Information about gas and oil drilling and how it can affect area residents can be overwhelming. Those hoping to educate others by sharing their experiences spoke Thursday at a town hall meeting in Pulaski Township.
A large crowd gathered in the Villa Maria Community Center and the meeting - hosted by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary - started with a brief meditation and prayer to bless the Earth and protect it from destruction.
Villa Maria - a rural complex that includes an education and spirituality center, working farm, trails, a home for aging nuns and more - sits on 761 acres and received offers from five gas drilling companies.
The nuns at Villa Maria turned them all down earlier this year after careful consideration, and while the sisters were present Thursday evening, they let their guests do the talking.
"What we do now as a community will impact the next stage," Carrie Hahn said as she kicked off the meeting - "Phase II of the Fracking Boom: It's Here, What Do We Do Now?"
Hahn is a member of the Fracking Truth Alliance of Lawrence and Mercer Counties, a watchdog group.
Her presentation included maps of the Pulaski Township area, with labels showing where various wells are located, namely the drilling sites owned by Hilcorp Energy Co.
A few property owners in that area have refused to lease their land to the Texas-based firm, which wants to move forward with forced pooling on those properties. Public hearings to settle those issues have been rescheduled for May 7 and 8, Hahn said.
Forced pooling - if approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection - would force those landowners to allow drilling on their land, even though they will not sign leases.
Hahn also reviewed the number of wells in the state, saying that since 1859, an unknown number of gas and oil wells have been drilled; the Independent Petroleum Association of America estimates that number to be about 325,000 wells.
A DEP official in 2012 said the number of abandoned wells was unknown, but between 300,000 and 500,000 wells had been drilled in the state.
"Lost, orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells, especially unplugged or improperly plugged wells, are one of the most effective pathways for methane and other contaminants to enter the groundwater," Hahn said of her research from the Pittsburgh Geological Society.
Anyone can report an abandoned well by contacting Save Our Streams via email. Photos with location information should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Found well" in the subject line. For more information, visit SaveOurStreamsPa.org
Fracking Truth Alliance recommends landowners pay for their own water testing and the most reliable company they have found is Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting, Hahn said.
Suann Davison, a registered nurse and nurse practitioner from Washington County, said each step of the drilling process - from seismic testing to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" - carries its own risk factors. Davison is with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, and served with the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan, mentoring doctors.
She was accompanied Thursday by Ryan Grode, a health educator with the Health Project, which provides information about the health impacts of drilling.
"We know that flaring releases the chemicals into the air," she said. "These are important to know for people who have chronic health conditions."
Their agency's research shows drilling can produce potential sources of environmental contamination, which are listed as chemical exposures - air, water and soil; and non-chemical exposures - noise, light and traffic.
A Colorado School of Public Health study revealed that people who live within a half-mile of a drill site have an increased risk for cancer compared to those who live further away, Davison said.
Even weather can have an impact on the air you breathe - and any contaminants that might come with it - if you live near a drill site. An overcast day is considered a "bad air day," and the Health Project's website has a weather feature, she said.
The website also has a number of tips for those who live near a drill site, like washing your produce thoroughly if you have a garden, what to tell your doctor if you think you've been exposed to a contaminant and tracking your health.
"There's no good test for these chemicals," Davison said of how residents need to monitor their own symptoms and surroundings, and note and report any changes.
She said more information can be found on these websites - the World Health Organization at www.who.int and the Health Project at www.environmentalhealthproject.org
The next set of speakers were members of the Lawrence and Mercer Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring program, or ALLARM, which meets monthly at Westminster College, New Wilmington, and teaches area residents how to monitor local streams and enter and track the water quality data on its website.
Dr. Helen Boylan, an associate professor of chemistry and chair of environmental science at Westminster, and two students, Tyler Umstead and Jamie Linderman, told the crowd about how anyone can get involved with ALLARM, which was founded by Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Umstead and another Westminster student, Lance Jubic, created the local version of the website, which they maintain, and they won a Western Pennsylvania Environmental Award for their efforts, Boylan said.
Their website also shows where wells are located - according to DEP records - and a good chunk of the water quality data is organized into interactive tables, graphs and charts that are constantly updated, Umstead said.
"It will tell you if there's an issue with the water," he said of the data you submit; the water is collected with a small device.
The group is working on grant proposals in hopes of getting money to buy monitoring devices they can leave in the water at all times and get a constant read-out.
"This is our water. We feel that it's our responsibility to look after it," Umstead said.
The last of the guest speakers were Carol French and Carolyn Knapp, both Bradford County dairy farmers who leased their land for drilling.
They weren't there to say "lease or don't lease," but they wanted to share some of the lessons they learned - things to keep in mind for considering a lease, French said.
Leasing your land is a "contractual agreement to sell your land," she said, adding that a "good lease" should contain terms that are non-negotiable for you, and make sure any agreement you sign gets recorded in the courthouse.
Knapp said she had such faith at first in the industry she bought stock in Chesapeake, which held her lease. She did not renew the lease after she read part of the shareholder's annual report from 2009, which addresses operating hazards of the gas and oil industry including injury, death and "destruction of property, natural resources and equipment," among other risks.
And in Bradford County, the gas and oil companies say the landowners with leases are responsible for any accidents that happen on their properties, Knapp said.
She showed a list of how she's been labeled since she's chosen to speak out about drilling - anti-gas activist, extreme environmentalist, chronic complainer, dumb greedy farmer, eco-terrorist and NIMBY, or "not in my backyard."
"DEP has labeled me a chronic complainer," Knapp said. "So be it. It is only important how I define myself...Don't let others define you."
French also had a lease with Chesapeake. She signed in 2006 and in early 2011, her water changed and had a gel-like consistency; DEP refused to test it, she said.
Her daughter became sick in late 2011 and moved away, she lost a number of cows and calves, and the surviving cows gave birth to dead calves. Some of her neighbors also became sick, and they believed it was the water.
"Are you safe? How much can you as a consumer consume before it affects you?" French asked.
Info: www.environmenthealthproject.org; https://sites.google.com/site/lawrencecountyallarm; Carrie Hahn, 412-337-1671; DEP Regional Office, 121 N. Mill St., New Castle, 724-656-3160; DEP Northwest Regional Office, 230 Chestnut St., Meadville, 814-332-6945 business hours or 1-800-373-3389 after hours.
Published April 30, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.