Fracking With Pennsylvania: The Marcellus Shale Debate

The Marcellus Shale controversy may feel worlds away, but it could change everything from our economy to the water we drink. Our man travels through Gasland and brings back tales of boom towns, big business, angry nuns, Hollywood stars and the fight that’s going to transform our state forever

At the heart of the dispute about drilling is whether hydrofracking will actually pollute the aquifers. According to ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization that’s done scores of reports on gas drilling in the past few years, there have been thousands of claims of well and groundwater contamination in areas where hydrofracking is taking place. But the gas industry consistently denies responsibility, and proving the exact culprit of such water pollution is complicated and expensive.

On one set of crucial facts—what, exactly, is in the chemical mix that drillers add to the water and sand during the fracking process—the back-and-forth between the industry and environmental activists has gotten nearly absurd. Because drilling companies obtained an exemption from the Clean Water Act (conveniently, it is much noted, while Dick Cheney, the former CEO of fracking innovator Halliburton Corporation, was in the White House directing energy policy), they’re not required to reveal the chemicals that go down the wells. Critics found evidence of such toxins as benzene and toluene, known carcinogens. After much prodding, a gas industry group finally released a partial list of fracking chemicals that included more benign substances like ethylene glycol and hydroxyethyl cellulose, the latter of which, they noted, is also used to make gummy bears.

It was this dichotomy that intrigued me. Each side seemed to only believe its own facts—much like the global-warming debate. I wanted to understand how two sides could look at the same thing and see such different pictures. So, not long after the DRBC hearing, I drove back out to Honesdale to talk to a few neighbors.

"WHAT PEOPLE IN PHILADELPHIA don’t understand,” says Marian Schweighofer, a pert and easygoing 55-year-old who lives on a 700-acre farm in Damascus Township, “is that people up here have always exploited their natural resources.

“When Philadelphia said, ‘We need ship masts,’ we cut down trees and floated them down the Delaware. The blue stone that they used to build West Point came from here. Nowadays we ship hay all over. So when natural gas came our way, it was like God gave the people here a gift. Because the economy up here is so sucky.”

Natural gas came into her picture about five years ago, when, through her association with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Schweighofer began hearing stories from farmers farther west. “We looked to Susquehanna and Bradford counties,” she said, “and networked with the farm people out there. And found out what the problems were.”