In just a few years, the impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drilling on northeastern Pennsylvania is hard to miss.
Thousands of natural gas wells have been opened in that area specifically in the last five years as companies look to exploit the vast Marcellus shale formation about two miles below the surface and take advantage of lax environmental and safety regulations to net the highest profit margin possible.
As the wells have opened, an economic development boom has transformed what was once almost untouched farmland into bustling communities. The boom to the economy and communities is not unlike the anthracite coal boom at the turn of the 20th Century which made the area and areas south of it some of the more prosperous in the country at the time.
This time around, the impact of fracking drilling is not viewed like the anthracite boom. Natural gas drilling has divided northeast Pennsylvania, community by community. While some view the spike in the economy as necessary and a positive, many more are learning the harmful and dangerous side of the drilling.
According to a first-person account (“From Farm Land to Frack Land”) from a former WNEP-TV beat reporter covering Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier counties (Wyoming, Bradford, and Susquehanna counties, sometimes referred to as the state’s Endless Mountains) in the 1990s, the issue and impact of fracking is clearly visible. Communities like Towanda, the reporter recounts, were sleepy 20 years ago have been altered almost beyond recognition. Instead of purely local and some tourist traffic, downtown Towanda is the main causeway for an endless caravan of heavy truck traffic, all on their way to new and active fracking wells. While some see those as jobs in the area, many believe the trucks are having a harmful effect on the community, increasing air pollution and putting a strain on the local infrastructure. Where there were once 300 active farms in Susquehanna County in the 1990s, there now just about 100.
“I remember my time in the northern tier as a lot of farm land, corn fields, dairy cows and farms,” the reporter remembers. “Now the country roads are filled with big trucks hauling big equipment because the northern tier is full of Marcellus shale. Truck after truck hauling equipment used to drill for natural gas out of that shale travel non-stop on the country roads.”
The population boost may mean higher rents for property owners, the report continues, and has led to empty storefronts being filled, some long-time local residents believe the fracking boom is “squeezing” them out of their hometowns, unable to afford higher rents and property values.
And just like the anthracite boom, many local residents believe the fracking boom will not last. Recent estimates suggest intense fracking drilling may only last up to 20 years or less and tighter environmental regulations could reduce the incentive to drill at current rates.
While it does last, the environment continues to be subject to the strain of fracking. Fracking has been blamed for contaminating private water wells, groundwater supplies, and polluting the air. This is compounded by the massive amount of truck traffic, increasing the impact of pollution and straining or damaging local roads. And because the technology is largely unchecked, there is the risk of dangerous blowouts, which could spill harmful and carcinogenic chemicals used in fracking and puts workers’ lives at risk.