By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
BUTLER, LAWRENCE, MERCER COUNTIES —
Some area residents concerned about the lasting impacts gas and oil drilling will have on their land, the environment and water supplies are taking matters into their own hands.
"I don't want to cause problems, but I don't trust Shell," said Dr. Theodore Kneupper, who lives in Slippery Rock Township, about 3,500 feet from the Franklin Road drilling site Sylvia A. Williams is leasing to Shell Exploration & Production Co., LP of Warrendale.
Retired from Slippery Rock University, where he was a philosophy professor, Kneupper lives with his wife on a 40-acre, non-working farm she inherited from her parents, the late Theodore and Mary Hogg.
Kneupper's trust issues with Shell aren't anything new. Mrs. Hogg, who passed away in 2008, signed a 10-year lease in 2003 for Shell to drill on her land, something she agreed to mainly because she heard "everyone else was doing it," he said.
"We just don't know the dangers involved," Kneupper said of the "fracking" process and its long-term effects.
Hydraulic fracturing, of fracking, takes millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand, which is injected into wells to break up shale thousands of feet below the ground and release trapped gas or oil.
The Marcellus Shale is a mile or more down in parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Health and environmental advocates say the process can contaminate drinking water, air and land while gas companies say it's safe if done properly.
But the gas companies don't have scientific proof to show it is safe, despite their "good public relations" tactics, said Kneupper, who's testing his own well water.
"They're trying to paint a rosy picture...We're playing Russian roulette with the state's water supply," he said.
Shell left the Kneuppers alone until this April, when the company said it wanted to put a drill pad 500 feet from the family's home once work on the Williams property was under way.
"We were just devastated," he said of knowing they couldn't stop Shell because of the still-active lease agreement.
The family's lawyer reviewed the lease, saying it was "terrible" because it gives the Kneuppers "hardly any rights" as the property owners.
Shell insisted the Kneuppers needed to sign more drilling-related paperwork this year as part of the lease agreement, but the family's lawyer said they weren't required to do so.
Shell then said they were "holding off indefinitely" on the new pad. Kneupper said the actual fracking on the Williams site is supposed to start within the next few weeks.
He wasn't too worried about the gas and oil industry coming to the area when his mother-in-law first signed the lease, but his thinking has changed now that it's happening right across the street from his farm, where his children are the seventh generation of the Hogg family to have lived there.
"We're also facing the loss of property values," Kneupper said.
And while Shell claims to be conducting adequate testing of surrounding water wells like the one the Kneuppers have on their property, it's not good enough, he said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requires companies like Shell to do a "Tier 2" test to get baseline results and look for contaminants, Kneupper said.
"Tier 3" is the most extensive level of testing but also the most expensive, about $1,000 for one reading.
Kneupper paid for a Tier 3 test of his water, which he sent to an independent lab, and he expects baseline results in a few weeks.
He consulted the Penn State Cooperative Extension office for advice and it recommends the Tier 3 testing for your water twice a year for the next 30 years if there's fracking activity near your home.
"We could be drinking toxic water," he said, calculating the cost of Tier 3 testing to be at least $60,000 over 30 years.
"Those prices are gonna go up."
The gas and oil industry, which he feels is heavily influenced by politics, continues to claim fracking presents no dangers, but they aren't keeping proper records nor are they conducting sufficient studies and tests, Kneupper said.
"The legislators won't listen to that concern," he said. "There's also a strong influence of big money."
Fracking took off in places like Texas, Colorado and Arkansas in the early 2000s, said Kneupper, who's come across reports of people in those areas dying from contaminated water or losing their water supply.
He tried to address his concerns in February, when Shell hosted a town-hall-style meeting at Slippery Rock University for area property owners, but they wouldn't answer his questions during or after the session, or even later by email.
Kneupper fears water could someday be "more valuable than oil" if water supplies are contaminated, which would also be a big blow to SRU.
"If those wells get contaminated, it will close down the university," he said.
He continues to do his own research, including obtaining records from the Butler County Courthouse of all Slippery Rock Township property owners who signed gas and oil leases.
About 1,000 property owners signed leases, and he hopes his fellow residents don't have to learn the hard way that fracking might be harmful or even deadly, Kneupper said.
He's also active with groups like Citizens' Environmental Association of the Slippery Rock Area, Sustainable Slippery Rock and Protect Slippery Rock Citizens' Rights, and reminds people Pennsylvania's Constitution says residents have the right to clean air, water and environment.
Another group, the Truth in Fracking Alliance of Lawrence and Mercer Counties is also working to educate landowners about drilling because many aren't looking beyond the dollar signs, said Carrie Hahn, the group's leader.
"People were just going crazy signing leases," she said.
Anyone considering leasing their land needs to ask more questions and think about the long-term consequences fracking could bring, said Hahn, who looked into the process after having trouble buying a home in the Wilmington Area School District.
She felt like she was competing with gas companies for property and eventually found something in Volant, but the battle for land really opened her eyes.
"We realized pretty quickly Marcellus Shale is making the real estate market go crazy," Hahn said.
Drilling has an impact on the environment and keep in mind leasing your land affects those around you, not just your property, she said.
"People need to stop thinking in a bubble," she said.
The Amish community is also worried, said Hahn, who works with them and others on sustainable and organic farming. But the Amish are also divided because some have signed drilling leases.
"Some have signed and regretted it," she said.
If drilling happens near your home, get your water tested at a state laboratory because government officials aren't providing enough protection, Hahn said.
"We're trying to empower the community," she said, adding citizens also need to help monitor creeks and streams.
For more information, visit frackingtruth.webs.com
Published Aug. 1, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.