BESSEMER, PA – More than thirty people gathered in front of an unconventional gas well operated by Shell Oil, to protest the impacts drilling may have on farming, water, and air quality. The well pad is within 4,000 feet of Maggie Henry’s farm. Henry raises organic eggs, poultry and pork, and she fears that unconventional gas drilling will contaminate her well water and force her out of business. The gas well and the Henry farm lie in an area littered with hundreds of abandoned and unplugged oil wells, which could create a pathway through which gas and fluids from the fracking process can migrate into aquifers.
Those who came out to support Maggie’s struggle to protect her farm included Butler County residents concerned about the impacts of drilling on their own homes and families, as well as Pittsburghers concerned about air, water quality, and the safety of local food, including some who shop at the Strip District market where Maggie sells farm products. People from shale-impacted areas across Pennsylvania and beyond were also present to show solidarity across the region.
Demonstrators arrived at the well site to find a heavy police and private security presence, with state troopers on the well site mingling with workers, blocking the entrance to the site, cruising the nearby roads, and parked in a nearby church. A police helicopter also circled the area.
One local family driving past stopped to share their own story of well water contamination that occurred in the last year and eventually led to their hospitalization and eviction from a rental residence. They also reported that other families in the area have recently developed problems with water contamination.
This action comes on the heels of a weekend-long training held on the Henry property. Organized by Pittsburgh-based Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective, the Shalefield Justice Action Camp brought together over 80 organizers from across the Marcellus and Utica shale regions to share skills and strategies in community organizing and non-violent direct action to combat fracking and other forms of harmful resource extraction. The camp included a strong representation from Butler County and other parts of Southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as Bradford, Tioga, Lancaster, Jefferson, Columbia, and Philadelphia counties, and Ohio, New York, and West Virginia.
Henry fears that fracking could put her out of business. Historical records show her property contains at least ten abandoned oil wells, most of which cannot be located. In other areas, fracking under abandoned gas wells has led to dangerous explosions and fires as underground pressure forced methane through the abandoned wells to the surface. Migrating gas and fluids also threaten groundwater supplies, on which Henry and her animals depend for their drinking water. Henry has challenged Shell’s permit with the state Environmental Hearing Board, but was abandoned by her lawyers from the University of Pittsburgh law clinic, who refused to take on Shell in court.
Henry feels like she is out of options. She and others all across over Pennsylvania are finding no relief through legal or political channels where the power and industry of the oil and gas industry is so pervasive. Today’s action, and the weekend of trainings leading up to it, are a sign that residents are ready to take direct action to stand up to the gas industry and call attention to the devastating impacts fracking has on their communities.
Recent coverage in local and regional media provides more information about the situation at the Henry Family Farm and the risks associated with fracking near abandoned wells:
Pittsburgh City Paper–http://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/shaky-ground-farmer-fears-for-future-as-gas-drilling-begins-near-scores-of-abandoned-well-sites/Content?oid=1567222
State Impact NPR–http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2012/07/30/in-northeast-pennsylvania-methane-migration-means-flammable-puddles-and-30-foot-geysers/