into the area by families from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, who migrate with the industry.
While few people can deny that there has been a dramatic increase in traffic, Bush, Kelley, and Legg feel that the gas companies are keeping their promises to maintain and improve roadways in the area. In Dimock Township, Bush related, he’s sees road repair on a daily basis.
“The roads weren’t designed for this kind of traffic,” Kelley admits, “But the highway system is going to improve. The township roads are already better.”
Scroggins contends that one needs to look a little deeper into the countryside to see the truth of the matter. Through CFCW, Scroggins provides tours to anyone who is interested of drilling sites and the homes closest to them. Too close, she maintains—“within 300 feet of homes and within 100 feet of waterways—and we have water everywhere.” The cacophony of truck traffic, fracking, and “flaring” of gas wells, which many have likened to the sound of a roaring jet engine, can continue for up to nine months in support of each gas pad. Scroggins cited two ongoing lawsuits in the Dimock area involving 33 families whose drinking water has been contaminated. She is hopeful that new studies from Duke University and other entities will help her prove that gas drilling is toxic to the environment and that contamination is everywhere. For more information, readers may visit www.nepagasaction.org online.
“We’ve got to get through the bad before we get the good,” said Kelley, who noted that the gas companies are hiring more local residents than they did initially, a fact corroborated by Bush, who noted that a planned expansion of the Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center adjacent to Elk Lake High School is in large part due to Cabot’s need for skilled workers. “There are job opportunities with Cabot and with local welding companies, and the trucking industry has also expanded with the need for water trucks,” Bush related. “A number of students who I have talked to are excited to know that there are high-paying jobs here to keep them from leaving the area.” Cabot and UGI are also working with the school to hook up natural gas to the enlarged career center.
The increase in population is one aspect of the gas-drilling boom that seems to delight many Susquehanna County residents. Influx workers and their families have been welcomed to the community as hard workers.
“They are polite and friendly,” said Legg of the workers who come into his restaurant. “I don’t think that the gas companies want workers who aren’t that way.”
Kelley acknowledged that he has heard stories of gas workers being disruptive in local bars, but he feels that an increase in such incidents is to be expected with any increase in population. Likewise, he noted, there has been a marked increase in the number of vehicle accidents on local roadways, which has put a strain on emergency response crews.
“Traffic was busy anyway,” Legg agreed. “Now, it’s pretty wild at times.” He is holding out hope that several main roads in the area will be widened to accommodate tankers and related vehicles.
On the upside, both Legg and Kelley agree that rental units are full, which has translated into a greater need for products and services in the community. Overall, unlike many parts of Bradford County to the west, there is an apparent sense of pride among many community leaders and residents in Montrose and western Susquehanna County, who see their assimilation to the gas boom as a success story, evidenced by signs like that at Montrose Machine Works, whose roadside billboard proudly declares, “Serving the gas industry.”