When fracking comes to a location near you… a photo essay

Posted January 22nd, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on When fracking comes to a location near you… a photo essay
text and photos by Margaret Swedish

First the company men come to obtain the leases from the local property owners. In many parts of Western PA, that means people with small farms, not rich people, and some quite poor. They come with the promise of a check for signing away the oil and gas drilling rights to their property. They don’t tell the local residents the scope and devastation of all that will take place in this violent form of rapid industrialization – there is no other adequate word for it – it is violence against nature with a callous disregard for the people and the non-human life that live in the area.

The pressure is intense. Some local residents try to inform their neighbors about what this means. Town hall meetings are held. Some say they need or want the money. Some want to protect the land where they live from harm. Sometimes neighbors turn on neighbors. Those who sign have given permission to an industry that endangers not only themselves but also their neighbors – if a pipeline spills, if methane escapes, if gas explodes, if their wells are contaminated. Emotions run the full gamut of fear, anger, feelings of betrayal.

It all works in favor of the company, Hilcorp Energy, a private company from Texas taking extreme advantage of this short-term fracking frenzy.

Fracking well near the boundary of Villa Maria

The first construction tower goes up at the boundary of Villa Maria. This was the view in early August, my first visit to the Villa.

Across from Bill's Field

And this was the view of the same well pad on January 14, looking toward the Villa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the other side, standing at the boundary of the Villa's land.

From the other side, standing at the boundary of the Villa’s land.

 

 

 

 

I moved my camera to the right of the well pad. They are fracking this land.

I moved my camera to the right of the well pad so you could get a sense of the land where they are drilling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then production begins. The trucks arrive, heavy truck traffic, tearing up roads and filling the air with diesel fumes. The construction towers go up, the first stage in developing a well pad. They drill down deep into the Earth, then, at the appropriate depth, the horizontal pipe is pushed through the shale rock sometimes as far as 6,000 to 8,000 feet.

Then charges are placed to crack open the pipes, to fracture the rock (the first night I was there, I heard 4 explosions as I lay in bed trying to sleep). Then comes the mud, made up of sand (a lot of it from Wisconsin), water, and highly toxic chemicals. This is thrust into the fractured rock to hold open the cracks so the gas can escape into the pipe and come to the surface.

A different well pad on a different farm. This one was really roaring.

A different well pad on a different farm. This one was really roaring when we drove by.

The noise, the pollution, the end of a whole way of life in the countryside, fills many people with remorse. They didn’t know. They want to know if they can get out of the leases. They can’t. One day, a water truck leaves a tank in front of a house. Everyone knows what that means. Gag orders force them to silence about why that water tank is there.

In Western PA where I visited January 12-17, I witnessed this process unfolding – deeply intimate, an invasion, a presence of threat and destruction right through farm fields and woods, right in front or in back of people’s homes. The area surrounds Villa Maria, the home base of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary for more than 150 years – 726 acres of rich woods and wetlands, open fields for raising corn and grains, an organic farm, a home for scores of sisters, a senior independent living apartment building, a place for people with Alzheimers, and abundant wildlife. Jobs, too, for staff, farmers, care-givers.

Banner from the August Community Days

Banner from the August HM Community Days

They have declared their land a no-fracking zone. They have a land ethic that pre-dates the fracking, and they are fiercely committed to it. They have done education, attended meetings, held town halls. They also depend completely on wells, on healthy groundwater, at the Villa – the sisters and all who live and work there.

That is the reality in this area, south of highway 422, just east of the Ohio border near Youngstown, another state that, like PA, has surrendered to the fracking industry. Both states sit on the Marcellus and Utica shale, a rich source of shale oil and gas, and their world is being turned up-side-down by the industry.

Some damage that is being done can never be undone.

This is what our nation has decided to do in order to keep pumping fossil fuel into our economy to keep it going for a while longer.

The end of the well construction - 3 well heads, and the gas rising being mined form deep underground.

The end of the well construction – 3 well heads, and the gas now flowing from deep underground.

But because we are learning by way of disaster and ruined lives what this means, and because more and more people are coming into contact with fracking and are not much liking what they are seeing, opposition is growing fast. Just this week, there was a very large protest in the state’s capital city of Harrisburg. Now it almost seems as if the frenzy is getting even more frenzied as companies realize the pushback is coming. How much oil and gas can they get out of the Earth before the people throw them out, pass laws, as in New York State, banning fracking altogether?

It will be too late for many people living on top of the Marcellus and Utica Shale. Since we all use fossil fuels, don’t we owe it to them to become vocal in opposing this industry, in shutting it down? Shouldn’t we be more than willing to let our state and federal governments know that we would rather do without what we do not need than allow this destruction to go on any longer?

Drilling for oil and gas means pipelines. After all, you have to get it from here to there. At the finished well, the pipelines are being put in place.

Drilling for oil and gas means pipelines. After all, you have to get it from here to there. At the finished well, the pipelines are being put in place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the finished well, this pipeline snakes right in front of a home, within about 50 feet of their porch

From the finished well, this pipeline snakes right in front of a home, within about 50 feet of their porch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This pipeline snakes toward the  boundary of the Villa.

This pipeline snakes toward the boundary of the Villa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And along the road near the Villa.

And along the road near the Villa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A place where the pipelines intersect, includes emergency shutoff valves.

A place where the pipelines intersect, includes emergency shutoff valves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It took the Earth a few billion years to allow the evolution of abundant life to emerge, the process that gave birth to us, this alive and magnificent “being” that some call “Gaia,” that holds us in the embrace of biosphere and atmosphere, in the delicate balance that has allowed us to exist at all. And in a few short centuries, we have separated ourselves so far from any deep connection with Nature and its wonders that we are about to ruin it all – the land, the water, the air, the living forms – for the sake of some dream of consumer life that simply has no future.

My week at the Villa was a profound meditation on industrial “civilization,” realizing the marvelous lives it has given to many millions of people, modern conveniences, big houses, world travel, endless technological gadgets, but at a cost that has now become more than the Earth can bear. If we are not prepared to surrender much of our “nice” lives for the sake of an alive and abundant planet, for the sake of a human future within it, then this will be our future – more and more of this – until the whole planetary Ponzi scheme comes to a sad and unbearable end.

Sunset at the Villa. Despite it all, the world is still beautiful. The question is - how long to we want to be around for moments like this one?

Sunset at the Villa. Despite it all, the world is still beautiful. The question is – how long do we want to be around to enjoy moments like this one?

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