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Opinion | In a Pennsylvania Town, Tainted Water Was Only the Beginning

I first encountered Tom Crawley eight years ago, when I attended a town hall hosted by a Republican state representative, Garth Everett, in the cavernous volunteer firehall of Hughesville, a hamlet nestled in the Appalachian foothills of North Central Pennsylvania.

I’m an environmental sociologist, and I had recently moved to the area to conduct a study of how shale gas extraction — better known as fracking — was changing rural community life. Attending public meetings like this one seemed like a good way to take the pulse of residents’ concerns.

Mr. Everett, a folksy, flannel-clad politician, started the meeting by giving the decidedly older and almost entirely white crowd of 75 or so an overview of his involvement in various legislative committees. He sprinkled his remarks with a few jabs at the state capital, Harrisburg (where it’s hard to find good sauerkraut) and his “urban” colleagues, whose “world and culture is very different than ours.” Many in the respectful audience smiled and dutifully took notes.

During the question and answer session, Mr. Everett called on many of his constituents by name. But the spirit of bonhomie was ruptured when Tom Crawley, seated near the back, stood up and declared, “I’ve got a contaminated well as a result of [a petroleum company] that you know about!” (The Crawleys have asked me not to name the company.)

Mr. Everett tried to lower the temperature, acknowledging that the drilling of a nearby gas well very likely impacted the Crawleys’ and their neighbors’ drinking water and apologizing for not following up with the state Department of Environmental Protection to find out what the agency was doing to hold the gas company responsible. Mr. Crawley wasn’t having it. He’d already arranged his own meeting with the D.E.P., he said, after Mr. Everett failed to return his calls.

“We’ve had to do this all on our own,” he fumed. “I thought that you could have done more to help us out.” After Mr. Crawley’s neighbor, Jim Finkler, complained that the water coming out his faucet looked like soda because it was so infused with methane, Mr. Crawley added, “When this first started, we were told this wasn’t gonna happen. And if it did happen, we were assured, ‘Oh we’ll take care of it.’ Well, now it happened and no one is taking care of it!” (When I spoke with Mr. Everett later, he said that he had tried unsuccessfully to get the petroleum company to take responsibility; he told me that he regretted that “I couldn’t fix it.”)

As Mr. Crawley left in a huff after the meeting, I approached him in hopes of arranging an interview. But Ralph Kisberg of the Responsible Drilling Alliance and a few other anti-fracking advocates got to him first. It was just as well. Although he had stated earlier that “none of us was against this in the beginning,” Mr. Crawley seemed to be poised to become an “accidental activist” whose experience with contamination would turn him into a vocal opponent of the industry. I figured that Mr. Crawley would welcome Mr. Kisberg’s assistance, and that he and his neighbors would eagerly tell their story to me, or anyone who would listen, soon enough.

I learned the next day from Mr. Kisberg that Mr. Crawley, who acted as the informal spokesman for the group of six neighbors on Green Valley Road whose water was tainted by gas drilling, politely told the Responsible Drilling Alliance that he and his neighbors wanted nothing to do with them. He also refused to divulge additional details about his experience, or even his name, to the local reporter who wrote about the town hall meeting.

As for me, it wasn’t until the last week of my eight-month residency in Lycoming County that I finally got through to Mr. Crawley and his wife Mary — and only after a friend of theirs, whom I had interviewed, vouched for me and I agreed not to share their story before my book was published.

After climbing a steep gravel driveway up the hillside from a small creek named Sugar Run, I found the gray-haired and bespectacled empty-nesters seated in Adirondack chairs in the front yard of their quaint 8.69-acre homestead. A shaggy dog named Ollie was parked at their feet. This part of the property, Mr. Crawley explained, was a remnant of his grandfather’s 93-acre dairy farm. As a young man, Mr. Crawley realized he “didn’t want to yank” cows’ teats for the rest of his life and found work in a machine shop. But he was proud to have remained on a sliver of the ancestral estate and constructed a home of his own, completed in 1993, that overlooked Crawley Road.

“Mary and I grew up next door to each other,” Mr. Crawley recounted as he cast a mischievous smile at his wife. I asked if they were elementary school sweethearts. “Definitely not, no,” Tom chortled. “Not even high school!” He added, “Matter of fact, if somebody had gone up to her when she graduated from college and said she’d be married to me for” — before he could finish, Mrs. Crawley interjected, “Almost 35 years.” Mr. Crawley continued, “she would probably” — Mrs. Crawley again finished his sentence, “I’ve had said, yeah, right, and moved on.”

As we got to know one another, I almost forgot why I had come to see the Crawleys in the first place. But a tall, white plastic pipe protruding from the ground near the cap of their water well on the side yard served as a subtle reminder. After their water was infused with explosive levels of methane, the petroleum company that had drilled the suspect gas well on a neighbor’s property installed the pipe to vent as much gas as possible before the groundwater made its way into the house, although the company denied responsibility for the high concentration of methane in their water. The Pennsylvania D.E.P., however, determined that the cause was nearby gas drilling and had cited the energy firm for “failure to report defective, insufficient, or improperly cemented casing” of the gas well located on the Crawleys’ neighbor’s property.

