Wyoming County Again at Historic Crossroads of Industry
The following is the second installment in a series of stories about how the natural gas industry is impacting various communities in our coverage area. We continue this week with Tunkhannock and western Wyoming County. In the coming weeks, the series will explore the effects of the industry on the Dushore, Towanda, and Wyalusing areas.
In the late 1800s, Tunkhannock found itself uniquely situated between a logging boom to the north and west and the coalmining boom to the east and south. Serving as the crossroads between two industries that often relied on each other, the community flourished. Looking back, that era was Wyoming County’s last big heyday, which lasted into the 20th century.
Anybody who commutes through Tunkhannock during the morning or afternoon rush is aware that the area has found itself once again to be the primary intersection between the gas-drilling boom in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties and the industries in Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties that serve them. The convoy of trucks and heavy equipment that meets at the intersection of Routes 6 and 29 near the bridges that cross Tunkhannock Creek and the Susquehanna River crisscross an area that was once a junction for canal barges and rail lines. It has now become a convergence zone for water tankers, asphalt trucks, and heavy equipment haulers that leave no doubt that Wyoming County plays a pivotal role in the new era of gas drilling and stands to benefit from the industry in unique ways.
Wyoming County’s newly-appointed Community and Municipal Environmental Liaison Emily Krafjack contends that there is a lot more going on in Wyoming County than the heavy traffic and busy restaurants.
“People don’t feel that they are affected by (the gas industry) until the trucks start rolling by their homes,” Krafjack suggested. “So much is going on in the remote areas, that it’s not really being felt by everyone else yet.”
“Yet” is keyword to the impact of gas drilling on the Tunkhannock area. Geological survey maps show that the richest potential gas fields associated with the Marcellus Shale lie to the west and north of the county seat. While Bradford County is considered by many to be the epicenter of the current gas-drilling boom, the activity there promotes Wyoming County into the position from which it can reap the rewards via commerce and support industries while its western becomes part of the drilling fields.
That is not to say that Wyoming County will totally escape the pitfalls of the drilling industry, which includes decay of roadways and can include contamination of soil, water, and air. The biggest difference for Wyoming County from what neighboring Bradford County residents have experienced is that drilling in Wyoming County started later.
“What we’re dealing with here is starkly different than in other counties,” said Krafjack, noting that the larger gas companies, such as Chesapeake Energy, have learned from mistakes made in Bradford and Tioga Counties, making them more proactive when it comes to road conditions, waste containment, and working with local municipalities. County government too had an opportunity to apply foresight to a situation that the areas where drilling first began did not.
“We’re in a learning mode, but I think that what we’ve learned we have applied, and that has given us an edge in Wyoming County,” stated Wyoming County Emergency Management Coordinator Gene Dziak. “We’re learning how to deal with various incidents that may be presented. They may not only be on the site of wells.”
Companies drilling in the area, which include Chesapeake, Citrus, Chief, Southwestern, and Carrizo are primarily active in Windham, Meshoppen, Mehoopany, Washington, and Lemon Townships. According to Krafjack, there are about six active rigs, with permits for much more drilling in the works. Krafjack took a personal interest in the gas drilling industry when a pad was constructed within view of her home on Nimble Hill in 2009. Despite sleepless nights during drilling, fracking, and flaring activities at the well site, Krafjack developed an uncommon fascination with the process that led her to compile volumes of factual information and photos that eventually led to her appointment to the liaison position this past week as reported in the May 26 Rocket-Courier.
On Dec. 26, 2009, Krafjack nearly lost count of scores of tanker trucks that traveled up her Mehoopany Township road after a wet, snowy freeze-and-thaw cycle. She literally watched the road surface crumble before her eyes and camera lens.
“That poor road didn’t have a chance,” she recalled with a laugh. Though it took nearly 11 months, a newer, solid, and quieter road was completed at the gas company’s expense. “These situations can be stressful,” Krafjack mused, “but I tell people that you have to have a sense of humor through this.”
Certainly, gas drilling has made an impact on Wyoming County, and the effects will increase for many years as the number of drilling sites continues to grow. In the meantime, Krafjack noted, restaurants and hotels in the area are filled and local residents are finding work that, in some cases, is much more lucrative than before the national recession took hold three years ago. Others, she noted, have become entrepreneurs or found ways to tweak their businesses to accommodate the needs of the gas companies and get more people back to work.
