“Few Places in the United States are tougher ground for building an environmental-justice movement than the Appalachian counties of central Pennsylvania,” writes Barry Yeoman in a remarkable piece of reporting in The American Prospect’s Storyscapes. The region is “politically conservative, temperamentally reticent, and historically reliant on resource extraction.”
Yeoman takes readers on an extended tour of the region, long mired in poverty, that is now surrendering its once-pristine environment in exchange for an economic boost from the extraction — through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — of natural gas believed to be valued at $500 billion. He introduces us to those who rely on the dollars pouring into their communities from big energy companies and to a group of unlikely activists who were dragged into a fight against overwhelming odds when they saw what these processes were doing to their communities, and in some instances, to their families’ health.
The piece opens with a profile of one such activist…
Six months before she helped organize the protest known as Hands Across Riverdale, the word “fracking” didn’t mean much to Deb Eck. “Not a damn thing,” says the 52-year-old dollar-store manager. A single mother of twins, she was putting in crushing hours to provide a decent life for her daughters, who are now 12. On good days, she arrived home from work in time to help the girls with their schoolwork, tuck them into bed, and spend the rest of the night cooking and cleaning. There was no time to read about the natural-gas boom unfolding in her backyard.
One consolation for Eck’s hard work was the tranquility of her home. Riverdale Mobile Home Park’s 32 trailers sat on a leafy bank of the Susquehanna River in Piatt Township, Pennsylvania, in the state’s mountainous center, three hours from any major city. “The kids would play with the ducks in the field and had all kinds of friends,” she says. “I never had to worry about them going outside.” Nor did she worry about rent: The $200 Eck paid for her lot was well within her monthly budget.
In February 2012, she learned that her landlord had sold the property to a joint venture called Aqua-PVR Water Services, which planned to build a water-withdrawal facility for local gas-drilling operations. Piatt Township sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a 95,000-square-mile rock formation stretching from New York to West Virginia. The shale contains an estimated $500 billion worth of recoverable natural gas in Pennsylvania alone and has attracted a rush of energy companies into the region. The fuel is accessed by drilling thousands of feet down and then horizontally across a layer of sedimentary rock. Chemical-laced water is pumped underground to “fracture” the rock, creating fissures that free up the gas. The extraction process, including the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is colloquially known as “fracking.”
Building the new plant meant evicting Riverdale’s residents. Eck and her neighbors were offered $2,500 apiece—well below the cost of moving a trailer—if they agreed to leave two months before their June 1 deadline. That figure would taper down to zero if they delayed. Eck’s main worry was where she and her daughters were going to live. But then she went online and learned about the toxic chemicals used in fracking, which have been linked to water contamination. She read about how gas development destroys the integrity of forests, wreaking havoc with resident wildlife. “The more I found out, the worse it got,” she says. “They’re going to turn this peaceful, quiet community into an industrial area, suck water out of the Susquehanna, and ruin the habitat for how many different animals. It just made you sick to your stomach.”
As Eck kept reading, she learned about the political power of the natural-gas industry. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to fight this,” she concluded. But then one of her neighbors told her that he had been talking with some environmental activists who wanted to help Riverdale’s residents. “Help us do what?” she asked.
“They want to stop this because of the fracking,” she recalls him saying.
Hearing that, Eck felt a bit encouraged. “We’ve got to all stick together, though,” she told him. “If we stick together, we can fight this. Maybe we’ll beat them.”