RETROSPECTIVE (2008 to mid 2011)
THE INVASION BEGINS
An ad appears in the local paper
I recall the moment the shadow of invasion slipped over the mountain to surface in my conscious awareness. I live in the rural mountains of Sullivan County, the area also dubbed the “Gem of the Endless Mountains”.
A scene from Sullivan County, the "Gem of the Endless Mountains". Photo by Tom Felton
This entire county has one red light; that’s right, one, and our newspaper, the Sullivan Review, reflects simple community activities and what’s going on locally, the high school students and activities from the commissioner’s office. Ads are localized and mostly involve dining menus and contractors. Most of the economy floats on the influx of “cabin people” who come here to enjoy the peace.
So I took note the day I spotted a full page ad on the back of the local paper, The Sullivan Review. It was a Chesapeake Energy Company ad. This ad indicated that Chesapeake was a wonderful, trustable, good neighborly company, and as I recall, that it cared about the environment. I remember a lush, green mountainous background for the ad. Shortly after this, I read an article that announced the natural gas industry was going to “change the landscape” of the surrounding area.
At the time, I thought this wasn’t such a bad idea because the county where I have resided as a property owner of 4.26 acres for almost 20 years, seemed so stuck in some self-centered ways that a little fresh outside air wouldn’t hurt. Today I can’t believe my innocence.
White trucks arrive
The first signs of the changing of the local landscape began with the appearance of white trucks. This occurred in the early summer of 2009. I happened to drive to town and wondered why I was seeing such a plethora of identically colored trucks. I soon learned that the trucks were gas company vehicles. I don’t know their mission on that day but after this, white trucks became a fixture of the “changing landscape” which continues to this day. In fact the local papers are now (2011) displaying an ad stating: “We fix white trucks, (and other colors too!)”.
Baseline water testing Is performed
That spring I attended a Penn State University presentation held at the local Agricultural Extension Center and was informed that some of us would be approached by the gas companies asking if they could test our water. We were told that this was paid for by the gas companies and would serve as a baseline for any changes that might happen after they drill. It was wise legally to accept this offer, so when they indeed did contact me to test our water. I accepted. The water was collected on April 30, 2009. All test results came back at acceptable levels, including methane levels which were reported as 0.050 µg/L.
The landman knocks
About the same time, I was contacted by a “landman” and asked if I’d like to sell the mineral rights. He offered $350 an acre and I said I’d consider it. To my understanding, selling mineral rights meant a minute inconvenience and an occasional small check. My parents had sold the mineral rights to our 30 acres when I was a child, and I never even took note of any resultant activity. This was my concept of “mineral rights.”
A month later the same landman contacted me and said they were not paying for the acreage in my area but were contracting for royalties only. By now I’d had time to think and just didn’t like the idea of anyone having any power to control my beloved, pristine acreage. The fact that there would be no immediate payback from doing so just sealed my mind on that and I was relieved that the decision had been simplified.
However, another month later the landman contacted me again and said that there had been a change and now the company he represented would pay $3000 an acre for the mineral rights, plus royalties. By this time I had heard enough local talk to be getting suspicious and turned him down despite the substantial increase but he insisted on sending me the contract to look over.
I knew that my neighbors had signed a lease on their small property when the landman had contacted them the first time and had chosen the royalty-only option. They rationalized that horizontal drilling (which we were just learning about) could reach beneath them anyway, “so might as well collect the royalties.” Since then I’ve often heard the reasoning that if we don’t sign up voluntarily, there will eventually be a declaration of “forced pooling” and we will have lost our bargaining power. True or not, it didn’t feel correct on some deeper level to sign a contract.
August 16, 2009
I can't forget this date because it was a wake-up call. I was sitting outside at our picnic table enjoying the beauty of a particularly windy summer day. However my enjoyment was punctuated with the noises of company men in bright green shirts and white hard hats who had appeared in the field across from me. This was about 1000 feet away and normal human voices would not be discernable, but the men were using loudspeakers. Probably this was necessary to overcome the sounds of the equipment they were using. From my viewpoint, they were spraying a substance with such force that it caused a high plume of brown colored matter to waft into the air and be carried over the trees that lined the property. I could hear them distinctly as they jabbered back and forth, as clearly as though they were next to me. Curious, I stood up and walked past the tree blocking me from them to see what they could be doing. As I came into their sight, this is what I heard: “uh oh” “Come on, you can do it”, then “Mission aborted” and away they went.
I was relieved that they were gone, but had I been aware at the time of the illegal methods these companies have been accused of employing to disperse of their wastes, I would’ve jumped in my car to accost them or at least get a visual on the type of vehicle they were using.
I’ve since told the PA DEP about this, but though they agreed to place it in their records – to date no one has offered me any reason why these company employees were spraying substances onto the field next door. Nor has anyone taken any steps to check the soil in the area where it was happening.
In February of 2010, I attended a presentation by a group from Williamsport, PA, about the gas drilling that was coming to our county. The woman who gave the presentation said that she had set aside her work as a local businesswoman in order to form the group -- called the RDA (Responsible Drilling Alliance) -- and get information out to the public. The presentation of what was coming to my beautiful, silent and pristine property of 20 years was heartstopping. According to her, our water, air, earth, wildlife – all would be grossly affected. A quote on the t-shirts they were selling to raise money to help continue this battle summed it up: “natural gas / unnatural consequences.”
I reeled out of the presentation feeling like I’d just previewed a sci-fi movie but it wasn’t sci-fi, it was real and it was coming my way. I went directly home, built a fire and burned the contract the landman had insisted on sending me. I did not wish to be part of any of this in any way.
If only it were that simple to avoid.