Towanda Area Ground Zero For Drilling Boom and its Opponents
Although the residents of both the Towanda and Wyalusing areas have experienced similar circumstances since gas companies arrived some five years ago and started drilling just more than three years ago, Towanda, as the county seat, has the unique distinction of serving as the logistical headquarters of the gas boom. With so many mineral rights leases still pending and properties changing hands rapidly as gas companies and related businesses purchase land for various uses and longtime homeowners sell out, the courthouse bustles daily with people accessing records via the county’s Register & Recorder’s office. The courthouse has also served as a venue for residents to voice their concerns about the gas industry to public officials at weekly commissioners’ meetings.
Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest of the national gas companies to develop the industry locally, has established headquarters in South Towanda, with many other companies following suit, including the construction companies that provide the backbone of the industry who have offices in Towanda and its surrounding municipalities—most notably Wysox Township. Recent reports that elected officials in that area are considering allowing for a considerable increase in the industrial use of land along Route 6 have citizens in the area concerned about a virtual gridlock of traffic that is already in excess of what the highway can bear.
The heavy traffic affects everyone, from residents with day jobs and errands to run to school children and the elderly. Attorney Leslie Wizelman, who specializes in elder law, related that seniors whom she serves in the Wysox area are intimidated by the traffic and express concerns about driving to her office on Route 6. According to superintendent Diane Place, the Towanda School District invited Chesapeake representatives to attend a bi-monthly meeting of administrators and bus contractors to hear their concerns about heavy traffic and periodic, unannounced road closings.
“It is not uncommon for bus drivers to be transporting students either to school or home to encounter roads that are inaccessible due to changing patterns of construction,” Place stated.
The gas industry has surely created opportunities for an area that has struggled to stay afloat during tough economic times, and land leases have put money into the hands of some people who had previously given in to a no-frills lifestyle. Unemployment figures that have fluctuated between 5.1 and 5.9 percent are among the lowest in the state, statistics that county commissioner Doug McLinko finds encouraging.
“If someone wants to go to work, they can find employment,” he stated.
“The unemployment rate has dropped significantly,” fellow commissioner Mark Smith concurred.
According to Brian Grove, Chesapeake’s senior director of corporate development, half of the 1,400 people employed directly by the company in Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna, and Wyoming Counties are local residents. “The biggest challenges we faced in the early stages of growth was finding well-trained local employees with the skill sets necessary for drilling operations,” Grove stated. “This is not a reflection on the skill or ability of local workers but simply a factor of drilling activity never being a part of the local economy until recently.”
The need for trained workers, including welders, pipeline consultants, and site managers, has prompted schools and colleges to offer a wide variety of courses to help stem both the influx of out-of-state workers and decades of “brain drain,” which occurs when high school graduates must leave their hometowns to find adequate employment. In that sense, Towanda has become a learning center to a degree not experienced there in many years.
“We have engaged in offering public education opportunities, working with Penn State Cooperative Extension,” noted Smith, adding, “we appointed a natural gas advisory committee to help us keep pace with the industry development.”
Many established businesses that had found ways to hold on during bleaker economic times are now flourishing, though business operators sometimes walk a fine line between boasting about benefitting from the influx of gas workers and being perceived by wary locals of “catering” to outsiders. Vehicle dealerships and auto supply stores sometimes find it hard to keep up with demand, which can make getting one’s car into the shop for routine maintenance a challenge. Eateries and pubs are booming, but the crowded restaurants and bars are not to everybody’s liking.
“There is an increase in activity,” Pipher’s Diner operator Louis Aquilio remarked. “It comes and goes.”
Likewise, for every unit of gain, there are skeptics who argue that damage done to roads, cases of environmental contamination and related illnesses are too big a price to pay for making a limited number of local people wealthier. Anti-gas advocates contend that the highly-publicized donations by gas companies of money and equipment to various organizations, as well as sponsorships by gas companies of community events, are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the rewards that the same companies will reap as they move on to the next phase of the production and construct the network of pipelines that will carry the natural gas out of Pennsylvania and, in some cases, out of the country.
