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 DRBC hearing the week before, one of the commissioners of Bradford County, Doug McLinko, testified that there had been 550 wells drilled in his county—the most in any Pennsylvania county—and, he maintained, “we have seen no problems.”

“It’s been wonderful in Bradford County,” McLinko said.

I had talked to some people in Towanda, the county seat of Bradford, and they spoke of a business boom that was in full force. Their economy was ducky. Hotels were booked solid; restaurants were full. One happy restaurant owner reported that her brother-in-law’s heavy-equipment company had tripled its sales in the past few years, topping $10 million annually. “He buys cranes,” she reported, “like I buy shoes.”

But not long after this, a gas rig near Towanda blew out during a fracking operation and spilled thousands of gallons of fracking fluid (likely saturated with salt, radioactive material and that secret, potentially toxic brew of chemicals) into Towanda Creek, which runs into the Susquehanna River. The spill prompted another Bradford commissioner to write a letter to Governor Corbett, saying: “The economic benefit of this development is unquestionable. However, it is also unquestionable that when left unattended, the negatives outweigh the positives quickly and heavily.”

Now, sipping cranberry juice in the kitchen of her well-lived-in house, Schweighofer tells me, “I don’t know anybody in Wayne County who’s saying, ‘Just give me the money. I don’t care if you destroy my land and water.’ We just want to proceed with some kind of prudent production.”

Schweighofer describes herself as “simple country people.” In fact, she was born in King of Prussia and lived in Holland as a youth, but then met Edward “Bud” Schweighofer in college, married, and moved to the Wayne County farm that had been in his family for five generations. As the gas-industry landmen moved her way with leasing contracts, she helped found the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, which began with five farmers meeting around a kitchen table and grew to represent 1,800 families holding a total of 100,000 acres. Working with big-city lawyers, including two from Ballard Spahr’s Philly office, the alliance signed with oil giant Hess Corporation, not only bargaining for a signing bonus of $3,000 an acre, but stipulating provisions such as how the gas company could develop land (“You don’t want them going through your best field,” Schweighofer maintains) and, most importantly, how they were required to monitor water quality.

She insists that her group of landowners did extensive due diligence before welcoming what they consider a highly reputable gas company into this part of Wayne County. Starting with that bred-in-the-bone belief that natural resources are there to be exploited, Schweighofer and her neighbors have taken a leap of faith: They believe gas drilling can be done safely.

Yet the longer I talk to her, the more it seems that her words show, if not distrust, at least skepticism toward the industry that promised to change her life and the lives of so many of her neighbors. For instance, there’s the stipulation in her lease that an independent lab conduct water tests during the drilling process, so, she says, “the gas companies can’t switch the samples.” At another point, she talks about how drillers had started to recycle some of the millions of gallons of water that went down a well for fracking. “The companies are saying 90 percent reuse. It’s probably closer to 60 percent,” she says matter-of-factly. But if there was this much skepticism, why would you allow drilling on your land in the first place? Her answer to that question is so obvious that it needn’t be mentioned.