When I was a teenager, my family moved from a city neighborhood to a place out in rural southwest Pennsylvania, an old farm house on a nice-sized piece of land… not big, but big enough. The view from the porch was of sprawling hills, green with grasses and crops and trees, dotted with cows. In the summertime when the wind blew from the right direction, the air smelled of cut grass and manure. The water came from the well or the cistern, was very hard and not drinkable, but could be used for washing.
This was in the 90’s. Like teenagers do, I grew older and moved away, back to the city. Rural life was pretty and quiet, but I didn’t want a pretty and quiet life back then. The farmhouse is still home, where family gathers for the holidays and where I always stay when I return for a visit. My parents, my sister, and my nephew still live there.
Sometime in the last ten years, the frackers came to Washington County looking for the Marcellus Shale buried deep underground and found it all around the farmhouse. I came home for a visit just as they were arriving, back when I had only a distant idea of what fracking was. I recall the disappointment – expecting a few days of pretty and quiet enjoyment, and finding instead that the land around the farmhouse had become a construction zone. During the day, a parade of industrial vehicles marched down streets and over land previously only touched by cattle and tractors, leaving mounds of muddy earth on the road and spewing black clouds into the air, obscuring the smell of cut grass and manure. Even after the sun went down, the smells and sounds of the fracking industry permeated the night. The farmhouse didn’t have air conditioning then; it was miserably hot and humid, and with the windows open there was no escape from the noise and stink of machines working around the clock.
Fast forward to now. Pipes have been driven through the area so that the homes are connected to public water supplies. The water in the ground is no longer safe, even for washing. The stretches of green are now dotted with gas wells. The land immediately behind where the farmhouse sits is future home to a gas well, and industrial trucks continue to come and go throughout the day. The people here have been paid handsomely by the frackers for the right to drill on their land. In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars with the promise of even more once the harvest begins. Even my parents, who don’t have the Marcellus Shale buried in their land, have been offered a few thousand dollars in exchange for the right to drill horizontally 4 miles underground so that pipes can be laid from gas well to where ever the gas goes next.
My nephew is 2 and a half years old, and fascinated by large vehicles – trains, tractors, backhoes, dump trucks… he can name them all in that adorable toddler-speak, and sometimes shrieks with glee when he sees them. Outside playing in the back yard, he would recognize the sound of the trucks coming from far away and wait for them, begging to be picked up so he could get a better view. During a visit this past weekend, in the space of an hour, we counted six trucks and a backhoe that used its giant shovel to smooth gravel into a wide road. Digging in the earth with our hands to look at insects, I wondered if it would always be safe for him to play this way here.
People here are happy about the access to public water, and the jobs. My mother told me that my family accepted the money because if they’d turned it down, the company would have drilled through their land anyway and they would have received nothing in return. Besides, in about 10 years they will want to move away, anyway.
Watching the transformation of this place makes me feel squashed flat. Where is the outrage over the ugliness that is replacing the serene beauty that used to be here? Doesn’t anybody want to fight this monster that has taken over their homeland, this beast that poisons the earth and the water and the air and the bodies of those who live here? (Maryland doesn’t allow fracking, but studies have shown that fracking-related air pollution is finding its way to Baltimore and Washington DC from nearby states.) What is it – cynicism, desperation, hopelessness, apathy, ignorance, greed, fear?
The fact is, it’s too late to fight for this place. The frackers are already here, the wells are built, the pipes are laid, the money paid. The only thing left to do here is hope that nothing goes wrong, that my family can move away before they develop the health problems the pollution will inevitably cause. To mourn the loss of natural beauty to the machine of industry. And, to fight the cynicism, desperation, hopelessness, apathy, ignorance, greed, fear, and whatever else allows us to sleep through the ongoing environmental destruction that’s taking place in exchange for a bit of fuel.