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Tue Jul 22 19:43:29 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: The true face of fracking

Pierre Heistiein | 30 October, 2012 01:01
A fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania. File picture.
Image by: LES STONE/REUTERS

I stared deep into the photograph of a man who refused to be beaten by industry. The face I was looking at was Fred McIntyre, a water driller from northern Pennsylvania. His eyes cut right through me; green, calm and alive with fury. His expression was bland but each one of the thousand wrinkles flowing towards pursed lips told a story of a man who would not be undermined.

A gruff voice behind me interrupted my journey into the thoughts of the subject.

"Yep, that's me."

I turned around quickly and, for a brief moment, was stunned by the sensation of having the same man stare at me from both sides.

Fred and his wife, Janet, are one of the many families whose lives are being turned upside down by shale gas fracturing in the Marcellus shale reserve of Pennsylvania, US. His face, and their story, are on exhibition at the Pittsburgh Centre for the Arts as part of a project to showcase the consequences of gas fracking.

Fred can no longer drink his tap water and, when the wind blows down from the drilling rig nearby, he and anyone with him need to lock themselves indoors as the air becomes too difficult to breathe.

Another photo, this time of Carol Jean Moton, tells the story of how she has broken out with lesions, rashes, hot flashes, and bone pain since the first well was drilled near her home.

In a bland but spine-chilling piece, Jodie Simons and Jason Lamphere are framed providing bottled water to their horses. They have lived for more than a year without being able to drink or bathe in the water from their land and now cannot even use it for their animals.

Bob Miller tells a different story. He was able to save his dairy farm from certain bankruptcy by leasing out his land to a large drilling conglomerate and is now making far more money than he ever would from farming. His picture is not one of victory though. He is downcast, head bowed and an air of lament sweeps across the canvas.

He may now be rich but he is not popular and his personal wealth is little comfort to neighbours who bear the costs of his commerce.

The photo viewing was followed by a panel debate made up of the local community and fracking experts.

"Fracking is a threat to health, welfare and safety," said Doug Shields, a former Pittsburgh City councillor.

"Never before have I seen a case where, in government's eyes, public safety is secondary to money."

The two-hour debate covered water, air and pollution issues, the complexities of leasing legalities and the compromising positions land owners have been forced into, and the myth of job creation. Terry Collins, a professor of green chemistry, explained the gas industry accounts for approximately 25% of energy in the US and provides 600000 to 700000 jobs.

Solar accounts for less than 0.2% of energy but is already providing 100000 people with employment. Scaling up gas fracturing in place of solar technologies would, in fact, cause a huge loss in potential jobs created from energy production.

However, it was not until the end of the session, when I admitted I was a South African looking to learn about the similarities between Pennsylvania and our own Karoo area, that things got really interesting. For an hour after the final speaker, I was unable to leave due to the queue of people wanting to pass on their stories and advice.

"You need to do three things back home," said Fred.

"First prize is that you don't drill wells. But if first prize is not possible, you need to make sure that they case those things all the way to the bottom. Secondly, you need to regulate where the water goes after it has been pumped into the well. When it comes back up it will have a whole lot of terrible things in it."

The message was clear.

Fracking is not just about environmental concerns, it's about people. It is about the security of families, the health of their children, and the success of farms.

How will this work if implemented in the Karoo? Who is it that will benefit and who will explain to a child why they cannot bath in the water from their taps?

The most poignant question of the debate came from Carrie Hahn, an activist and mother of two.

"This stuff has been there for millions of years. It's not going anywhere. Why can't we wait until we know how to do it right?"

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Tue Jul 22 19:43:29 SAST 2014 ::