The following post is an essay composed for Wilds on Frack by the famous writer and Penn State English professor, Dr. Julia Spicher Kasdorf. We were lucky enough to have Julia spend a day with us in the field last week and generously share this essay.
The Earth Heals AND it’s Damaged beyond Recognition
“The earth heals,” Jerry said, and to prove it, he pointed through his pickup windshield at a white-tail doe and fawn grazing on one of those too-smooth, too-green slopes that you immediately recognize as land reclaimed from a strip mine. We had just passed the Eagles Ridge Golf Club south of Curwensville, also established on reclaimed land. Then his truck turned onto a gravel road that runs past a farm that was being stripped, the earth dug close to the house’s front porch and the dairy barn’s threshold.
I recall that conversation nearly a year later, on June 10, as I drive back up onto the Allegheny Plateau. I head west on route 80 toward Penfield, where I plan to meet up with Dr. Chris Grant and his team of Juniata student researchers. Last summer, as I was beginning my inquiries into shale gas development for a documentary poetry project, Jerry kindly welcomed me into his home, a stranger his daughter knew. I wanted to hear about his work, driving around Clearfield County, testing water for a coal company. Jerry is a fisherman and hunter, a gardener and nature lover, and I was curious to get his take on the Marcellus Shale boom.
His background is worth recounting here because it reveals so much about this region’s past. Jerry’s grandfather ran a small dairy farm like those you see in varying states of preservation in north-central Pennsylvania. His father worked as a lumberman until 1968 or ‘69, when the market flooded and he suddenly found himself stuck with an entire warehouse of cherry and hardwood. (I blame the growing appetite for plastics.) He told his two teenaged sons that making a living from the land was no longer possible; they’d better find other paths. Jerry enrolled in the plumbing course at Penn Tech and moved to Williamsport, where he met his future wife. Kathy’s grandfather had worked on the “Last Raft” on the West Branch of the Susquehanna, a mass of logs floating downstream that tragically collided with a railroad bridge in March 1938. Because he’d gotten off the raft at his home in Williamsport, her grandfather was not among the 45 who plunged into the river at Muncie. Only 38 were rescued.
The newlyweds returned to Clearfield County to raise their family. At the time, the only good jobs around there were in coal production. Jerry and his brother both turned to the industry, but Jerry vowed he’d never go down a deep mine. He worked at the colliery long enough to watch changes in the technology for washing and separating coal. Kathy maintained a small general store, but closed it some years later after it was robbed by people associated with a meth lab operating on a back road between Curwensville and Tyrone. By then, Jerry had moved on to his dream job: testing streams and water wells for a coal company.
As he showed me the reclaimed fields south of the Lumber City Highway and West Branch of the Susquehanna on that luminous summer evening, he also pointed out ruins from the 19th century’s coal and lumber booms—railroad beds, tunnels, entire villages now overgrown with wildflowers and saplings, invisible unless you know where to find them. A coal baron’s stately Victorian mansion overlooks stripped fields in the process of reclamation.
He explained that the Shawville Generating Station, a major coal-burning electric plant just north of Route 80, is set to close for environmental and economic reasons in 2015. He worries about the loss of jobs, both directly and indirectly, remembering a coal boss from earlier times who paid his workers in only $2 bills one week, so that every time someone spent or was paid a $2 bill in that community, they’d know the money had come from coal. The only hopeful sign, he said, is that some Amish families from Ohio had recently purchased farms on reclaimed land. “The earth heals,” he repeated. You can’t build anything on that ground for fifty years, but sheep can graze, and the Amish plan to put in a bakery not far from Kathy’s former store.
Jerry’s faith in the earth’s resilience, his obvious love of the land and his allegiance to coal—despite the industry’s degradation of both water and air—have stayed with me. Since then, I have heard others make the same argument in other parts of the state: “The earth heals. Don’t worry. It will come back; look what happened to the acid coal streams.” Yet unlike coal processes, fracking fluids are exempt from the Clean Water Act of 1972.
At the same time, I also hear that things are so far gone, there’s no point in fighting the latest industrial boom. What’s the use when this seems cleaner than coal at least? Last month, one of my colleagues paraphrased reports from the Penn State Shale Network Workshop: Pennsylvania’s streams are so contaminated from mine drainage and industry that it’s hard to detect much impact from fracking, unless there’s been a major spill.
The son of a lumberman, Jerry believes in the earth’s endless capacity to recover, while others wonder whether our streams are too polluted for the new industrial boom to make a noticeable impact. Ironically, these two positions are opposed, and yet both can be used to advocate for shale gas development!
