Water That Fissures, Burns, and Kills: The Costs of Hydraulic Fracking in Northern PA

Sherrie Vargson ignites the water coming out of her kitchen faucet in Bradford County. Methane in her well has caused her health problems. The well is just 100 feet from her house.

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Friday, September 18, student-run group Pericles Powerpush took six Swarthmore students to northern Pennsylvania to learn about the consequences of fracking and to camp together while doing so. We camped out in tents and munched on vegetarian burgers on our first night, all over the warmth and lighting of an open fire. Both our campsite and surroundings were so serene and full with nature left undisturbed, it was hard to imagine that there were dozens of drilling wells very near by.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as it is better known, is a process that is used to extract shale gas from reserves several thousands of feet deep into the ground. It uses water, chemicals, and methane gas to create fissures in the groups in order to extract this gale. In the process of doing so, chemicals and methane gas escape and contaminate the water reserves that lie above these shale gas reserves.

The next morning, we started on the our more important part of our journey: to witness and understand the impacts of this fracking in northern Pennsylvania. Our tour guide led us around the different stations necessary to extract the gas and transport it. We stopped by the Bluestone Compressor station, a machine that helps in the transportation of the gas from the ground. In Pennsylvania alone, there are 43 of these compressors. One alone produces approximately the same amount of carbon dioxide as 500 idling diesel school busses. Yet, it is illegal in Pennsylvania to allow a diesel school bus to idle for a mere 15 minutes.

Besides the issue of heavy greenhouse gas emissions, the location of many of these compressors atop of high hills results in pollutants travelling down to valleys, where they become trapped, especially in cold weathers.

As we continued on our trip in our Swat van, I saw drilling wells three times in succession near one strip of road in the span of 15 minutes. In such a well- forested area, the presence of these huge, metal chunks of machinery felt alien.

While many of these wells can be found in clearings near roads, there are also many that can be found in the backyards of people who have leased their land to these owners. One of the house owners with a well in his own yard spoke to us about the quality of his water. His water is at such a point of heavy contamination that when he releases water from the faucet, it is not clear but of a translucent, milky white color. If that isn’t enough to scare us, you can be sure that we were left speechless when we learned that it even bubbled with methane gas. When we poured this water into a bottle, shook it, and put a lighted match to it, the water caught fire. The home owner has owned this well for 51 years and while the water contamination has significantly worsened over time, he and his family had been using this water for everyday use. Now, he must use water from the water buffalo that the oil company has provided for drinking water. “It is difficult to fight these companies when city hall backs them up,” he said when asked about possible solutions to this evident problem.

While regulations on dumping chemical waste have improved, contamination of air and water still continues. The current governor of Pennsylvania is in support of oil drilling under the belief that he can use heavy taxing on this oil drilling to improve the education system. Whether decent education can be administered in an environment that is dangerous to its own people, though, is up for questioning.

Featured image courtesy of www.greenpeace.org.

Lisa Kato

Went to school in Japan from the age of 10 to 18. I play the violin, love to read and watch movies. I am interested in politics and economics and often write for the opinions section and news section.

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