Bust town Ohio: The other side of energy prosperity
It’s 2013 and President Obama is quoted saying, “the bottom line is, natural gas is creating jobs,” building onto a discourse that promotes hydraulic fracturing as America’s golden ticket to energy prosperity. At the same time, small towns like Carrollton in eastern Ohio are just being discovered for their shale resources, slyly and powerfully being consumed by out-of-state workers and trucks with license plates from Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania. Landmen knock on doors with pre-written checks in hand, hundreds of thousands on a piece a paper, turned over to property owners with a quick signature. White industry pick-ups and 18-wheel brine transporters dominate the roads. Two hotels are built near the highway in a matter of weeks. Rural farming villages are flooded with extra money as public land is leased. The air buzzes with the promise of jobs and economic growth. It’s a boom town in full swing.
Now, it’s over three years later, December 2016, when John Taylor* takes me on a drive around Carroll County, about two hours away from the capital of Columbus. The landscape is dotted with frack pads, he estimates about 150 or 400 individual wells. Once I start taking notice it feels as if they are behind every hilltop, hidden in every cluster of leafless trees. Nearly every parcel of land is leased out. It’s easier for landowners to sign than be taken to unitization court, a system akin to mandatory pooling. Chesapeake of Oklahoma owns most of the activity here, although as John points out they are overextended and profit is increasingly difficult to come by. Production continues, but new drilling has moved south. Part of the reason is a dip in international prices and the proliferation of domestic natural gas production. It surprises me that global market conditions can be felt in Carrollton, a town too small to have a grocery store.
Carrollton, like so many other towns located in the Marcellus shale region, is a bust town now. On every road in town there are ‘for rent’ signs, indicative of the transient trail of out-of-state workers. The gas company offices setup on the main street are no longer occupied and brine trucks rarely speed around corners. What’s left is a land mussed with industry, more consuming than frack pads the size of football fields, more complex with each person I speak to, and more destructive than the industry will admit.
It's not just what meets the eye- oil and gas infrastructure expands underground, a web of pipelines and terminals. Lateral wells run under homes and frack waste is buried in unassuming fields. Each step, each connection, is chance for human or mechanical error, creating a landscape awaiting trauma. Injection wells hold millions of gallons of radioactive toxic waste, compressor stations howl twenty-four-seven, and cryogenic plants light up the vast night sky as they extract components of natural gas liquids including butane, ethane and propane. As we pass one such plant, a draconian sight among rolling hills, John reiterates that for every one acre of frack pad, 7 more acres of infrastructure must accompany.
In the northeastern town of Vienna, a few miles away from Youngstown, Kathy Adams sits in her living room, 200 feet away from an injection well, one of hundreds drilled for the storage of used frack waste. When she sent an objection letter in response to the sites permit she was told water contamination was not a valid concern, even though used frack brine contains thousands of chemicals known to be carcinogenic and radioactive. Only weeks before the EPA reported that fracking can contaminate drinking sources, concluding what is only logical given the connectivity of groundwater. She’s been an active voice in the community, part of a band of retired professionals and activists who have dedicated their time to pushing back under the name Frackfree Mahoning Valley. Diana Harris is one too, a spitfire woman with no shame in bashing the injustices of the industry. She talks to me about broken neighbor relationships; as one person benefits unequally, as one person is left out entirely, as one person gets hit with the upwind pollution. With irony, as smooth as it is devastating, she says, “out of sight, out of mind, see you later, people downstream good luck.”
The amount of disruption is excessive, and often can’t be described monetarily. Beyond broken relationships, health concerns run abound. People in proximity to fracking activity are developing respiratory illnesses and cancer. From John Taylor, I am connected to Dave and Susan Brown, a couple who have become spokespeople for fracking-induced illnesses. Susan’s cancer has returned and Dave collapsed in his kitchen about a year ago, after chemical air drifted into their home from a nearby frack well. He describes the smell as stronger than a can of Raid bug spray. It may be easy to dismiss their struggles, as many neighbors do, in favor of viewing the Brown’s as money-gaining landowners who consciously leased. But misinformation or flat-out false information is often heard before the truth. Dave says the lease wasn’t worth the ink and paper he wrote on, while Susan softly mutters behind him, “If we had known even half of what we’ve found out since we signed, there’s absolutely no way we would have gotten involved.”
