Now for the downside of fracking

Locals are unhappy with the risks associated with the gas rush in rural Pennsylvania. Peter Foster reports.

Locals are unhappy with the risks associated with the gas rush in rural Pennsylvania. Peter Foster reports.

Plump as a pumpkin, Bonnie Evans slides into a booth at the all-American diner she opened three years ago in the town of Smithfield, Pennsylvania (population 872) that sits slap-bang in the middle of America's new shale gas boom.

"How's business?" I ask, as a convoy of heavy trucks thunders down the main street, rattling the windows. "Pretty darned awesome," comes the reply.

Evans only wanted to open a little place, but when the gas boom comes to town, it seems nothing is done by halves - just like the monster-sized, triple-deck, half-kilo "frack burger" on her menu. It is named after the process - hydraulic fracturing - that is revolutionising world energy markets and helping make Evans a small fortune.

"We went from $270,000 [$260,000] in [takings] in the first year, to $350,000 and then to $473,000 this one just past," she crows, with a roll of the eyes that says, "can you believe it?"

But while Evans looks forward to an unexpectedly prosperous future, less than 16 kilometres away in this hard-scrabble expanse of fields and forests south of the old steel town of Pittsburgh, there is a much less happy story to tell.

After this week's warning from Britain's regulator, Ofgem boss Alistair Buchanan, that the country is "dangerously" close to an energy crisis - and with shale gas touted as one radical solution - it's a story that consumers should pay close attention to.

Every morning, when he opens his bedroom curtains, the first thing that David Headley sees is a gas well. It sits less than 200 metres from his front door and it is a constant reminder of what Headley says is the "pure hell" of living with fracking.

The well, which was drilled and fractured last year, amounts to a small tangle of pipes and a pair of four-metre-high collection tanks, of the sort that are now dotted all across rural Pennsylvania.

Some are tucked behind hedgerows and hidden away in copses and hollows, but many others - along with compressor stations and open "impoundment ponds" used to store toxic fracking solution - are situated within a few hundred metres of residential housing.

Headley points to the well head, which is submerged under 30 centimetres of murky rainwater that is bubbling gently, like a witch's brew. "See. You can see the thing is leaking," says the former car body-shop owner, who bought his farm in 2006 but chose not to purchase the gas rights - a move he now bitterly regrets. "What's really coming out of that well?" he asks. "Is it safe? We just don't know."

He shows photos of the creek beneath his house that was turned milky-white last year after a drilling accident. There are pictures of dead fish and his son's leg with a livid-red rash, of the well's collection tanks venting plumes of an unknown gas into the air. A once-clear spring a few hundred metres below is now so full of methane that the water dances with flame when Headley applies a match to its surface.

The drilling companies and the local environmental protection agency say Headley and his family are not in danger - or at least, none of the contaminants in the air or water can be traced directly to the well - but he is far from convinced. "Their tactic is to either refuse to talk to us, or make us out to be crazy and paranoid," Headley says, "but we are not."

Whether his fears are real or imagined, he is far from alone in holding them. One pressure group, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air, has collated more than 800 cases of people they say have been harmed by fracking nationwide - a body of evidence that environmentalists and local politicians contend is now beyond anecdotal.

Public fears in the US do not focus so much on earthquake risk, which caused the British government to put a moratorium on fracking until last year, but on pollution issues. They include contamination of drinking water with methane, air pollution from the gas wells and compressor stations, and possible radiation poisoning from elements such as uranium, thorium, and radium that occur naturally in the vast Marcellus Shale gas deposit that stretches for hundreds of kilometres from West Virginia to upstate New York.

As New York and Colorado debate whether to allow fracking, environmental groups and some residents in Pennsylvania argue that the long-term health impacts of fracking so close to residential communities are just too indeterminate to be considered safe. They say two official studies on the impact of fracking on water quality and radiation build-up are not even due to be completed until next year.

From a safe distance, the arguments for fracking in the US seem irresistible - abundant cheap energy, a million new jobs and a pain-free fall in carbon emissions - but for those who are unlucky enough to find themselves close to the drilling and processing sites, the experience can be miserable.

A study of air emissions from natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, just released by the RAND Corporation think tank, illustrated the gap between those macro- and micro-level experiences. It found that while the total emissions were less than that of a single coal-fired power plant, in areas where drilling was concentrated the emissions were "20 to 40 times higher" than regulations permitted for a single minor source.

The industry, understandably, prefers to focus on the bigger picture, rather than individual cases. A statement by the industry umbrella group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, noted the contribution of the gas industry to lowering emissions nationwide and contrasted that with the "relatively minimal and short-term environmental footprint" of the local industry.

But even those local people with a substantial financial interest in the fracking business - the best wells can generate royalties of $20,000 a month - admit to having doubts and concerns.

Thomas Rich, a local farmer, has 13 wells on his 600 hectares but will not allow drilling on the 80 hectares that immediately surround his homestead. "I want to keep that land 'pure'. The wells are unsightly, they can make noise and they don't smell good," he admits. "Everyone's getting scared now. First it was earthquakes, then water contamination, and recently there have been all these reports about radiation in the newspapers. The truth is, the industry has a big, big PR problem."

Frank Martin, another landholder who is also the owner of a Chevrolet car dealership, sees both the upsides and downsides of the boom. The oil companies buy his Chevy utes 10 or 15 vehicles at a time and last week an 83-year-old man walked in and bought his first-ever new car.

"But I am a grandfather as well as a businessman, and we have to do this right or it will divide the community," he warns. "There are environmental concerns about the air and the water, the impact on roadways and the community itself - not everyone has land to lease or a local business. What about schoolteachers or bus drivers, what does it do for them? Or what if you live next to one of these facilities?"

Back down the road, in nearby Point Marion, these same questions are being fired at a local senator, Richard Kasunic, who has agreed to meet a group of concerned residents.

Headley and three other families who live within a few hundred metres of a gas compressor station tell stories of eye-watering emissions from the plant that one resident says stank "like someone dropped a bucket of turpentine on my porch". Another produces video evidence of the station emitting a deafeningly loud wailing sound - like an air-raid siren - that echoes down the valley to nearby houses.

"When we first heard that sound, we had the children out of bed with the shoes on ready to evacuate," says Phyllis Carr, a grandmother who breaks down in tears as she tries to explain the impact of the plant on her family.

The senator is surprisingly frank about the problems facing the Pennsylvania gas rush. He apologises for what he calls the apparently "cavalier attitude" of the oil and gas companies, and admits that the regulatory framework for the industry is a "work in progress" and that "we're flying by the seat of our pants here".

And that, concludes Jesse White, a Pennsylvania state representative who has taken up the cause of those who say they have been affected by the shale gas boom, is the lesson that other countries should learn if and when they move to to exploit shale gas reserves.

"The problem in Pennsylvania is that we've reached a point where no one trusts anyone else's science," he says. "The politicians and some parts of the media appear to be in the pockets of the industry. The lesson is to be 'upfront' from the outset. Ask what practices you are going to allow. There is the right way of doing this, or the cheap way. Be very clear which one you want."

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