The Shale Game Part 4: Social services
Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
Parts of Pennsylvania have become boom towns for the natural gas industry. Hotels, diners, car dealerships and landowners are reaping the economic benefits of drillers' investment in the Marcellus Shale gas play. Thousands of people have flooded rural areas to work for drilling companies — but with more people comes greater need for public services, and an economic burden on some communities. As part four in our series The Shale Game, WHYY's Kerry Grens explores how one county is coping with the gas rush.
Towanda is the seat of Bradford County, a nexus of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Try to get a room in this once-sleepy town along the banks of the Susquehanna River, and you will have a hard time.
Kelly Flynn owns the year-old Bradford Bed and Breakfast.
Like many rural areas, Bradford County doesn't have housing readily available to absorb the influx of workers who have left their families and lives behind in Oklahoma, Texas or Louisiana.
Smith: We have absolutely no idea how many people have come into this county.
Mark Smith is one of Bradford's County Commissioners.
Smith: It's thousands and thousands but we have no way of knowing. We know that all the hotels are full. All the camping grounds are full. We know there are people living in places where they shouldn't be living.
Smith says the county's budget and services are strained by the influx. Drug and alcohol services, fire departments, emergency dispatching…all have a greater responsibility, but stagnant or shrinking funds.
Smith: The gas industry isn't taxed in Pennsylvania as a property or a severance so there's no money that flows directly back to county or township governments from the natural gas industry.
Pennsylvania's legislature has said it planned to have a tax in place by October. A tax could help Bradford County afford the new staff it's hiring to accommodate the new residents. As long as some of the tax returns to local areas impacted by the drilling – rather than going to the state's general fund.
Gene Yaw is a republican state senator who represents this region of Pennsylvania.
Yaw: My primary goal and concern is to get as much of this money to stay local as possible. Because that's where the real impacts are and that's where the benefits should rest.
Yaw wants 25 percent of a tax returned to local municipalities and counties. But others have their own interest in getting a piece of the pie, such as the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has put additional resources into regulating the industry. And the tax could help balance a teetering budget.
Yaw: I just don't want a tax to go into a black hole in Harrisburg and it just gets eaten up with everything else. Yaw says he doesn't know whether the legislature will have a tax ready by the governor's target date of this Friday.
Either way, the drillers will continue tapping Bradford County's gas and the County will do its best to accommodate them.
Guthrie Health System has hired eighty one doctors over the last two years. Guthrie operates a hospital, a primary care network, and several specialty groups in Bradford County. Joseph Scopaletti is the CEO of Guthrie Health.
Scopaletti: We were very cognizant that gas exploration was coming and we did have to plan for it.Fortunately, Scopaletti says, those hires were part of an on-going expansion of the health system. But it has helped Guthrie deal with an eight percent increase in emergency department visits, a need for more laboratory equipment, and a doubling of new patient visits for primary care.
Scopaletti: We've not seen a lot of direct well-related injuries. We have seen more population based injuries — more people in the area, more traffic in the roads, so more accidents. So the trauma business is up a bit.
Scopaletti echoes County Commissioner Mark Smith: housing seems to be the biggest problem in Bradford. Tony Ventello is the executive director of the progress authority, an economic development group in Bradford County. He says there's interest in new construction.
Ventello: The only restraining factor with that is infrastructure. We don't have a lot of good sites that are serviced with gas, sewer, water. That will come. At a premium.
Two more hotels are being built in Towanda. Kelly Flynn, the B and B owner, says the industry has been great to the local economy.
Grens: Could you have envisioned that this is what Towanda would be like?
Flynn: Absolutely not [laughs]. They kept saying they were coming, they were coming. And we just kept thinking this is a going to be a passing thing. And as time goes on it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
So might Flynn's business. She's thinking of expanding.