Public safety advocate Diane Siegmund of Towanda maintains that people in the Towanda area and Bradford County as a whole were misguided by public officials, who, she contends, held meetings at the beginning of the gas boom to assure everyone that horizontal drilling and fracking techniques used by the industry were 100 percent safe. People in rural areas, she added, tend to be more trusting and respectful of figures of authority than those in urban areas. Siegmund laments that “the silence of the lambs,” as she refers to it, coupled with the fear of many people to speak their minds and question their elected officials, has allowed for problems such as contamination to persist and, in some instances, get out of hand.
“Our resources are people, water, land, and roads, and they are being cannabalized,” Siegmund stated. She is unimpressed by a recent move by state legislators to create a department that monitors contamination and illness claims at a state level. At a county commissioners’ meeting in the spring, she charged McLinko with establishing a hotline in Bradford County that people could phone to anonymously report problems related to the gas industry. Although McLinko agreed at that time to work with her, she noted, “They dropped the ball. There has been no further discussion on that. I think that there has been a blatant disregard for the health and welfare of people in the community and for the health and welfare of the workers,” the latter comment a reference to photos of cleanup crews at the recent LeRoy Township blowout site working without protective gear.
Concerns are shared by elected officials and the general public that financially-strapped emergency responders are bearing the brunt of the impact of the gas boom, which led to the first distribution of grants by the county to four local fire companies last week.
“Our volunteer first responders need to be supported to the fullest, as they are at the front lines of safety,” McLinko remarked. “We need to demand that the industry respect our laws and be held accountable when it comes to operating motor vehicles.” He contends that the public has a right to “expect a balance of protecting our environment while continuing economic prosperity.”
Bradford County Director of Public Safety Robert Barnes remarked that the county’s emergency management department is “stressed across the board” when it comes to the speed at which the gas industry is developing. The state, he added, has increased its training for fire and ambulance company personnel, including first-response to gas well emergencies.
According to commissioners and others who were interviewed for this story, reliable figures that would indicate how the population and demographics in the Towanda area have fluctuated are not easily obtained. While the Towanda School District has been impacted by the influx of gas workers, Diane Place noted, overall enrollment numbers are relatively stable. The challenge faced by Towanda schools during the gas boom is figuring out how to assimilate incoming students into an ongoing curriculum.
“In some cases, because the children have moved often, they may not have had the opportunity to learn in one setting for a period of time,” she stated. “Our desire would be that they stay with us for an extended period of time so that we may have the opportunity to put interventions into place that will help them advance and demonstrate increased achievement in all areas.”
While advocates and elected officials may disagree, even amongst themselves, on many individual aspects of the relationship between the gas companies, government, and the general population, Siegmund and Smith have both voiced similar uneasiness about a lack of representation by Bradford County in the state’s capital.
“I am incredibly concerned about the shenanigans in Harrisburg,” said Siegmund.
Smith related that he has testified on behalf of the county in front of the state house of representatives, but, according to statements he made during a commissioners’ meeting, he was frustrated by time limits imposed on him for disclosing facts about Bradford County of which nobody in Harrisburg seemed to be aware of as they create policies that will directly affect the area.
In light of the challenges faced, the mood in the Towanda area overall is upbeat when compared to municipalities where official representation is more fragmented or in areas like Sullivan County, where many residents fear that the more challenging aspects of progress that they have witnessed in Bradford County will negatively impact their lifestyles as the industry continues to encroach upon them. Some longtime residents embrace many of the changes that brought moderate prosperity to Towanda that makes it feel more like a bustling burg than the sleepy hamlet that it once was. Those who left the area years ago express mixed reaction about a town that they once could not afford to stay in due to a lack of good-paying jobs and, in some cases, cannot afford to return due to an escalation in real estate prices. Towanda is in the middle in many ways, and the only things of which residents can be certain, is that the growth of the industry in Bradford County is far from over.
“There is no crystal ball when it comes to the challenges that lay ahead,” stated McLinko, who encourages all residents to join him in learning as much they can “to keep up with whatever the future brings to Bradford County.”