Hydrofracking woes aired in Penn Yan

John Christensen
Terry Greenwood, farmer

PENN YAN —“Once they get you, they’ve got you. Keep them out of here. You’ve got everything; good land and clean water... What’s gas? You can’t live on gas. Don’t let them in. No way.”

That was the advice given by Terry Greenwood, a Pennsylvania farmer, to the 400 to 500 people gathered at a farm forum on hydrofracking at the Penn Yan Middle School last Tuesday evening.

Greenwood, perhaps the most compelling speaker of the evening, is a cattle farmer with 60 acres in Washington County in Western Pennsylvania. He never signed a lease with natural gas drillers, but was subjected to an undisclosed perpetual lease signed by a previous owner of his land in 1921. Greenwood’s first-hand experience was truly horrific.

Numerous aborted and deformed calves, followed by the deaths of the cows themselves were ignored by the gas company and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which claimed the die-offs had nothing to do with fracking chemicals.

Having informed the company that he was going to construct a home for his son on a small piece of his land, he arrived home one day to find a drilling rig on that very plot.

The 400-500 people who attended “Hydrofracking & Agriculture — the Promise & the Reality,” a farm forum sponsored by The Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes were surely not all farmers, but they certainly felt allied to their cause; the preservation of the land and waters of the Finger Lakes.

Emceed by Klaas Martens, who operates one of the largest organic farms in the nation, the object of the forum was to bring the first hand perspective of farmers, landowners, and attorneys who have direct experience with the energy companies who drill and “frack” for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale deposit. Steve Coffman, who has been active in the local anti-fracking movement, spoke briefly about the impact on the rural character of Yates County from truck traffic.

The opening address was given by Rev. Richard Gilbert (Ret.), President of Interfaith Impact, a statewide coalition of progressive Christian, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith congregations and individuals who work for social change. Speaking on Eco-justice, he told the audience, “The earth is not a mine which we will someday exhaust. It is a garden which we must carefully tend... We are just beginning to know the limits of the earth.” Rev. Gilbert admonished energy companies for their short-sighted profit motive thinking nothing of the cost paid by future generations. “We are rightly skeptical of corporations,” he added.

Next to address the forum was fifth generation farmer and vintner Art Hunt of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport. He asked the audience and the public to “consider the generations.” Comparing the relatively low impact that vertical gas drilling of previous years had on farmland to the large-scale takeover and industrialization of farms that today’s horizontal fracking entails, he had a different perspective on the question.

Rather than addressing the potential risks of spills and contamination of ground water aquifers, Hunt spoke of the complete change of land use from agriculture to industry.

The access roads, the truck traffic, the storage and processing facilities for the millions of gallons of chemicals and wastewater produces, are now on such a scale as to make farming among gas wells impossible.  “Gas wells are not the same as they used to be... Even if they can do it safely, they’ve still turned your farm into an industrial zone. We have to preserve our land for growing food,” said Hunt.

Ellen Harrison, a retired professor of Environmental Science and Geology from Cornell is one of the founders of fleased.org. She related her own experience as someone who feels duped by the gas company with whom she and her husband signed a lease, thinking that natural gas was an eco-friendly source of energy, saying,  “I’m a trained geologist and even I was fooled by them.”

The five year lease she signed makes no mention of the type of drilling practice that will be used giving them carte-blanche to use any method they like. It also has a codicil which gives the company unlimited rights of renewal for another five years. The shame she felt for not realizing the true implications of the vague terms in the lease has been compounded by the iron clad nature of the company’s hold. The lease is practicably inescapable.

In her discovery of the true nature of fracking Harrison learned that, due to the intensive trucking involved and widespread methane leaks and burn offs, shale gas is as harmful to the atmosphere as coal. The Marcellus Shale formation is also loaded with salt, and the hyper-salinated wastewater produced by fracking is nearly impossible to treat in the municipal facilities often used by gas companies.

Ron Gulla is another farmer from Washington County whose 141-acre farm was the site of the second Marcellus Shale well drilled in Pennsylvania. Now there are four wells.

He claims, “This is not conventional drilling, it’s unconventional drilling. People have been nothing but guinea pigs. I watched those guys obliterate my farm... My dreams (of having an organic farm) went up in smoke.”

Reiterating some of Art Hunt’s points, Gulla told of how contaminated slag from drilling was spread on his land to make access roads. Sediment runoff contaminated his fish pond and springs and killed  vegetation. Like Greenwood, he too claims that the DEP has lied for the gas companies.

Despite his experience having worked in the gas industry, Gulla knew nothing of fracking.

Now Gulla, who received $7.50 per acre, regrets signing the deal and has made it his mission to ensure others don’t make his mistake. “You’ve got to stick together. Don’t let the companies divide and conquer you,”  he urged.

“All I wanted was free gas,” he said. The free gas and 13.5 percent royalty promised by the landsman was too good to pass up.

The final speaker was attorney Leslie Lewis who has represented the residents of Dimock Pa. in their suit against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. of Houston, Texas, for contaminated water wells. Their plight was featured in the Oscar nominated documentary “Gasland.”

Lewis has been seeking $11.8 million from Cabot to construct a municipal waterline for Dimock. She strongly advised anyone considering signing a lease to get a lawyer who really knows that part of the law. She was critical of the gas industry for targeting impoverished rural areas, playing upon people’s patriotism by claiming that this would help America, and then doing everything possible to deceive and confuse the land owner with fine print and legal jargon. She was also deeply critical of former DEP head John Hanger for his handling of the Dimock case.

Lewis claims that the “Landmen” make verbal promises the company will never uphold, that the pre- and post-drilling ground water tests are so superficial that they never test for the chemicals that will be used in fracking, and that the companies have never upheld the lease agreements to return the land to its pre-drilling condition at the end of the lease. It is that “material breech of lease” caused by the contamination that Lewis hopes to make as the main defense against these industry practices.

The Members of the audience who chose to speak in the question and answer period had few questions, but voiced strong support for the moratorium, as well as a proposed complete ban on fracking. Dan Walczak of Bath asked the panel if they believed it was possible for the government to regulate it safely. Citing the history of the practice in Pennsylvania and the example of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the panel collectively answered, no.

Steve Coffman, activist