Stream and Shale

(Excerpt from my book, Stream and Shale.) 6AM. At the journey’s beginning, stars still shine brightly in the dark blue sky. It’s below freezing. We gather on a Brooklyn street corner and wait for the bus going to a Citizens Tour of Pennsylvania arranged by Brooklyn for Peace. Each person carries a few gallons of pure bottled water with them, gifts for people still living in eastern Pennsylvania’s gasland.

The sky brightens to light blue. The trip leader repeats everyone’s names for each new arrival like a chorus to welcome a Finnish film crew, tall with cropped blonde hair, mostly silent; a New York filmmaker with curly hair and glasses, not so silent; many others. People are still sleepy, and they don’t know one another. By nightfall when all the travelers head back to their own homes, we will.

The sun rises. Everyone boards the big bus and it rolls out of Brooklyn, across the dark gray water of the East River. They pass through the island of Manhattan where the city streets are lined with shining skyscrapers built of stone and steel, the rock doves New Yorkers call pigeons think these are stone cliffs for nests. The birds circle above in flocks predicting rain, or maybe snow. 

The bus emerges from the city and travels south through the thick haze of Elizabeth, New Jersey where a strange sulfurous scent of industrial air creeps in through closed windows. Farther on, passengers watch the tall yellow marshes of the Meadowlands sway slowly over still gray waters.

The bus heads west into the gentle hills of Pennsylvania. Here, ice formations separate the sheets of dark gray rock lining the highway where stream water tumbled out and then froze solid. Freezing water pries apart stone layers and breaks the rock into patterns that show the long lines characteristic of shale. 

Horses drink at the edge of a pond that’s mostly frozen. Here, only fast-moving streams run clear of ice. Brown apple trees in the orchards are bare, their twisted naked branches wait for spring. In the older wooded areas, trees stand tall, gray sentinels silently witnessing the changes around them. 

Snow begins to fall. Fog clings to the sides of the hills in soft blankets. A fine and steady mist drifts along a patch of Birch trees camouflaged by their paper-white bark. Last year’s leaves lay at the base of the bare trees. A lake frozen to white ice at the bottom of a wooded valley is lined with birch and pine. These are very old forests. The White Pine trees here are gigantic, over 150 feet tall, each tree can live hundreds of years. They used to be called the “tree of peace”. Even the Paper Birch trees are tall and reach 50 feet or more. The birch bark was used for writing in old days. 

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?

Rachel Carson

The sun hangs like a bright white orb behind layers of clouds and snowfall. Thick, Wild Grape vines wind around bare tree trunks and fall away from them in arches, their dry, red bark peeling back in shards. Trees were cut on one hillside, in broad swaths to clear the way for shale gas pipelines. Huge piles of the severed trees lay dry and splintered. One short tree remains standing in the center of a cleared area, and has retained pale golden leaves. 

The bus enters Susquehanna County now, and passes by a building labeled “Department of Transportation”.

Between forests, exposed rock lays in stacked gray sheets typical of shale. Deep down beneath the shale were creatures that lived here long ago, their bodies decayed and compressed, trapped under layers of sediment. This debris produced the gas mined for fuel in Pennsylvania. 

The bus passes by signs for excavation businesses. These mine the rocks for building materials. Larger signs announce a tractor supply business. A sign for “Skid Steer for Rent” advertises machines that have steel arms to save labor and time at work sites.  This is not only gas drilling country, it’s also farm country. A “Farm Stand” sign painted with bright yellow sunflowers looks out of place in the winter. Steam rises from the inside of a big red barn with a rusted silo and broken window panes, and hints at resting cattle inside, not as abandoned as it seems. A small reddish-brown cow runs along a clear narrow stream, turns quickly and runs back again. Dozens of Canada Geese land on the water of a melting pond and call out in a chorus. 

Much of the land here is leased to the energy industry for shale gas exploration, and the fields are drilled by hydraulic fracturing, fracking. It breaks rock layers by injecting high-pressure chemical fluids to release trapped gas. Pipelines carry the fracked, methane gas off to market. 

Most of the roads here are narrow dirt roads, and those that are paved are cracked with holes. Trucks carrying water and more trucks hauling waste pass by as the bus waits to cross the road. More trucks loaded with wood pass by. These will be used to fill in wetland areas because in swampy land, the standing water makes exploration and drilling mucky. 

The Citizens Tour guide joins. She’s a small woman with flowing gray curls in jeans and a green wool jacket. She has been giving the Citizens Tour for years and tells a story of her town Dimock in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, as the visitors from New York City and Finland photograph, film and write. 

Dimock seemed like heaven when she first came here. She loves the natural beauty of the place. When the gas industry came, it took over her community, but she stayed. She feels compelled to watch and witness the changes. She gives tours so that people see the many ways that the gas industry changes rural life. She calls herself “a gas refugee”. 

A large truck labeled “Residual Waste” passes by her. She watches. 

Standing over frozen Montrose Lake, the guide tells the story of the running water that has gone bad here. In the local paper, full page ads promote gas drilling as safe. But her community group, Citizens for Clean Water, could not get ads about their water-safety concerns carried in the local paper. Well water provides for the needs of the 43,000 people in this county. Some Dimmock well water was contaminated by gas drilling, by fracking. For some of these homes, a company delivers water from Montrose Lake. 

A huge white water truck rolls by labeled “Rain for Rent”. 

Some people test their water for chemical contamination. They need to test for toxic chemical salts daily after baseline water tests. But they only test if they can afford the costs, and some people can’t. Yet they want to check the water, because when gas drilling chemicals leak, people get sick with rashes, headaches, or worse. 

