The hyrdrofracking debate turns on much more than poisoned water and polluted land
Now that New York state’s moratorium on permits for heavy duty hydrofracking is about to expire, community forums on the many aspects of the natural gas drilling issue are blooming like roses on the roadside. Last week it was a forum put on by a group called Land Stewards of New York, inside the Community Center on Main Street in Fabius. A lawyer, a hydrogeologist and a representative from Onondaga County’s Soil and Water Conservation District each spoke to a full house of mostly graying rural residents, and the audience stayed long after the presentation was scheduled to end.
Each time I go to one of these presentations on hydrofracking, I find myself thinking about Jean and Ron Carter. The Carters were kind enough to let me and Syracuse New Times photographer Michael Davis into their modular home in Dimock, Pa., last spring. Dimock is a pretty Pennsylvania town that has become the poster child for what can go wrong when you let gas companies suck the fuel out of the ground without anyone looking over their shoulder. It is also, like much of the land sitting above the gasrich Marcellus shale, part of Appalachia.
The Carters remind me that you can’t make sense of the gas drilling issue if you don’t think about the poverty and the desperation of many of the people who live where the companies want to drill. The Carters remind me that almost every social issue we face, when you peel back the layers, is about health care.
A lot of people opposed to hydrofracking hear the word Dimock and they can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would allow a gas company to drill for gas on their land. There’s the environmental risk. There’s the noise. There’s the danger to the water, and the landscape, and the air and, if you’re not scared enough yet, radiation and earthquakes are lurking.
Jean and Ron live in a modified trailer home with a big water tank out back. That tank gets refilled by the Cabot Oil company once a week or so, ever since the fall of 2008 when the State on Pennsylvania determined that their well water couldn’t be safely consumed. That’s because Cabot drilled a well just a few hundred yards from their front door, failed to cement the casing properly, and methane leaked into the water.
A heart attack 20 years ago disabled Ron. The medication that keeps him alive costs about $40,000 a year. After Ron had to leave his job, the medicine was paid for by Jean’s insurance, back when she worked for Bendix. She lost that job when the Bendix plant closed. No more health insurance, no more heart medicine. To keep him alive, they sold the farm house 10 years back to one of their sons, and moved into the modular.
Since Bendix closed up Jean has held a succession of jobs, each one paying less than the previous one, and none of them offering health benefits. She laments that she’s never been able to find a job as good as that one, and hasn’t even come close to landing a job with benefits.
Once the benefits are gone and the house has been sold, what would you do to keep your loved one alive? Pretty much anything, right? All the environmental arguments turn academic at this point: It’s just about staying alive.
The Carters signed a lease with Cabot, and, while they are shy about talking dollars and cents, it is safe to say that the checks from the same gas company that poisoned their water are keeping Ron’s heart ticking. Sitting in their trailer in the shadow of the gas well, sipping bottled water next to a sink that’s taped over, they didn’t hesitate a moment to tell us that they were ready to sign the extension on their lease with the gas company.
What would you do? What a hellish choice to confront. How can we possibly put people in such a position?
Until we understand health care as a basic need and a human right, and not just as another commodity, we will find more and more of our decisions driven by fear and insecurity. And wonder why things turn out the way they do.o
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at egriffin@twcny. rr.com.