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

“I just don’t want you to portray us as a bunch of greedy, money-hungry people,” Schweighofer tells me. “The greedy ones didn’t stand and wait. We gave up a certain amount of bonus money to get protections in place.” Under the more complicated lease her alliance signed, landowners have been paid three bonus payments of $500 per acre. In Schweighofer’s case, that came to about a million dollars. There were three more payments scheduled, but now that the DRBC has placed a moratorium on drilling in the Delaware watershed, Hess can suspend bonus payouts. The months have added up as the Wayne County landowners wait for the DRBC to write its own watershed-specific drilling regulations. Meanwhile, the forces against drilling have become more organized, more vocal and more influential. Over here on the far east side of Pennsylvania, the gold rush has been hobbled.

“We’re in suspended animation,” Schweighofer says. “And time is money. That is a taking of our private property rights without compensation. The other side is just saying ‘Kill the Drill,’ delay it at any expense. We’re just too far apart. You can’t bridge it.”

THE NEXT DAY, a few miles down the road and across a bridge, in Narrowsburg, New York, I met Barbara Arrindell for lunch at a café overlooking an eddy near the deepest spot in the Delaware River. From this restaurant’s back deck, I’ve watched eagles swooping to pluck fish from the clear water.

Arrindell, who grew up in Long Island, is a compact 65-year-old with a science degree from Columbia who has lived in Damascus Township, about 10 miles from the Schweighofer farm, for nearly a decade, working as a glass artist. Early in 2008, as she became aware that gas drilling was coming her way, she finished up her art projects, knowing that her life was about to change. Then she helped found Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, one of the most active and outspoken of the anti-drilling groups, and it now takes all her time.

After we ordered, I asked her about the problem of navigating through what seem to be separate realities presented by pro- and anti-drilling camps. “The PR machine fed by the extractive industry is so huge,” she said firmly. “And they’re spending so much money. I think they have three lobbyists for every legislator in Congress. They’re putting out lies, and they want to stamp out all these little sprouts of truth that are coming up. It’s not that we have a different set of facts. It’s that we actually have facts.”

For the next two hours, Arrindell heaped them on me, speaking concisely of fears ranging from air contamination from compressor stations to water pollution caused by a range of factors, such as accidental spills and underground migration of fracking fluid. She outlined a study that showed a steep decline in gas production by fracked wells, which seemingly contradicts gas-industry claims that the Marcellus Shale bonanza will last a generation. In the days after this lunch, my e-mail inbox would fill with additional information, studies, references and contact information for experts recommended by Arrindell.

“I’m going to send you an article that first appeared in the New York Times about a mental state called Heart’s Disease,” she promised. “What it amounts to is all the stress and anxiety and hurt that happens when you live in a place and it completely changes into an industrial zone. It’s an invasion, like an army invasion.”