Dziak added that not all of the impact, including the number of vehicles on the highway, is directly a result of gas drilling, noting that the area as a whole is becoming a magnet for unrelated industries.
“The gas drilling has added to the traffic issues on Wyoming County,” he conceded, “but there is traffic other than the gas industry.” From an emergency management standpoint, he related that the increase in traffic hasn’t necessarily resulted in more accidents, just new types of emergency situations for which the gas companies have been instrumental in preparing the county, which has increased its supplies of booms and absorbent pads and materials in advance of potential accidents at well sites.
“We have asked for the companies to supply us with a contingency plan, and they have done that,” Dziak explained. “With that, when we arrive on the scene, they can tell us where they are, and we can figure out where we are going.”
Dziak is anxious to read the final “after-action” report about the recent LeRoy Township blow-out in Bradford County, so that emergency responders in his county can modify their own contingency plans accordingly.
“We will read through that report and learn from it,” he asserted. “(The gas companies) have been reporting incidents and issues on site as they are supposed to. They have become more proactive at the sites, which means that they are drilling their wells on containment. If a spill does get loose, it is automatically contained.” So far, Dziak noted, there has been no negative environmental impact in Wyoming County, a point that Krafjack does not contest, even though she believes that the situation requires constant monitoring.
“The challenge is getting people educated to let them know what’s going on,” she stated, adding that she is frustrated that young county residents, who will graduate from high school and college in the coming years have the best chance in decades to acquire steady employment near their homes, do not appear to be interested in the industry. “This is a marvelous opportunity,” she related as a direct message to teen and young adult readers. “If I were you, I’d look into a career that is related to this.”
According to Tunkhannock Area School District superintendent Michael Healey, the curriculum in the schools will be modified in the near future to steer more students toward programs that will help them to assimilate to the rapidly changing job market in Wyoming County.
None of the district’s schools have yet seen significant enrollment changes, as have many in Bradford County, which might mean that the companies drilling here have encountered a ready and able work force, thus avoiding importing gas workers from other areas.
Mehoopany Elementary School students began benefitting from the gas industry when the school district signed a contract that is already producing payments associated with the P&G P&G 3 gas drilling site, which is clearly visible from the bridge over the Susquehanna River at Mehoopany and the Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant. The contract stipulates, however, that there will be no surface operations on school property, as opposed to the Elk Lake School District in Susquehanna County, which has two wells in operation on a single pad on school grounds.
Healey related that traffic to and from the well pads initially created some problems, “but they have worked themselves out over the course of the year.”
Most of the people interviewed for this installment of the “Impact” series are also Wyoming County residents, who were able to remove their professional hats for a few minutes to look at the industry from the perspective of landowners and longtime residents.
“I see economic development from the gas well industry,” said Dziak. “Jobs are being created. We already have residents of Wyoming County who are truck drivers who are driving the water tankers. I have friends who are driving these trucks and who are working for gas companies that didn’t have jobs before. I’m sure that those new hotels wouldn’t have been built if there wasn’t a need for them. It’s also benefiting tourism and the other businesses that we have throughout Wyoming County.” Dziak stressed though that, as a longtime sportsman, he shares Krafjack’s concerns for the environment.
Krafjack sees methane gas migration during the drilling process to be the most tangible concern about the process of removing the gas from the Marcellus shale, but she does not fear the fracking process, which, in Wyoming County, happens as deeply as 8,000 feet below the surface. She hopes that her new position will open the few doors that have been closed to her in her unrelenting investigation into the process of applying for permits, the enactment of laws by municipalities, and the drilling and transfer processes as well. She feels that gas drilling will become a way of life for Wyoming County residents, even though it arrived a little later. “I think I’m going to see it for the rest of my life,” Krafjack remarked.
“When P&G was being built, people were nervous and uncomfortable about what it was going to be all about,” Dziak concurred. “In my personal opinion, the gas well industry is not a bad thing. It’s an industry. Are we inconvenienced with the process? Yes, we certainly are. But, when you take a look at the big picture and the end result, we’re producing a natural resource. As long as things are being done safely and by the direction of our DEP and EPA, we need to trust in them a little bit.”