When Fracking Comes to Town, Local Residents Have Little Recourse

I recently traveled to western Pennsylvania to talk with people living on the frontlines of natural gas development. I met one man who brought a jug of water from his kitchen sink that was the color of rust. Another man’s water smelled so awful you couldn’t image doing your dishes in it, never mind drinking it. And yet another presented a gallon of water from his home, took out a match, and lit it on fire.

Imagine seeing your tap water burst into flames. Would you serve it to your family? 

Because in part of inadequate attention from regulators, we don’t know exactly what contaminated these water supplies, but each of these men believes that drilling or fracking is the source of the problem.  Every family I spoke with in Butler and Fayette Counties felt the same: natural gas development is threatening their water, their air, their family’s health, and their property values.

Yet they feel they have nowhere to turn for help. State and federal safeguards are too weak and enforcement is grossly inadequate. Listening to people’s stories, I realized that too often local communities have been abandoned by those charged with holding companies accountable and protecting residents from harm. It’s an outrage, and it must stop.

That is why NRDC has created the Community Fracking Defense Project to help give towns and local governments the legal and policy tools they need to protect themselves from fracking.

Right now, people have almost no defense against the oil and gas companies that sweep into their neighborhoods. Residents live with towering drill rigs and toxic waste impoundments the size of several football fields in their backyards or next door. When the air starts to smell of noxious chemicals or the impoundment leaks or the vibration from compressors begins to shake their houses, they often have little recourse. 

People told me that when something goes wrong they didn’t know if they should contact state or federal officials. Others showed me notebooks listing every call they have placed to 911, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and other agencies. More often than not, however, these calls apparently went unresolved. One man said he was told by DEP staff that they wouldn’t come to his house anymore because he had called too many times.

Records reveal there is plenty of cause for alarm. Of the 4,596 fracking sites operating in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2011, companies violated environmental laws 3,355 times, according to a study released by PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center.

Clearly, the industry doesn’t feel pressure to follow the rules—even though fracking operations have too few to follow. They are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other important environmental safeguards, and most states don’t have adequate standards for fracking. Yet many companies can’t live up to even these low expectations.

Just because property owners—or their neighbors—sign a lease to allow energy development on their lands does not mean they forfeit their rights as citizens. People expect that in 21st Century America, companies will operate within the law, and if they pollute or degrade someone’s property, they will be held liable by public officials. That’s not happening in the communities in Pennsylvania that I visited—or in many other communities in the 28 other states that have fracking—and that’s un-American.

Local communities must also be allowed to stand up for themselves and make decisions about their own energy future and their own community character.  NRDC’s Community Fracking Defense Project will help. Our legal experts will assist in drafting local rules such as land use plans and zoning ordinances and provide policy support for strengthening state fracking laws. This week, NRDC filed a “friend of the court” brief in a Pennsylvania superior court in support of Pennsylvania towns who are fighting for their right to restrict or exclude fracking from their communities—a right that the State of Pennsylvania has tried to take away from them

In the meantime, NRDC is also fighting to expand clean energy resources.  The wind farms, solar projects, and energy efficiency gains spreading across the nation show that there’s a better, cleaner path to power America without endangering our communities, health and environment.

No one should have to suffer the hazards of fracking without sufficient safeguards. No one should feel alone when gas companies violate the law. And every community should be able to make its own decisions about its own future.  NRDC stands ready to assist as many communities as we can with these important issues.

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