The Marcellus Shale natural gas boom has brought thousands of new wells, truck traffic, and water contamination to rural Pennsylvania in a short period of time.
The industry also brings jobs and cash to an impoverished area of the state. Environmentalists want the drilling to stop, or at the very least, slow down. But, they haven’t had much success. Now they’re targeting proposed gas pipelines. Thousands of miles of new pipelines could be the next battle ground over gas drilling.
Sullivan County lies in the north central part of the state, an area referred to as the “Endless Mountains.” Six thousand people live in this county, which has just one stoplight and three covered bridges.The economy has long depended on tourism and dairy farming. Just down the road from the remote World’s End State Park, is the Forksville General Store, which sits right next to a covered bridge over the Loyalsock Creek. It was built in 1851, when timber ruled. Today, the store is owned and operated by Mike Stasiunas, or “Big Mike.”
Big Mike grew up in South Philadelphia. But as a kid, he would go camping upstate, and dreamed of one day moving here.
“Is this gorgeous up here, or is this gorgeous? I’ve set my feet in four continents in this world, and this is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been to. And to take this away for money, it’s a crime against nature.”
Stasiunas says he only started to hear about the Marcellus Shale about two years ago, and he didn’t think much of it.
“But I was asked three times Memorial Day weekend, the same question from three different people. And they said Mike, is it okay to go into the creek? And I just said, what are you talking about? And they said well, we heard they’re doing a lot of gas drilling up here.”
Stasiunas worries about the tourist trade.
“You know it’s not whether it’s a lie or not, it’s perception. If people start believing that this area is polluted, they’re gonna find somewhere else to go. I mean let’s face it, who would want to go in cricks that are, you know, you might have to worry that they’re polluted?”
Stasiunas is now part of a group of residents, along with the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, and a national environmental law firm, that joined together to oppose an interstate pipeline project that would run through Lycoming, Sullivan and Bradford counties. The 39-mile Marc 1 Hub pipeline is named after the Marcellus Shale. It would connect three major interstate pipelines that already haul gas from the Gulf Coast to the major east coast markets of New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. The Marc 1 proposal worries Big Mike.
“The pipeline that this Marc 1 coming in is the enabler. Once it comes in, it will enable all these gas wells and then they’ll be drilling like crazy. Because they’ll be connected and hooked in.”
Sullivan County, unlike neighboring Bradford and Susquehanna Counties, has not yet experienced the drilling boom. That’s not because there’s no gas beneath its forest, it’s because the gas can’t get to market without pipelines. The newly proposed Marc 1 pipeline would change that.
And because it crosses state lines, travelling up to New York, it’s regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.
Deborah Goldberg is an attorney with Earth Justice, the law firm that represents residents like Stasiunas. Earth Justice is helping local groups, and seeking to intervene in the FERC certification process. Goldberg says putting a halt to pipelines, can help limit the number of gas wells that get drilled.
“People are just now beginning to catch up to what the implications of all this pipeline construction is going to be. And that’s why, you know, initially what you heard about was the wells, because the wells went in before the pipelines did. And then the pipeline construction started, and we’re going to be seeing hundreds, thousands of miles of pipelines.”
So for environmentalists like Goldberg, the new strategy is to target pipeline construction. They’re pushing FERC to do a more extensive, environmental impact study, which would at the very least delay the project and give the activists more information to work with.
FERC did conduct a less extensive environmental assessment that concluded the ecological impact would not be significant. But the Environmental Protection Agency agrees with Earth Justice that a better study is needed, one that would look at the cumulative effect of all the new pipelines planned for the region’s undeveloped stretches of forest.
“The EPA said why can’t they use the other pipelines in the area. Well, all the other pipelines are totally full right now. There’s not enough infrastructure to be able to move the gas that they have right now so, there’s definitely a need for more pipelines.”
Cigich says they’re hoping to break ground on the Marc 1 pipeline by the end of July and have it up and running a year from now. Pipeline construction does provide jobs for locals. The Linde Corporation used to lay water and sewer pipes in northeast Pennsylvania. Now their workforce has more than doubled to 250 workers because of Marcellus Shale drilling.
At the bottom of a steep clearcut slope in Susquehanna County, Benjamin Hammond prepares the ground for a new gas pipeline. This is pipe will be part of the Laser project. He says he loves working outdoors. And he says he welcomes more oversight.
“I have no problem having one of those inspectors looking over my shoulder making sure I’m doing something right. Because I don’t want that hanging over my head that I did something wrong to cause harm, to anyone. Nature especially.”
Back in Forksville, “Big Mike” Stasiunas worries about the compressor stations that come with the pipelines. compressors are needed to pump the gas through the pipes.
Hammond’s boss Scott Linde agrees that Pennsylvania does need to tighten up some of its regulations. Linde took over the company from his father, who built up the business after Hurricane Agnes wreaked havoc on the area in 1972. He says, in his experience, the gas companies are willing to pay to do the job right.
“We can handle the problems if we work together with the government. And from what I’ve seen so far in Pennsylvania, the push is to work with us rather than stop it. Because then no one will win.”
Back in Forksville, “Big Mike” Stasiunas worries about the compressor stations that come with the pipelines. Compressors are used to pump gas through the pipes, and can create air pollution.
“So it’s not only the water, it’s the air quality too that we’re really concerned about. So, its a mess from top to bottom it’s just one big mess. And it’s all in the guise of money and jobs. So, there you go, that’s it. Money and jobs. And health, welfare and beauty and all that on the other side.”
Stasiunas says drilling in his neck of the woods is just in its infancy. But if the network of pipelines get built, he worries the yearly visitors from Philadelphia and New York, will no longer want to swim in the Loyalsock Creek.