Over the two years that had elapsed since the Crawleys stopped drinking their water, the D.E.P. and local politicians had, as they saw it, done nothing to hold the gas company accountable. The Crawleys were at their wit’s end. “Do we have the money for a lawyer for something like this?” Mr. Crawley asked rhetorically. “No, we’re not gonna fight a corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars and all their lawyers at their disposal.” Mrs. Crawley added, “We can’t afford to move out and build another house or go someplace else at this point.” She confessed to “standing there at the kitchen sink,” which spat fizzing water, “crying about I can’t take any more of this.”

I couldn’t understand why the Crawleys refused to go public with their story — which might pressure the petroleum company to remedy the situation, or speak with the Responsible Drilling Alliance — who vowed to help them secure a pro bono lawyer. They had nothing to lose, I thought. But as I sat and listened, I learned that the Crawleys’ decision to stay quiet wasn’t about what was in it for them. It was about defending their community.

“The couple that has the property the well is on now, they — I work with their daughter and she says that Mom and Dad really feel bad about this all happening,” Mr. Crawley explained. His wife chimed in, “They’re very upset. He’s afraid everybody would blame him.” Mr. Crawley emphasized that his “major concern with this whole deal is somebody harassing” his neighbors or “camping out” on their property.

The idea was not as outlandish as it might sound. Mrs. Crawley recalled driving past the Riverdale Mobile Home Park, whose residents were being forced out to make way for a facility that would withdraw water from the river to frack gas wells, in the summer of 2012 and seeing a bunch of “picketers” from “out of the area that just came in and camped up there” as part of what supporters called Occupy Riverdale. As Mr. Crawley put it, “These people have no interest in this area other than creating a stink.” Mrs. Crawley shook her head in disgust, “Just like over there in Susquehanna County when Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon came out.” She was referring to a tour bus that “Artists Against Fracking” had chartered in January, 2013 to ferry celebrities and journalists from New York City to the area to publicize cases of alleged contamination.

“Do you have the right to come protesting in my area because of something that’s not gonna affect you and you live 100, 200 miles away?,” Mr. Crawley asked of the so-called fractivists. He wondered how many of them “live in a high-rise building that’s heated by gas.” Indeed, sociological research indicates that anti-fracking activism is not, for the most part, NIMBYism — it’s largely a not in your backyard movement spearheaded by progressives living in urban and coastal areas (most fracking occurs in the heartland, and most people who live there support it).

One might think that rural support for fracking can be explained solely through selfishness: Landowners (including the Crawleys) received compensation for leasing their subsurface mineral rights to petroleum companies, and fracking is purported to lift the economies of struggling rust belt towns. But what I found so striking about the Crawleys was that they insisted they were not against fracking, even after they came out losers in the fracking lottery.

Part of their reasoning was that fracking benefited others, like their neighbor whose family farm was no longer a millstone to unload now that it was bringing in gas royalties, or the friend who was laid off but found a better-paying job driving a water truck for the oil and gas industry. In other words, it mattered to the Crawleys that their neighbors supported fracking and benefited from it. They feared that “raising a stink” about their problem might invite greater oversight of the industry that would ultimately make it harder for others in the community to profit from fracking.

And then there’s the fractivists themselves. The Crawleys were hardly alone in viewing those opposed to fracking as “outsiders” to the community who, in the words of Representative Everett, “have no clue about rural values.” The disruptive tactics of some anti-fracking groups, along with their message of greater government regulation over personal land-use decisions, violated the small-town community norms that mattered a lot to people like the Crawleys: civility, civic association, self-reliance and land sovereignty. Viewed in this light, the Crawleys’ continued public support of fracking, and their dismissal of environmentalists, was a way of showing solidarity with the community and protecting its ostensibly rural way of life.

The Crawleys did eventually talk to a lawyer from an environmental nonprofit; the firm he recommended helped them quietly reach a settlement. They used some of the money to build a cozy new den, complete with ceiling beams salvaged from Mr. Crawley’s great-grandfather’s barn and a hearth made from fieldstones they collected. Mrs. Crawley splurged on a Kawasaki Mule 4010 off-road vehicle; her husband got a cherry red Ford Mustang. Prudently, they also purchased burial plots.

But the vent over their water well, and the methane detectors in their house, are still there. Without explaining why, in 2016 the D.E.P. rescinded the multimillion-dollar fine it levied against the energy company even though the Crawleys’ faucet — and Sugar Run — still gurgle with methane.

Of the six neighbors on Green Valley Road who settled with the petroleum company, only the Crawleys remain. Mr. Finkler died unexpectedly of cancer. But the rest abandoned their homes and moved far away.

When I visited with the Crawleys one last time before my book was published this past spring, Mrs. Crawley said they were happy with the settlement, but added: “It’s weird. All of our friends are gone.” Despite the Crawleys’ best efforts, they lost the one thing they cherished more than clean water: their community.

Colin Jerolmack (@jerolmack), a professor of sociology and environmental studies at N.Y.U., is the author of “Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town.”

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2021-09-17 04:00:26

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