Towanda, P.A. – In Towanda, PA the great rush of the Susquehanna has met its match.
At all hours, heavy trucks and trailers chug across Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Follow the traffic up Main Street and try to pick out an empty storefront.
It’s near impossible.
“Now Hiring” signs decorate several windows.
Towns like Towanda have made Bradford County, monetarily, one of the fastest growing counties in the country.
“The recession that hit the rest of the country passed right over us,” said Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko.
It’s a boom fueled by natural gas.
Towanda, like much of northern Pennsylvania, sits on the Marcellus Shale Formation, which is rich in gas.
Accessing that gas was made easier several years back through new technology.
For decades, gas companies would set up a drill pad then drill a well thousands of feet below the surface.
They then would case the well with layers of steel and cement to prevent contamination.
Then, using high pressure, crews deployed tens of thousands of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to reopen fractures in the rock in order to expose the natural gas.
This process is called hydraulic fracturing, though many call it hydrofracking or fracking.
Relatively recently, though, companies have acquired the ability to drill that vertical well then move horizontally across the formation.
To see this process through animations, head to http://www.chk.com/Media/Educational-Library/Animations/Pages/default.aspx
These animations are from an energy company, but have been used by experts opposed to the process.
Horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing allows gas companies to cover much more ground and grab much more gas than vertical drilling, making each drill site more economical.
Responding to the state’s open invitation to drill horizontally, gas companies flocked to Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, New York disallowed the process pending a safety review.
Much of the concern centered on the amount of “frack fluid” used.
Where vertical fracking had used tens of thousands of gallons, horizontal uses millions.
“Risk is proportional to time on [the] job,” said Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell professor who specializes in hydraulic fracturing.
He says horizontal drilling holds a risk of water contamination.
“It is possible that in the hydraulic fracturing process, the fracking fluids and any other contaminants that are already down there that are gathered by the fracking fluid could migrate upwards to an underground source of drinking water,” he said.
The gas industry is adamant this has never happened, but Ingraffea cites a 1987 EPA report that noted such an incident in West Virginia.
He also points to the EPA’s current investigation into a case in Wyoming.
What is more common is methane contamination.
If a well is drilled improperly it can cause methane that already exists underground to migrate into peoples’ drinking water.
This kind of contamination has been documented in Dimock, PA and pockets around Towanda.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is there’s no perfect industry,” says Don Siegel, a fracking expert at Syracuse University who has taken the stage with Ingraffea to argue the other side.
“I think horizontal hydrofracking is fundamentally a safe process if done by competent people,” he said. “If you look at all the wells drilled and the number of (methane contamination) in the American West and East, I think it’s an extremely low probability that (methane contamination) would happen.”
Global warming is also a concern.
Ingraffea says natural gas drilling feeds into our dependency on fuels that accelerate climate change.
Here, Siegel agrees, but says casting fracking as a danger to water to push renewables is disingenuous.
Siegel’s argument resonates with Neil Vitale, who runs an organic dairy farm in Woodhull, a town in Steuben County.
The same shale formation that has enriched northern Pennsylvania lies below his land and much of the Southern Tier.
Vitale believes his acres would remain chemical-free should the DEC allow high-volume horizontal drilling and gas companies drill nearby.
“I need a healthy environment, my cows need a healthy environment and I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that,” he said.
Drilling leases may also send money to Vitale and other farmers, who, according to Vitale, are struggling to pay increased property taxes.
But Vitale says the economic benefits would extend beyond the farm.
“This will bring a lot of good paying jobs so the younger generation can stay in the area,” he said.
An hour north of Woodhull, in Hammondsport, John Ingle, owner of Heron Hill Winery, which overlooks Keuka Lake, fears water contamination and worries industrial traffic will chase off tourists.
“I just don’t think there’s any amount of money that’s worth sacrificing the future and the beauty and the safety of the water and environmental here in the Finger Lakes,” Ingle said.
Trudy Gerlach, who has lived near Towanda nearly her entire life, says Ingle’s fears are the reality in Bradford County.
“So many of the rigs operate 24 hours a day making noise and if you live close to them, there’s nothing you can do,” she said. “You can move away.”
She adds the influx of young, single men has pushed up both the crime rate and the rent.
Then there’s the water.
“Just in this area, I know about 10 people whose wells have been contaminated,” she said.
McLinko counters by saying Pennsylvania updated its regulations a couple years ago to ensure better casing.
“Since we’ve had the triple wall standards, a lot of the migrating methane problems, we don’t have them anymore,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re eliminated, I just don’t know that.”
Back here in New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation is working on its final environmental impact statement.
To do that it has to sift through more than 60,000 public comments submitted over the last few months.
Still, it is possible that permits for high-volume horizontal drilling will be issued by year’s end.