The Fracking Fiasco

America's latest gold rush portends the greatest environmental disaster of a generation

The Fracking Fiasco
Kyle Fewell

Ask someone like Jon Entine, a science writer for Ethical Corporation, to describe the sort of person who claims hydraulic fracturing presents a pollution nightmare in waiting, and you quickly find yourself pummeled with talk radio invective: "ideological blowhard," "leftist loony," and "upper-middle-class lefties."

But none apply to Fred Mayer.

When a reporter arrives at his 200-year-old farmhouse on a cloudy June day, one of the first things Mayer asks is, "Do you know who Glenn Beck is? You should really listen to him. Now that man knows what he's talking about."

Fred Mayer of Newark Valley, New York, got a $58,200 check from Fortuna Energy — and a kitchen faucet he could light on fire
Mark Hewko
Fred Mayer of Newark Valley, New York, got a $58,200 check from Fortuna Energy — and a kitchen faucet he could light on fire
Kevin June was among the residents booted from Riverdale Mobile Home Park near Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, so that Aqua America could build a pumping station that would supply Susquehanna River water to nearby fracking sites
Mark Hewko
Kevin June was among the residents booted from Riverdale Mobile Home Park near Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, so that Aqua America could build a pumping station that would supply Susquehanna River water to nearby fracking sites

The 62-year-old Vietnam vet's yard in Newark Valley, New York, is full of patriotic flags. His rotund body is covered in tattoos, with barbed wire wrapped around his thick arms and an Iron Cross on his left fist.

The first time he heard of fracking was in 2008. It's a natural gas drilling process where millions of gallons of water — mixed with sand and over 596 toxic chemicals — are pumped into shale formations 8,000 feet below ground, the pressure fracturing them to release the natural gas they hold inside.

Decades ago, Shell Oil attempted to drill on Mayer's property in hopes of retrieving the river of black crude that resides just under the rock formation. "They never were able to do it," he says. "They couldn't get through the rock, so they gave up."

Shell eventually sold its lease to Fortuna Energy. Mayer thought nothing of it until 2008, when his neighbors started getting leasing offers from gas companies who had a new way of drilling that could get through the thick layers of shale just fine. Only this time they were in search of natural gas, often heralded as the greenest fossil fuel.

Mayer gave Fortuna a call, only to find that his father had leased their property for just $4 an acre. Since Dad had passed away, Mayer told Fortuna that the agreement was null and void. Fortuna countered with a new offer: $600 an acre. Mayer soon received a check for $58,200, with a promise of more to come.

But it wasn't long before Mayer received another surprise, this one less pleasant. One morning he turned on his kitchen sink. Instead of water, the tap hissed with gas. Mayer grabbed his lighter and held it to the faucet, watching it burst into flames.

Though Fortuna had yet to drill on his property, the company was already at work six miles to the west. Mayer called the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to file a complaint in January 2009. His case was assigned to an investigator, though no one actually came out to investigate.

"[Our] staff concluded that the gas in Mr. Mayer's well was naturally occurring and that no investigation was warranted for several reasons," says Emily DeSantis, an agency spokeswoman. Not only was Mayer's residence more than a mile away from the nearest drilling, DeSantis says, but "naturally occurring methane is commonplace throughout the state."

Mayer knew better, of course. His water hadn't become flammable until Fortuna began drilling nearby. More than three years later, he can make every faucet in his house dance with flames. He can't drink from his own tap. Sometimes the gas pressure builds up so much that it'll blast coffee cups from his hands while he does the dishes.

Still, Mayer was less upset by the contamination than he was about not making money from it. About the time he signed his lease, then-Gov. David Paterson watched as drilling devastated neighboring Pennsylvania, where thousands of contamination complaints have been filed. In one incident near Pittsburgh, toxic wastewater ended up in the Monogahela River, leaving 850,000 residents without drinkable water. So Paterson banned fracking in New York.

As Mayer sees it, his water is already contaminated, and he could use his 17 percent cut of Fortuna's drilling profits. According to Public Policy Polling, about half of southern New Yorkers agree, hoping current Gov. Andrew Cuomo will lift the ban so they can begin reaping the riches promised by companies like Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, Cabot, and Schlumberger.

It doesn't seem to matter that, over the past decade, fracking has left behind a widening trail of health and environmental disasters. Or that research indicates the influx of money and jobs promised by these companies falls far short of their claims. New York landowners still whisper stories of overnight millionaires just over the border.

That's because people are desperate to flee the pressure of another disaster, the one created by the housing crash. The difference is that fracking could make more than pocketbooks imperiled. There's no shortage of scientists and public health officials who warn that large-scale contamination may leave millions of people without usable water.

Yet the natural gas industry has spent $747 million lobbying state and federal officials over the last decade, allowing it to continue drilling in 34 states. Few Americans are any richer. But a whole lot more have horror stories to tell.


Sharon Wilson is often dismissed as an anti-fracking loony. Range Resources, one of the largest fracking firms in the nation, has even accused her of manufacturing false evidence in a conspiracy to defame the company.

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3 comments
craig.swanson13
craig.swanson13

Is there any responsibility on any level of this?How are you gonna look to a future generation and say we didn't see it coming?

 

philipwright106
philipwright106

These types of story are not new.  Why doesnt Congress pass the bill that will allow the wind energy industry to grow ?

mingtran
mingtran topcommenter

@philipwright106: wind energy is expensive and horribly inefficient. Atmospheric energy and hemp are most efficient, but as long as kings remain throned, we will never know their benefits.

 
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