All of this churns in my mind as I pass the Curwensville exit and drive on toward Penfield. A white pickup with a gas industry logo and a Williamsport address drives beside me and presses on, traveling at least 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. This past year, on sabbatical from Penn State’s English Department, with help from the Institute for Arts and Humanities, I’ve tried to learn everything I can about shale gas. I’ve talked with people who experience its impacts firsthand— industry workers, landowners, lease holders, waitresses and cleaning ladies, scientists, a lawyer, and passionate citizens on both sides of the issue—largely in Tioga, Lycoming, Fayette and Westmoreland Counties. I’ve read books on the topic and watched countless lectures and demonstrations on YouTube.
As I’ve grasped some things about this complex and changing industry, I’ve seen that I don’t need to travel far from my home in Centre County to find its signs. A transmission pipeline runs within a mile of my house in Bellefonte; a large compressor station sits on a former cornfield, concealed behind well service businesses along College Avenue in Pleasant Gap, where the foot of the Nittany Ridge is aggressively quarried for gravel to build access roads and well pads west and north and east of my home. I can’t drive ten miles to work without spotting a truck hauling gravel or brine or the noxious fluids and drill cuttings that are vaguely placarded “residual waste.”
The last few miles on Route 153 before my rendezvous with the Juniata van in the Minit Mart parking lot at the crossroads in Penfield, I shift down and tail a truck that rides its breaks down the ridge. The RoseBud Mining Company’s Lady Jane Preparation Plant is visible on the right: an enormous stockpile behind stackers and sheds for washing and grading the coal. RoseBud’s Penfield Mine began operations in 2006. There’s no neat progression from one extractive industry to another in Pennsylvania; we often witness the work—and impacts—of several at once, which is why it is so hard to trace fracking’s tracks in these parts.
Maps On Top of Maps
I pull in by the van and the instant the door opens, Grant greets me with the news that he and the students have been speculating about what kind of car I drive. They nailed the make, but not the model, a Subaru-saddled professor as predictable as the weather this week: rain, light rain, scattered showers, rain.
As Nicole traces her finger along hairline roads on a battered paper map—forget GPS for these dirt loggers’ lanes—Grant explains how they found their sites: streams with populations of wild trout untainted by industry, yet within the watersheds of Marcellus Shale drilling operations.
Imagine Fish and Boat Commission maps of wild trout populations super-imposed onto Department of Environmental Protection well permit maps that had to be verified by hikes to the remote well sites—all set in those ragged green shapes that indicate the Allegheny National Forest and other State Forests and Gamelands, the region designated “Pennsylvania Wilds” by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. According to the visitpa.com site for “Pennsylvania Wilds,” the tourist destinations they’re trying to sell sit squarely on the state’s northern Marcellus Shale formation, from Williamsport and Bradford on the east to Warren in the West: land rich in gas and poor in job opportunities.
For some, the 2014 Memorial Day weekend bombshell dropped by Governor Corbett—an executive decision to lift the moratorium on additional leasing of state lands for gas drilling—raises the question of how long these “Wilds” will stay wild.
From the van’s front seat, it looks plenty wild to me: green, green, green interrupted by splashes of mountain laurel just breaking into bloom, and several fearless deer and a ringnecked pheasant on the road. As we approach the site at Laurel Run, I see the familiar orange capped posts that mark gas pipelines; a line appears to run directly under this pristine stream.
As soon as we stop, the students spring into action, unloading gear and grabbing tools and buckets from the back of the van. The 100 meters under scrutiny is quite close to the road, no need to hike in to a remote location. Alison loans me her waders so I can try to be a part of the data collection process. She’s from Lewistown, where I was born, so I feel an affinity, plus I admire her enthusiasm for the lowly caddisfly nymph.
“Shocking,” Grant says, and a power pack on his back beeps the warning of a truck in reverse, while its probe sends an electrical current through the water as he sweeps it over the rocky streambed. A belly-up brookie flashes sliver for an instant, but if the net isn’t right there, it darts under a log. We fish the full 100 meters, netting a couple of prehistoric-looking slimy sculpins, the minnow-sized black-nose dace, and some crayfish. Someone else nets the brook trout, but this is too much like sports for me. I’d rather see what else is going on.
Upstream, student researchers pick macroinvertebrates (insects in their worm-like nymph form) from the tattered bits of leaf they kick up under rocks then capture on canvas. On the bank, one student forces water into a filter to gather bacteria for DNA study; others record the results of pH and other water tests. Their inquiries will demonstrate change (or not) in biodiversity, mercury burden, and microbial communities in fracked watersheds.
When the specimens and data are gathered, the crew packs up and we pull off, eating our sandwiches enroute to the next stream. Three years into the study, Grant says he and his collaborator Dr. Regina Lamendella, do see differences in the streams in fracked watersheds. That research is theirs to report as it is tested and published. I’m just glad to be here, sloshing in these remote streams, glad to be able to think beyond “earth heals” and “it’s too polluted to tell” when it comes to mapping actual impacts of Marcellas gas drilling. I feel more than lucky to have gotten to spend a day as a guest of this crew in the Pennsylvania Wilds, and it didn’t rain afterall.
-Julia Spicher Kasdorf