Poisoning the Well at World's End?

This past weekend, my family and I camped at World's End State Park in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Nestled at the bottom of a heavily forested canyon, the state park is a wonderland of streams, salamanders, trout, ruffed grouse, and ferns. I brought my family to World's End to join a weekend convening of Sierra Club chapter and forest volunteers gathering to strategize about how to save the neighboring Loyalsock State Forest from proposals to drill hundreds of new gas wells in the heart of the forest. The Marcellus Shale Formation, rich in natural gas, lies below the forest at World's End and much of Pennsylvania. The state is experiencing an unprecedented boom in new gas wells, driven by aggressive hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Climbing up to a high vista after a three-mile hike with some local Sierra Club members, we looked over verdant rolling hills of trees... and a new water containment pond, lined with white plastic. This pond holds over 20 million gallons of water that is transported by truck or pipeline to frack new gas wells. Fracking a new gas well requires that five million gallons of water -- the equivalent of eight Olympic-sized swimming pools -- mixed with chemicals, is pumped into the ground at high pressure to crack rock and release gas and oil. Most of this toxic soup remains in the ground, with a small amount coming back to the surface where it is collected and put into chemical waste ponds. In short, once-clean streams, pristine wetlands, productive farm land, and tranquil forests are being converted overnight into industrial dirty energy zones.

In 1859 the first oil well in the nation was drilled in Pennsylvania. Over the past 150 years, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled across the state, and today close to 10,000 wells sit abandoned as rusting holes in the ground seeping oil and gas. In some cases, these wells were drilled right in the middle of streams. Since the companies that drilled these wells have walked away, the mess is left for Pennsylvania's taxpayers to clean up. Each abandoned well costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to plug with concrete. Most of these wells will likely never be plugged due to the cost and inaccessibility, leaving them to ooze oil and gas in perpetuity. Despite this nasty legacy, today, dirty energy companies are allowed to drill new wells with inadequate safeguards, and insufficient bonding for plugging wells and cleaning up after the life of the well is over.

While watching a film about the damage to human and ecological health from rampant drilling and fracking, I was shocked by the blatant disregard for homeowner property rights and health. Promises from dirty energy companies to homeowners of easy money are quickly replaced by a nightmare of drinking water contaminated with toxic fracking chemicals and giant gas flares spewing toxins into the air next to houses and schools. Complaints about headaches and undrinkable water are met with denial by state and industry leaders. Hiding the composition of fracking fluids from the public allows Halliburton and other drilling companies to deny any responsibility for toxins, such as benzene, found in people's drinking water.

I have two visions as I watch my nine-year-old son blissfully jump off a cliff into Rock Run, an amazing stream of crystal clear water fed by water seeping out of the shale banks. One vision is of the clear cold water turning cloudy with toxic fracking chemicals, the other is of a stream that remains a premier public treasure, due to the efforts of local volunteers teaming with the Sierra Club to create a clean energy future where our water is not poisoned, and our kids thrive in nature.

Please take a moment to join fellow Americans and send a strong message to the Obama Administration to not allow our water and lands be contaminated with fracking fluids. Comments need to be received by Aug. 22.