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“Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom sweeping the world will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.”
— From abstract of “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health” by Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, Department of Molecular Medicine, Cornell University, 2012.
Vera Scroggins is the polar opposite of Erin Brockovich in speech and appearance, but the two women have many other things in common. They are both passionate about their outrage, their sense of right and wrong, their belief that the health of the land and our families is the most important thing there is, and their anger that money has trumped the common good of those Americans in the path of the oil and gas juggernauts determined to extract the last drop of fossil fuels from the planet at any cost.
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Vera came to Cobleskill with Carol French and Carolynn Knapp in late August to speak to a crowd of around 450 people about their last three years of living in the middle of the northern Pennsylvania gas boom. Their counties, Susquehanna and Bradford, are just below the New York state line, next to our Southern Tier counties being considered for gas permits in New York. In fact, there are Pennsylvania wells within a mile of New York.
These three farmers presented photographs and personal testimony recounting the traffic, noise, crime, litter, water contamination and family illnesses that have resulted. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (the three call the DEP “Don’t Expect Protection”) has been less than effective in preventing, testing, monitoring, remedying or even warning them of the hazards. Pennsylvania’s governor is enthusiastic about drilling, and the state’s lack of a home rule provision has prevented any local regulation of the industrialization of farmlands and rural population centers.
When Carol and Carolynn signed leases, they were told they would be rich, and the state would enforce the environmental protection laws. But they saw their water change, their cows sicken, rashes develop on family and themselves, nosebleeds, chronic fatigue, enlarged liver and spleen — symptoms that disappeared when they went to other places with no drilling — and even cancers and death of their neighbors.
The stand that the oil and gas industry takes is that if you cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that an environmental impact is due to drilling, then the link is rejected. This same approach was taken by the tobacco companies, and we still have not recovered from that devastating effect on public health. These women warn that the same lie about the effects of gas drilling may have the same results.
Forget the addition of jobs, they said. Jobs created are low-paying and temporary, but drilling causes job losses that far outweigh any “prosperity” they bring to the communities. Pollution of the water, air and soil eliminates production of poultry, vegetables, fruit and nuts, dairy products, maple syrup, honey, cotton, wheat and other grains — those farm products that are the backbone of the economy and the diet of the nation. Thirty-three dairy farms were lost in the last six months.
Vera and the other two women stated over and over how beautiful New York was to drive through as they came north. “Since 2007 when the gas companies invaded our counties, we have seen frack pits, wells 100 to 300 feet from homes and barns, and more than 150 wells in a 30-mile square area. And that’s just for now.”
They plead with New Yorkers to “keep resisting. We need a place to run. We will be gas refugees, and we have nowhere else to turn.”
They have seen wells on school grounds for the past four years, with promises of money for the districts. Yet teachers are being cut, programs eliminated, budgets slashed and school taxes rising. Where is the money? They have no answers.
The women have been threatened for speaking out, and their photographs are on file for vendors to recognize them when they go to public events. They warn that the drillers are sending frack waste to New York (yes, New York is still taking Pennsylvania wastewater) and the drillers can legally drill their lands for water if the creeks and reservoirs are not enough, depleting the water aquifers as well as polluting them.
New Yorkers have been warned by physicians, geologists, environmentalists, biologists, chemists and now farmers on the ground who are living the life that we may be looking at if drilling permits are granted by our state. The energy companies will do everything they can to make money — that is what they do — but they can only do it with our permission.
So what can we do? Vera Scroggins wrapped up her presentation with some recommendations. Go to public meetings. Speak out. Record them. Keep a log and send videos to YouTube. Don’t believe the GasSpeak. Do not allow pipelines — “once they lay a pipeline on your property, it is worth nothing.”
Scroggins invites you to take a tour and see for yourself. She founded Citizens for Clean Water, and lists herself as a citizen journalist and tour guide. She is on Youtube.com — “veraduerga” and on the web at www.nepagasaction.org.
How many more canaries do we need in this particular mine? Ask Erin Brockovich, Vera Scroggins, Carol French and Carolynn Knapp.
Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.