Two grandmothers in tiny Franklin Forks, Pennsylvania, have become unlikely celebrities in the international debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Shelly DePue, who has four gas wells on her farm west of town, says fracking is safe and an economic boon. Tammy Manning, who lives across fields and forested hills a mile away, blames nearby gas drilling including DePue’s wells for threatening the health of her family.
“It’s important that people in the next town, and the next state, know what the problem is,” Manning, 44, said in an interview at her home in northeastern Pennsylvania. “If we don’t talk, we’re part of the problem.”
Their neighborhood drama is taking on greater importance as each has embraced the media spotlight to make her case. DePue starred in an industry-funded film, “Truthland,” made to defend gas drilling. Manning addressed a rally of fracking opponents outside an industry conference in Philadelphia yesterday.
The debate in Franklin Forks, just 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) from the New York line, is drawing interested visitors. Officials, citizens, scientists and lawyers from New York, which is considering ending a de facto moratorium on fracking, visit in droves. Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced it was delaying a decision on ending that ban to study fracking’s public-health impacts.
Other visitors include film crews and citizens from South Africa, Poland, France and Canada. They often take a bus tour across the region, including stops at the Manning home and outside DePue’s gate, with local activists Vera Scroggins or Rebecca Roter.
The foreign visitors all say: “Our country is watching what happens,” Roter said in an interview.
Meanwhile DePue, a 55-year-old dairy farmer with four children and one grandchild, has toured with her film, addressing crowds and critics in towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio and as far away as Syracuse, New York.
She says activists should look at their own use of gasoline and electricity, and try to square that with their criticisms of natural gas. And the gas drilling is providing a boost to the long-foundering local economy.
“If we didn’t have these royalty checks coming in, we couldn’t keep the farm,” DePue said in an interview. “When you stop and weigh the inconveniences, they are temporary.”
Those inconveniences are piling up for some neighbors.
Over the past year, Pennsylvania state regulators have called the local gas driller, WPX Energy Inc. (WPX), in to test water sources in town and vent four wells that had dangerous levels of methane. The state forced the local deli, Heavenly Angels, to post a sign saying its water contained arsenic, and issued a series of violation notices against WPX for its drilling work. Among those violations was one for “failure to properly cement intermediate casing” in a well on the DePue property, according to a state report.
State regulators also have begun an investigation of whether the gas company is to blame for residents’ water woes, according to Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
In response to the state water tests and complaints of residents, WPX tested its wells and homes closest to its drilling operations and found no leaks or other issues, Susan Oliver, a community relations representative for the company, said in an interview.
The water wells state regulators tested “had the shallow methane consistent with Franklin Forks” and the nearby Salt Springs park, she said. The company is providing fresh-water deliveries to three homes with contamination trouble, because “they are our neighbors,” she said.
Matthew and Tammy Manning house four generations of family members at their home in the center of town. When they moved into the house under a rent-to-own arrangement in 2011, the water posed no issue, they said. They signed a purchase agreement in June.
On Dec. 6, “I flushed the toilet and the water came in a dark gray,” Tammy Manning said. They looked outside at their well, and the water “was shooting out with force.”
The Mannings called state regulators, who first asked WPX to investigate. WPX sent out Jerry Washo, vice president of Resource Environmental Management Inc., a contractor in nearby Montrose. When Washo came to their home, he waved a testing wand near the water coming out of their sink faucet, examined the methane levels and told the Mannings not to use their stove and to open the windows in their bathroom whenever showering so that the gas wouldn’t build up and explode, Tammy Manning said.
Washo declined to comment.
Oliver, the WPX representative, said the tests Washo took found “negligible” levels of methane in the home, and nothing dangerous. Subsequent state tests showed the water had 59 milligrams of methane per liter. The state asks water-well owners to take action if the methane in their well is more than 7 milligrams per liter, because it can be dangerous, according to Connolly. The Mannings didn’t test the water before fracking began late last year.
Experts differ on the cause of the Mannings’ woes.
Brian Oram, a professional geologist compiling a database of water conditions in the county, said spiking methane levels can be explained naturally by saline water or natural-gas seeps, which pre-date gas drilling in the area by centuries.
Robert Poreda, an earth and environmental sciences professor at the University of Rochester, said his researchers have made their own analysis in Franklin Forks and found evidence that the gas seeping into the water table there is from the Marcellus Shale, indicating an impact from gas drilling and not natural causes.
Even if it isn’t Marcellus gas, shoddy well design or drilling practices can push shallower gas and related pollutants into the aquifer, activists say.
For the Mannings, another tester told them to let their faucet drip constantly in order to prevent the methane from building up in the well and erupting. That caused another issue.
Their five-year-old granddaughter slept in the bedroom above the kitchen sink. Soon after they began letting the faucet drip, she was frequently waking up and vomiting. When methane is present at high concentrations, it can displace oxygen in the air, causing nausea, according to a Pennsylvania state health fact sheet.
The Mannings sued WPX in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania in April, and the case is pending.
Meanwhile, a swimming and fishing spot in the creek out back of the house is empty, as parents have warned their children against swimming amid the periodic bubbles of methane.
“I’ve fished this hole since I was 13 years old,” Matthew Manning said as he watched the gas bubbles escape from the water one afternoon. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Not everyone is convinced. Heavenly Angels, across the road from the Mannings, has a bustling business of sales in sandwiches and soft drinks to gas-industry workers. Owner Lisa Payne dismisses any connection between the arsenic and other contaminants in her water and WPX’s drilling.
And she sells a t-shirt that encapsulates the views of many supporters of the industry: “Susquehanna County: Lighting our water on fire since 1795.”
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