Road trip!

When I told my mother I was going to Pennsylvania to meet with Robert Wagner and James Garner, the look on her face was priceless. I knew there were visions of two handsome movie stars dancing in her head, and I hated to burst her bubble. But eventually I had to break into her reverie and explain that the gentlemen in questions were not in fact the matinee idols we all swoon over when we watch them in old movies. No, Bob and Jim (as they prefer to be called, probably so there is no confusion) were two of the individuals I was scheduled to sit down with on our little Evening Sun field trip to Susquehanna County, Pa.

Each of us had a focus during the excursion, and mine were business and agriculture. Which makes perfect sense, of course, since those are two of my primary coverage areas here at Chenango’s hometown daily. Bob works for the USDA National Resource Conservation Service out of the federal agency’s Montrose field office. Jim heads the Susquehanna County Conservation District. I’d arranged to meet with both of them during our fact finding mission.

I’m not going to lie. Initially, I had some reservations about the trip. Not because of any reluctance to see firsthand the impact the natural gas industry has had on Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier. It had more to do with Brian’s decision to choose that particular day to stop smoking.

Let’s just say the car ride was, at times, entertaining. It’s amazing how little humor someone has when they are trying to wean themselves off nicotine!

Before I moved back to New York three years ago, I spent the preceding five living in Western Colorado. So, unlike my colleagues, I’ve witnessed a gas boom before. But I was unsure how what I remember seeing there – in Mesa and Garfield counties – would translate to the rolling hills of our region. In Susquehanna County, where the landscape is similar to ours, I caught my first real glimpse.

We’ve all heard the horror stories coming out of Dimock, and my fellow reporters and I were anxious to see how accurate the situation had been portrayed. I’m sure we had some preconceived notions of what we’d see, but I think the reality was much different than we expected.

Both Tyler and Melissa have covered much of this ground before, so I’ll try not to rehash it too much.

Chenango County is by no means a wealthy county, but my first impression of Susquehanna County was that it was even poorer. The homes and trailers we passed, while well maintained, were smaller. There were few outward signs of the area’s new found natural gas-driven prosperity.

The truck traffic was unbelievable, particularly on the rural roads crisscrossing Dimock township. The wear and tear caused by all those heavily-laden trucks was evident in the patchwork appearance of many of the paved roads.

The back roads, however, were impressive. But that’s because the gas companies repaired them to better-than-new after their heavy trucks basically destroyed them last spring. According to John Benscoter (whom you’ll meet in my “Boon or Bust” story today), PDOT could learn a thing or two from the way these companies did the required road work. As I said, they’re impressive, if a bit narrow.

I expected to see anti-drilling and anti-fracking signs dotting the landscape, but we literally drove around for more than an hour before we found one house with such signage displayed. That was on Carter Road in Dimock, less than a mile down the road from the family Brian interviewed. Melissa and I got a really good look at them, since we had to pull over to the side of the road to let a procession of trucks go by.

While the reconnaissance portion of our trip was enlightening, it was not the most informative part of our adventure. For me, the highlight was the opportunity to sit down first with Anthony Ventello from the Progress Authority (you’ll read about that next week) and then the wonderful folks at the USDA Montrose Field Office and the county’s Conservation District.

I met not only with Bob and Jim, but also a number of their colleagues: Ain Welmon and Marlene Bailey of NRCS, Farmer and Conservation District staffer John Benscoter and Jason Pontillo from the Farm Services Agency.

The opportunity to sit down with so many people with so much knowledge about the ag industry in Susquehanna County was priceless. Even though I didn’t quote each of them directly in my article, they all contributed greatly to my understanding of this complex issue.

They were so incredibly generous with their time, and I can’t thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to get them all in one room and pick their collective brain.

For the meat of our discussion, I’ll refer you to my article, which appears on today’s front page. But I will make a couple of observations here.

Before making the trip to Susquehanna County, I had more than one conversation with Ken Smith from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango. Ken himself has reached out to Bob and Jim’s counterparts in neighboring Bradford County and he was kind enough to share his notes from these meetings. So I had some idea of what I would hear.

What I didn’t hear, however, were a number of the concerns I expected, particularly related to water. And believe me, I gave them ample opportunity to voice any concerns they had. In fact, I rephrased my questions so many times, I’m fairly certain they were close to (a) suspecting I was really an anti-drilling activist masquerading as a reporter or (b) doubting my mental capacity. (Getting lost on the way to their office didn’t help my argument against the latter at all, by the way.)

Where do my own thoughts lie on the matter? I’d say the jury is still out. The potential for economic development is staggering, as is the potential for bolstering the agricultural sector of our local economy. But safety is the key. I think there is a lot to learn from looking at Pennsylvania’s Marcellus region, and other natural gas producing areas, so that our entree into this arena is done carefully and decisions are made based on facts, not emotional responses.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa.

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