Some toxic gas drilling chemicals leak and get into the water on the ground, and sometimes deep below the ground too. Then the soil, the crops and other plants are also contaminated as they soak up the water. Animals grazing on the plants and drinking the water become sick. Cows are still milked, cheese is still made from the milk, animals are still sold and their meat is still prepared. Some of this food is exported to other states as it always was. But in this way, chemicals in the water enter into the food chain. This path leads to the grocery store, and on to the table.

The bus struggles along brown dirt roads not meant for heavy vehicles. The bus stops at a gas drilling rig. An American flag flies at the top of the tall steel structure so far up it looks like a small scarf. Beside the area where workers drill for gas is a pond that’s a bright green color, no ice. Where water contains chemical salts, it doesn’t freeze. 

A gas field worker gets on the bus to share his story with the visitors. He’s from Louisiana before coming to Pennsylvania for work. Most workers are from out of the area, like he is. He says drilling goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week here. They work long days. They have 12 hours of work and then 12 hours off, every day, for two weeks, then they have a day off. This worker’s job is to teach about safety inside the gas wells, and he says it’s a difficult job.

In the town of Montrose, a new kind of gas station is being built where gas is compressed, forced into smaller pipes. The work site is beside a country cemetery where the Citizen’s Tour guide says founders of the Montrose are buried. Engraved headstones mark each burial plot. 

High-pressure gas pipelines run to and from the gas compressor station, back and forth across farmland and run beside homes. The pipelines carry gas at super-high pressures of up to 1,500 pounds per square inch. Gas under pressures this high can be very dangerous.

The town’s spring water shed stands a few steps away from a fracking-waste cleaning site. People used to come here for fresh spring water, but now the toxic, fracking-mud trucks are cleaned from the hazardous wastes here. 

Past a bowling alley named “Maple Lanes”, a restaurant has closed down. A supermarket is also shuttered. The guide says that the average income in the county is low, about $23,000 a year. A crow spreads wide black wings and drops through the falling snow. It glides from the top of a bare tree to the ground where a red barn is falling down, abandoned beside a wildlife preserve. The tour bus rolls past trailer houses and the Dimock Township building, and travels down Carter Road, an area where drinking water was contaminated by methane gas from fracking. Dimock had only about 1,500 people, but at the time of the tour, as many as 160 shale gas wells. The plans were to reach 3,000 gas wells.

The guide shepherds visitors past a gas site, one that was closed down because of defective construction after it had a blow-out. It sent chemical-laden fracking mud spewing into the hills. Further down, a small, white trailer stands beside a water well fitted with a vent that currently allows gas to escape from contaminated water and prevent explosions.

A petite grandmother walks from her home below, up a steep hill to the dirt road and stops beside the bus. She tells the story of how shale gas changed her community here in Dimock. Prices of rents doubled and tripled here, and many people had to double up in apartments. Some moved back in with their parents, others moved away from here. 

She’s committed to living here and will stay. But she says she now lives in a gas field, and thinks she will eventually be displaced. The pipelines are everywhere now. She describes this gas land as a vast spider web where she and her neighbors are stuck like small flies. Not one acre will remain untouched by drilling in Susquehanna County, she says. 

When the methane gas wells flare, to her, it seems like the sky is on fire. 

Many citizens’ complaints of contaminated water and sickness were settled in long legal battles and after that, gag orders were imposed, she says. This silenced discussion of the water and the shale gas. She is one of those, and she can’t talk about the water now. She adapts. She is, she says, as many people here are, remarkable at adaptation. She is resilient. Her town is now a company town, and she calls herself a native on the reservation that used to be her home, then she walks carefully back down the hill. 

The Citizens Tour guide directs the bus past gas well pads that stand one right after another here beside snow-covered dirt roads. One gas well pad is on the right up a hill, another is on the left down the hill. She tells of water wells that went bad downstream of the drilling and how many people’s water was contaminated with methane gas. 

Four White-Tailed Deer race up a hill, bobbing gracefully in the snow. She says local men still hunt here, but they don’t eat the meat. Deer lick the toxic salt brine at fracking sites, oblivious to the hazard signs that warn workers. 

At a gas compressor station, the bus pulls over and stops on a patch of gravel. Visitors from New York and Finland again take time to explore, photograph, film, and write. Brightly colored signs show warnings that personal protective clothing is required beyond a tall, barbed wire gate. Eye protection is required, ear protection is too, and fire-retardant clothing is needed, along with steel-toed shoes. Warnings say “No Trespassing” and “Absolutely No Smoking”. 

The huge compressor fans beyond the gate sound like jet engines as they work to compress gas under high pressure. The site gives off a faintly sweet, chemical smell of benzene and the air burns people’s eyes. Something in the air tastes metallic.

The excursion ends here and the journey is over for today. The Citizens Tour guide hugs the group leader and people say their goodbyes, and she takes dozens of bottled water gallons the visitors brought as gifts. She will give the water to her neighbors here in Pennsylvania who need it. 

The bus pulls onto the road heading back to the City. White snow covers the roads past ponds and streams, rock quarries and farmlands. Property lines are marked off with stone walls built by hand from slabs of gray shale. An enormous Red-Tailed Hawk rests on a post in a fence that crosses an open, marshy field and then flies off and away. Tall skeletons of thistle plants line the dirt road, rocks beside the road are covered in green moss. Eight white-tailed deer stand alert on a hill and below them farmland is dotted with cows. In a swampy area beside a little stream, three cows stand together. One turns around and lies down in the mud behind a stand of red Smooth Sumac brush. The sun falls toward the horizon like a pale papery dot and fades behind the darkening snow.

This trip I went on organized by the group Brooklyn for Peace was nearly 10 years ago now, but the struggles there for clean water in a heavily fracked area continue. More about the history behind it is shown in the video below. Have a look:

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