I decided to see what was happening in the southeast, where I heard the boom had migrated. I spoke to a family living in Seneca Township, Noble County, a place of scattered villages with populations no larger than 1,000. The Thompson’s own the land where one the largest frack pads in Ohio is located, placed somewhat derisively on a hill that looks out on sprawling farmland and the immense Midwestern sky. The company in control took 300 feet off the top of a historical Indian mound to build here, a lease that began with an attempt to claim mineral rights from inactive and decades-old slant well deeds. When we spoke the drill rig was up, though it was nearly time to begin injecting sand, toxic chemicals, and millions of gallons of fresh water needed for fracking. Some of the laterals running off this pad are 20,000 feet into our earth, reaching the Utica Shale and making a diagonal decline that ends under a nearby lake.
Scott and Terri deal with more than most; chemical air, constant noise, and 30 day bouts of earth shaking as rock thousands of feet deep is fissured. They have been called insurgents, hypocrites and liars, all for trying to give voice to the injustices that run rampant. Kerri tells me, "I'm certainly not an extreme environmentalist, and never was. What I am is a concerned landowner, a farmer who has had a connection with the earth for 40 years. And now my trees are dying, my waters no good, my animals have tumors on them, my grandson wakes up and can't breathe. Something's going on. I'm telling them.”
In these southeastern towns, places such as Belmont, Knox and Monroe counties, wells are producing over a billion cubic feet of gas per year. Turns out it’s a quick drive into boom town. But even with real-time money making, the story isn’t much different. People are realizing that environmental practices are negligent, a travelling Hispanic population is doing most of the groundwork, and paychecks are a fraction of what was promised; a prosperity running amok. Exploitation is taking place, unavoidable and put into action with a simple signature. As of January 2017, Monroe county had the highest unemployment rate in the state: 12.8%.
What doesn’t help is the regulatory power concentrated in state hands. In 2004 all decisions regarding fracking permissions were placed with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, an overextended and understaffed agency with a confused charter of advancing company profits and protecting citizens. By 2015 an Ohio Supreme Court ruling backed up that cities or counties have no say in regulating or banning fracking, even with home rule. The Community Bill of Rights in Youngstown, aiming to ban fracking and all associated development in the northeastern city riddled with injection wells and a history of correlated earthquakes, has failed six times. Even if local officials are on board with citizen concerns, they have essentially no power. Kathy Adams states clearly, “You can come in here and inform, but if you want something you need to get to the state level. Hopefully they will listen to you. I doubt they will.” In accordance, landowners are all but silenced. The limited voice of the people makes sure there are no big wins in these small towns.
In this area on the brim of Appalachia that has seen resource exploitation for centuries, people see fracking as money, much-needed after years of economic recession and heavy unemployment. In the hope of jobs and economic growth people welcomed the industry - only to be covered in pipelines, steady unemployment and health concerns. Methane clouds hover invisibly in the night sky, a potent greenhouse gas that is emitted at every wellhead and will now be unaccounted for under Pruitt’s direction at the EPA.
The air, water and land continue to be polluted as the multibillion dollar companies take advantage of their state and federal exemptions. Kathy sums it up easily by saying, “Tell us what’s going on at least. You’re already taking people who feel like they’ve lost control over everything, you won’t even tell us what’s going on. It’s our drinking water. It’s our lives.” Industry propelled myths are not easily dissuaded because they are what people want to believe will happen. Understandably, the promises hang heavy even as reality hits.
Published on Climate Tracker.
Names have been changed.