On a recent trip to western Pennsylvania, I visited a man who lived along a leafy country road. He showed me around the house he had built for his wife and three sons and said he wanted to raise his family in a quiet rural area. He thought he had the perfect spot until an energy company showed up on his property and said it had the rights to drill for natural gas beneath his land. Although he owned his land and home -- and paid taxes on them -- he could not protect his property from a drill pad, wells and a pipeline he did not want.
Soon tractor trailers began delivering compressors the size of shipping containers, tanker trucks hauled in fracking chemicals, and workers built an industrial drill pad near his house. The last straw came when the company hired security guards to patrol the area -- and stationed them right in the middle of the family's yard.
There was nothing the man could do to stop them.
Every affected family that I met with in western Pennsylvania said they felt displaced on their own property after natural gas companies muscled their way into backyards and fields. Existing health or environmental safeguards are too weak, and poorly enforced. Instead, gas companies are allowed to run roughshod over homeowners and their communities.
Fracking operations, including wastewater pit, next to corn field. Photo: Melanie Blanding
Pennsylvania is no stranger to fossil fuel development. The first oil discovered in America was found in Oil Creek in 1859, and Standard Oil built its empire on the state's oil fields. Coal has been mined in the region for decades, and old mine shafts dot the landscape.
Local residents told me they thought natural gas would be the next wave in a familiar tide. Most were used to seeing the occasional "donkey" oil pumps bobbing up and down on a hillside, and figured natural gas operations would have a similar profile.
But once drilling began, they realized that fracking goes way beyond anything they had seen before. Instead of a single donkey, a drill site can be the size of several football fields. Half of it may consist of a huge pit holding water and wastewater. When a well is fracked, operators run compressors 24 hours a day for days. People told me their houses shook the entire time.
Even people who gave energy companies the right to drill on their property are overwhelmed by the scale of industrial development. One man told me, "My dad allowed oil drilling on his land years ago, and he got income from the company. It was just one pump out there. It wasn't a big deal." He figured he would follow in his father's footsteps, but then the massive fracking equipment arrived, and he realized he had been boxed into a corner.
Many oil and gas companies turn out to be careless and furtive neighbors. Homeowners are especially concerned about the chemicals sitting in the giant open wastewater pits called impoundments. Yet the oil and gas industry has resisted every attempt to make companies more transparent, and as a result, too few states require them to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluids, even in some cases to doctors trying to find out why people may be suffering from medical conditions. Standards for managing and reporting on toxic wastewater are too lax and companies sometimes flout the rules. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that one company worker was dumping fracking wastewater right into a local river.
This isn't an isolated incident. Researchers at PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center found that of the 4,596 fracking sites operating in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2011, companies violated environmental laws 3,355 times. Some companies see the meager fines levied against them as a cost of doing business. Homeowners, meanwhile, pay the price in polluted air, contaminated water, and decimated property values.
Strong national standards could help protect residents from reckless companies and ineffective state regulators. Yet Senator Hoeven (R-ND) recently introduced a bill that would make it harder for the federal government to regulate fracking. Big Oil's giant lobbying association, the American Petroleum Institute, welcomed the bill, but many local residents will not. Americans should be protected from the hazards of fracking no matter what state they call home.
NRDC is helping achieve that. We are fighting to put stronger state and national safeguards in place, and we created the Community Fracking Defense Project to help local communities to define their own fracking ordinances.
Lawmakers may sit in Harrisburg or Washington and say there is no need for environmental standards, but people living next door to leaking wastewater pits and polluting wells know better. It's time we honor their experience and start holding companies accountable.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.