The debate over natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania has turned small rural communities into battlegrounds where fracktivists clash with industry and neighbors with neighbors.
In Susquehanna County, a small group of residents is leaving the debate behind in attempts to do something for their community, but they may be creating more division.
Two years ago, Victoria Switzer and her neighbors stopped speaking.
Switzer was one of the residents of Dimock who claimed natural gas drilling had ruined their water supplies. The small village in Susquehanna County became synonymous with flaming taps and jugs of muddy brown drinking water.
But the media blitz angered her neighbors, the Teels, who said it ignored the economic benefits of drilling.The reporters, the activists and the industry haven’t gone away, but things have started to change.
The Teels and Switzer disagreed about what happened to their water in the past, but now they’re part of a new advocacy group that agrees it’s time to curb air pollution. Switzer remembers the first time Ron Teel came to her home for a meeting.
“He brought a loaf of bread that his wife had made and I thought that was pretty significant,” Switzer recalls.
“It got tense around here. You were on one side of the fence or the other,” Teel said. “You didn’t sit on the fence. If you did you got knocked off one way or the other.”
‘We all breathe the same air’
One reason it might be easier for these neighbors to talk is that Switzer no longer speaks about water issues with gas drilling after settling a lawsuit with Cabot Oil and Gas.
Water contamination is still a divisive issue in Susquehanna County. Cabot is still barred from drilling new wells within a 9-square-mile section of Dimock. Anti-drilling activists continue to deliver water to residents who say their wells are contaminated.
Air quality is a more unifying issue, said Rebecca Roter who founded the new advocacy group.
“If my water well went bad, I could choose not to drink that water,” Roter said. “We all breathe the same air, so everybody is equally impacted.”
Roter’s group, called Breathe Easy Susquehanna County, is targeting emissions released from various stages of natural gas development. They want the gas industry to voluntarily go above and beyond state and federal air quality regulations.
Roter has been setting up meetings with industry representatives and working to establish the group’s credibility.
That means being selective about membership. The group is open only to Susquehanna County residents who can agree on a mission statement that zeros in on air quality and calls for respectful dialogue. Roter specifically does not invite people who identify as “activists.”
“I don’t want to be lumped in with stereotypes that would jeopardize my credibility with my community,” she said.
‘They left and we were still here’
For Roter, that means distancing herself from the anti-fracking protest movement.
“I started out standing on Route 29 with a sign that said ‘Save Our Water,'” Roter remembers.
“But things kept changing more rapidly and people came and they left and we were still here,” she said. “I realized that we needed to rebuild the community.”
Before joining Roter’s group, Switzer had become a prominent figure in the anti-fracking movement. She was in the second installment of Josh Fox’s film “Gasland” and sat next to activist Yoko Ono at the New York City premiere last spring. Now, Switzer has been getting hate mail calling her a traitor.
“I respect the work of people calling for a ban,” she said. “But what good would it do for any one of us here to stand with a ‘ban fracking’ sign next to this compressor station? It would be carried away in the wind.”
Switzer said one person told her that if New York State were to lift the moratorium on drilling, she would be to blame.
“I think that they’re hurting us,” said Wendy Lynne Lee, a staunch anti-drilling activist. “I think that the position that they’ve taken is willfully naïve.”
Lee is a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University in Columbia County, a blogger and a member of the Shale Justice Coalition. To her, the fight to ban fracking is about reducing global dependence on fossil fuels and addressing climate change head on.
Lee believes lobbying the industry is equal to admitting defeat. She questions whether the industry will respond to the group’s concerns.
“Who’s going to be responsible to monitor whether these new technologies or best practices are actually being used? It’s not going to be the gas industry if it costs them money,” said Lee.
‘You have to fight for something’
Living with gas drilling already means being in frequent contact with the industry, if only to find out what is happening.
Late one night last December, the compressor station down the road from Roter’s home had a valve failure, releasing methane gas for about an hour with a loud sound like a jet engine. Standing in her pajamas, she left a message for the company’s community outreach coordinator.
Since the incident, Roter has developed a good working relationship with Helen Humphreys at Williams, a company that builds and maintains pipelines and compressor stations. Humphreys knows Roter and her group are coming under scrutiny.
“Those aren’t folks we can satisfy,” said Humphreys. “We can only agree that if we sit down, begin a respectful dialogue that something positive is going to come from it.”
Group members have also met with Cabot Oil and Gas. Spokesman George Stark said, as with other groups Cabot meets with, the company wants to educate people about its operations.
“People realize today that best practices are being implemented,” Stark said.
Breathe Easy Susquehanna County has started getting endorsements from local lawmakers and prominent scientists, including Dr. Terry Engelder, the Penn State geologist who calculated how much gas is trapped in the Marcellus Shale. Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineer who frequently speaks out against natural gas drilling, has also endorsed the group.
Rebecca Roter and Victoria Switzer say their new work is helping them channel the anxiety they felt since the tension in Susquehanna County began more than five years ago. Now they are working on what they say feels like achievable goals for their community, not a long-shot crusade.
“If something happens to reduce any of the pollution, that’s a huge win for everybody,” Switzer said. “You have to fight for something. We’re not just going to roll over and let them have it all.”
Clearing the air in Susquehanna County would be enough.