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EMF Studies

19 January 2013

Fracking the Amish

Although I live in Switzerland, which has so far managed to keep fracking at bay, several of my cousins and their families live in the region of the Marcellus Shale, the 400-million-year-old, mile-deep formation that sweeps from West Virginia, across Pennsylvania, and into New York and holds priceless reserves of natural gas. I visited the Amish country in Pennsylvania, with its beautifully-kept farms, families who live with no electricity and use horses to till the fields and to travel from one village to the next. The Amish community however is mixed about allowing fracking on their land. Following is the first part of a very long article on this issue in the Amish region of Pennsylvania. 

An Amish farmer takes a cell phone call as transgenic
tobacco dries inside his 250-year-old barn.
The Amish are open to new technologies. According to a 2003 article from Wired, some farmers cultivate genetically modified tobacco, which is not against Amish law.  Farming is not a lucrative business, thus some Amish would welcome ways to become more prosperous. 

Fracking, however, would ruin this idyllic landscape. The countryside would become one of “mixing tanks, storage tanks, compressors, gas pipes, flaring towers, diesel generators, office trailers and porta-potties. Plastic-lined ponds of several acres to hold either freshwater or “produced” water that flows up and out of the wells would be dug. During development of the site, trucks carrying water, chemicals, sand and other equipment would come and go—up to 1,000 of them a day.” Can you picture horses and buggies on these same roads? The entire environment would be in danger of air, soil, and water pollution and there would even be risk of seismic events.

Fracking the Amish
by Elizabeth Royte, OnEarth, 14 January 2013

In a community that shuns technology and conflict, the intrusion of gas wells shatters tranquility and brings unexpected schisms

A bleak December sky hangs low over rural Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Here, in areas populated by large Amish families, open fields roll toward the horizon uninterrupted by electrical wires and telephone poles. Stepping from a car that seems grossly out of place in this 19th century landscape, Carrie Hahn, a newcomer to the area, takes a deep breath of mud and cow outside an Amish farmhouse. Suddenly, like an apparition, Andy Miller appears on a flagstone path, his face hidden beneath beard and broad-brimmed hat. He quickly ushers us inside a large, unfurnished mudroom to escape the wind.

Miller, who is in his late 40s and has nine children, is a leading member of the Old Order Amish, who eschew all modern conveniences. (Like all the Amish in this story, Miller’s name has been changed at his request, to respect Amish traditions and preserve his anonymity.) Standing against a western window, a silhouette of felt hat, bushy sideburns and stiff cotton work clothes, he explains how he came to be in the uncomfortable position in which he finds himself today: dealing with multibillion-dollar energy companies that use high-tech methods to shatter the earth and release mile-deep pockets of natural gas.

Decades ago, Miller says, oil and gas companies began prowling around western Pennsylvania, locking residents into leases for conventional gas wells, which are relatively shallow and unobtrusive. Many landowners, Miller included, had no idea that once they had assigned their mineral rights, often for a thousand times less than the going rate, the leaseholders could return and burrow deeper into the same piece of property.

This time around the gas companies intend to drill into the Marcellus Shale—a 400-million-year-old, mile-deep formation that sweeps from West Virginia, across Pennsylvania, and into New York—then turn their bits horizontally and continue boring for another couple thousand feet. Wells are then injected with millions of gallons of highly pressurized water laced with sand and chemicals; the solution fractures the shale and releases pockets of natural gas. This is fracking.

Miller sold his mineral rights to a company called Atlas, which was bought by Chevron in 2011. “The money helped,” he says, “but I wished I knew more of what to expect.” Now, thanks to people like Carrie Hahn, Miller understands that producing gas in this manner is no simple matter. Over a period of months, workers carve a multi-acre drilling platform out of forest or field, then cram it with mixing tanks, storage tanks, compressors, gas pipes, flaring towers, diesel generators, office trailers and porta-potties. Nearby, they dig plastic-lined ponds of several acres to hold either freshwater or “produced” water that flows up and out of the wells. During development of the site, trucks carrying water, chemicals, sand and other equipment come and go—up to 1,000 of them a day.

“We don’t want huge gas companies coming here because of the heavy pollution, the traffic and so much money,” Miller says. “When money rules, a lot of bad things happen to a community.” But good things have happened, too. With his payout from Atlas, Miller installed new drainage tiles to reduce excess water in his fields (yes, using only horse power). Other Amish families in the area have used gas royalties to build greenhouses or sawmills. “Buildings have to be kept up,” Miller says, shrugging. “But we would have survived without the money, somehow.”

Since the shallow well went in, Miller has managed to keep energy companies off his property, despite his lease. He gave an earful to a representative who tried to get near his well on a Sunday, and he continues to refuse access to a Texan seeking to seismically map his land (Miller has no obligation to permit this testing). I press Miller, who is now invisible to us in the darkness, to explain how he can legally stop a company from fracking if it owns the mineral rights on his property, but he deflects my inquiries. “It’s time for the community to take a stand,” he mutters enigmatically. When his wife, in a long skirt and a bonnet, lights a kerosene lantern and places dinner on the kitchen table, Hahn and I know it’s time to leave.

• • •

Four hundred Old Order Amish families live in and around Lawrence County’s borough of New Wilmington. Extended families live in plain white houses—no shrubs, no shutters—surrounded by gardens, barns, farm fields and long stringers of ever-flapping laundry. Horses, cows and sheep graze on rolling pastures; horses and buggies deliver children to one- or two-room schoolhouses served by an outhouse and an outdoor water pump. Old Order Amish don’t use cars or phones, electricity from the grid, indoor toilets or upholstered furniture. Many live off their land; some run small businesses. Wooden signs at the ends of driveways advertise their wares: rocking chairs, maple syrup, eggs, fudge, donuts, firewood, sawdust and fresh produce.

Soon, however, customers—including the thousands of international tourists who visit the Amish countryside each year—may be chased away from this homegrown bounty as New Wilmington, like other communities before it, is transformed by the industrial frenzy of shale-gas extraction.

As work crews have moved into the area, gas stations, lunch counters, coffee shops, the local hotel and a tanning salon (favored by the wives of imported workers) have profited. Large landholders have done well, too, receiving up to $3,500 an acre for their mineral rights. “We’ve got some wealthy people now,” says New Wilmington Mayor Wendell Wagner. “Investment advisers and lawyers are advertising their services.”

But the town is seeing more friction, too, between landowners who trust energy companies to do the right thing and neighbors—sometimes even family members—convinced industry will cut corners and ravage the countryside. (Atlas Energy, which has leased mineral rights on several Lawrence County properties, including Miller’s farm, would not comment for this story.) “I’ve been to town meetings and seen pictures of what’s going on,” says Ivan Dubransky, 64, who grew up in the area and worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. “We’re in the same situation now that Washington County was three years ago. Back then, a lawyer told us fracking was the best thing that had ever happened down there, and that we’d better sign up. He came back recently and said it was the worst thing that had ever happened to his county.”

These are familiar concerns and conflicts, even supplying the plot for the new Matt Damon movie Promised Land. But in the small towns of western Pennsylvania, where many landowners have zero control over the fate of hydrocarbons beneath their property, the battle lines can be oddly mutable, and the Amish, many of whom have been rooted to this landscape for more than five generations, now find themselves in deeply unfamiliar territory. 

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