Dimock, Pa. Ė thatís where we went to do research for our seven-part series, ďBoon or Bust?Ē appearing each Thursday in The Evening Sun. For those who may not know, itís a Pennsylvania town finding itself swept into the center of the gas well controversy after dozens of people from the rural region accused Cabot Oil and Gas of polluting their wells while drilling.
Susquehanna is a county with about 10,000 less people than Chenango. Dimock is a rural town tucked into its hills Ė think Smyrna, McDonough.
The Borough of Montrose is the areaís biggest population center. Similar in size and development as Norwich, maybe a little smaller. One of its most obvious defining features is a several story, columned courthouse in the center of town Ė sound familiar?
There was an unknown moment of foreshadowing as we neared our destination in The Evening Sun Mystery Machine (aka white van #3). In the last leg of our hour and a half trip in early December, we anxiously searched the roadway for indications we were almost there. A trio of heavy work trucks drove past us and someone wondered if they were used for gas well drilling.
We passed so many dump trucks, tankers, and contractor pick-ups I couldnít even estimate the number Ė hundreds probably. In every direction of travel you could rarely go more than a few minutes without the rev of a diesel engine being heard.
As we came into town I eagerly scanned the residential yards for political signs of objection and support. We needed some local comments and I figured signage would indicate an interview candidate willing to express a public opinion. Making a pass through the heart of Montrose, we spotted none. Eventually we saw a sign objecting to a new waterline project tied to gas development, but that was it. After seeing the number of signs in Chenango and the national focus on the Dimock area, I expected there to be heightened tension and politics. It was at least not displayed on the lawns.
At 9:51 a.m. we stopped at Lockharts, a gas station near Montrose. It was brimming with men in overalls and work boots, the routine pick-ups dotted the parking lot. The cashier, though a little rough around the edges at first, eventually admitted to us that the storeís business had been great. The increase of traveling automobiles and workers, most relating to gas development, brought obvious benefits to the gas station, she told us.
We meandered through several remote roads and got lost, temporarily. We passed the occasional trailer, farm house and gas well site in the middle of a vast woodlands Ė again, very similar.
The gas sites were not as common as the homes, but they were everywhere and often I was surprised with just how close their proximity seemed. There would be a house and a stoneís throw away from it, a gas well. From the yard of one family Brian Golden interviewed, you could hear the sound of gas compressors about a hundred yards away. They constantly ticked and hissed in muffled tones, in infinite reputation.
Other stretches of paved road near Montrose were alive with commercial construction. I saw several areas covered in construction plastic or landscape that had already been cleared out for a future parking lot or building. It was December when we took our trip; I have no doubt a better impression of this growth could be seen in the summer.
Most everyone I met at random, perhaps four or five conversations, each claimed to have benefited from the gas industry. The contracting business seemed to be doing well; lots of men were going to and fro covered in the mud of hard labor. A waitress said the gas workers were regulars who helped save the restaurant she worked for.
I found the experience very educational, but Iím not sure how I feel. I think I certainly saw the benefits and the risks.
Mostly, there are two camps to natural gas drilling: the economic development camp and the environmental hazards camp.
Iíve heard a lot of people say though the only two real sides to the natural gas debate are those with land and those without. That people without an obvious direct benefit to natural gas development would rather not take an environmental risk that could affect them directly.
Finding myself in the group benefiting indirectly, I understand being suspicious of corporations or land owners who are motivated by their own incentives.
The thing I dislike most about the debate is the contempt displayed by its most polarized forces: the proponents who assume they have the automatic right to drill and the opponents who refuse to take any environmental risk.
I donít care what your profit from the affair might be, if your activities have the potential to affect the environment for generations, you donít have an unrestricted right. The public has a right to review harmful industrial development and restrict it, even on private land.
On the other side, I love the environment but we live in an industrialized world. There are so many activities our businesses engage in that require development of natural resources, generate degrees of waste and always cause measurable levels of environmental harm. You canít avoid it.
There is a line though, between too much risk and reasonable risk. Iím not sure which side natural gas is on. One spill wonít pollute all of New York State, but I think itís important for the public to understand just how many people might be affected. Most small surface spills would be localized damage to the nearby acreage while a malfunctioning well casing might poison a municipal water supply. Or maybe a more rural leak would just affect 60 or so nearby residents, as those in Dimock claim. Are these the risks what weíre talking about? But how frequent are these accidents? Out of all the thousands, millions of potentially affected people, can we say itís a small enough margin when compared to other developments?
Probably if youíre one of those affected you might not say that, but even the best government regulations canít protect people from willful violators or bad luck. Life constants that will continue to occasionally occur, even in the gas well industry.
If the right precautions and steps are taken, however, I think New York State can be responsible enough to exploit the natural gas well boom without sacrificing our environment.
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