New York City to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania
After several beta cycling tours into the Lake Champlain Valley and the Delmarva Peninsula, I recently completed my first "themed based" tour into fracking country in Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania and gas storage and transport country in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The first part of that trip is recounted below.
September 28, 2015
After arriving by train in Hackettstown, New Jersey, and grabbing a quick bite to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant that must have once been a classic American diner, I mounted the bike and headed off. The day’s ride was an easy 30 miles through a mixture of hilly and wooded farmland, mixed with that strange eastern (and especially New Jerseyan) version of suburbanized lakes, houses with large yards and look alike strip malls. I felt good in spite of the banal scenery and intermittently grey weather, simply because I was on the bike and finally underway.
As the afternoon wore down, I found a charmingly run down motel in Branchville run by a hard working Pakistani woman and populated with an amazing assortment of weekly and monthly renters, including a family of five. Two of the three kids had bikes. When I came out of the motel office two kids on bikes greeted me. The oldest, a girl of about ten, said, “I like your bike. Do you like it?” I said, “Yes, It gets me around”. Her eyes grew wide, “You go everywhere with it?” “Yes”, I replied. “I just came from New York City.” I didn’t mention the train. I knew she’d be impressed. She was. “Wow!” she said, and biked off to tell her rather corpulent mother sitting in the motel parking lot on a plastic chair that I had come all the way from NEW YORK CITY! Her younger brother stayed still and studied my bike. Then he said, “Can I ride with you tomorrow”? At that moment, a thin and lanky guy covered with tattoos and smelling of beer grabbed the boy by the arm and said, “Get your fucking ass back to your mama.” My bike was halfway into the motel room. I looked at the man and then at the boy as I held the door open, and saw the boy blink back a tear. He rode off towards his mom. The man watched him go, and then turned to stare at me. He shook his head. I closed the motel door.
September 29, 2015
The next day I woke up to a dark and threatening sky. Rain was in the forecast so I packed for rain as well as I knew how. To be honest, I have not yet had to bike all day in driving rain. But I know that day will come. Fortunately this was not it. I had about 55 miles to cover heading due north out of Branchville to the Delaware River Basin past Dingman’s Ferry to Milford, PA, then northwest to Shohola, where I was to cross back into New York. It went well enough. Temperatures were warm and there was little breeze. I enjoyed biking along the river basin and the rolling Pennsylvania woods. Finally, I pushed through the final 14-mile trek with about a 3500 feet elevation gain to get Narrowsburg, NY. I made my way through the lovely small town to the storefront office of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability where I met with Barbara Arrindell.
Barbara is intense. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of gas fracking in the United States and a deep knowledge of what has happened in Pennsylvania (and Texas, Wyoming and Colorado) over the past eight years. She opened DCS in January of 2008, originally to help people in Damascus Township, which is about 85 square miles. DSC also worked with the Northern Wayne Property Owners Association, but the association ended up capitulating to the gas companies. Interestingly, Wayne County is largely leased out but there has not been any drilling because the gas market has slowed down considerably over the past year. This fact irritates some landowners because they would like to get royalty checks. But it makes other landowners relieved since they have heard so much about water contamination. They are hoping they will luck out and dodge that bullet.
Just as I was appreciating Barbara’s prescient relationship to the ills of fracking, she slipped in a reference to how she and her husband, Ralph, have reason to believe that the US military is covertly engaging in geo-engineering by seeding the skies with sulphur particles. I was startled, could she possibly be prescient about that? I certainly hope not. But it might be worth checking out www.geoengineeringwatch.org.
We grabbed some Chinese food and headed out to Joe Levine and Jane Cypher’s barn, where I was able to set up for the night in a cozy downstairs room. Barbara and I talked and shared good food, until she bid me goodbye.
September 30, 2015
I awoke to a downpour. There is something both appealing and foreboding about woods in the fall when it is cold and wet. The idea of getting on a bike under the circumstances was not at all appealing. So I hung out, trying to decide what my next move should be. Should I make a break for Montrose and connect up with Vera Scroggins, my next “assignment”? Or should I layover and let the rain work itself out? And what was Hurricane Joaquin going to do? Since I was in a nice place with Wi-Fi I decided to stay put.
In the afternoon the rain subsided enough that I biked back into Narrowsburg to get some food and talk more with Barbara. One subject of conversation was the passivity of people in general. I learned that of the 3600 voters in Damascus Township, probably 500 actually vote. We also talked about success. NYH2O, an anti-fracking activist group in New York State had visited 59 of 60 community boards in New York State prior to Cuomo’s fracking ban, and worked closely with DCS to make this happen. Interestingly, however, there are still 50,000 conventional gas and oil wells in New York State and currently 12,000 to 13,000 of them are active. It is one of the active ones that inspired Josh Fox’s new film about working conditions in the industry, and the unfortunate death of a worker. The movie is called CJ’s Law.
I also spent a good deal of time talking to Barbara about how she came to know Josh Fox, and the considerable role that DCS played in the ramp up of his activist work and films that speak out against fracking. Clearly, Josh’s work has had incredible impact on individuals and potentially even policy in the state of New York.
October 1, 2015
I awoke for an early start. I had to travel almost 70 miles to get to Montrose, where I would meet up with Vera Scroggins in the evening. It was dark until seven, and I got on the road about 7:15, making a pleasant trip up the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side through Milanville, Damascus, Equinunk, where I cut west to New Milford and on to Montrose – all small Pennsylvania towns involved in leasing, drilling or resisting the gas companies. The ride was stunning. It was cold, but the sun would shimmer through the leaves from time to time, creating a mix of reds, yellows and greens against the blacks and browns of the soil. After arriving at the charming river town of Equinunk, I cut west on Equinunk Road, which turned out to be a mixture of dirt and gravel lasting about 20 miles. This was the first of many dirt roads I would encounter in northern Pennsylvania. On the right kind of bike (which my Surly is) these roads are tolerable and even pleasant. And they are notably peaceful for their lack of traffic. I saw one car while on Equinunk road, and that happened as I approached the end.
To my surprise, at this ending – a confluence of two dirt roads meeting a paved one – there sat a large building, which a sign identified as a tavern. And on a porch sat a woman smoking a cigarette. It was 11:30 am. I asked the woman if she was the proprietor, and she nodded affirmatively. “Could I get a meal?” I asked. “I suppose,” she answered. With that I leaned my bike against the wall. The woman flicked her cigarette away and walked inside. I followed. The specials were on a chalkboard. Ham and scalloped potatoes, and chicken soup. I chose the ham. She asked where I was from, and went on to say she didn’t see many folks on bicycles in her parts. When I said New York City, I could see she wasn’t sure what to make of me. But I pressed on. It’s remarkable how people will start talking eventually to anyone who is affable and polite. I complimented her on the Halloween decorations. She opened up. She and her husband had bought the bar last April, because they loved this valley, especially how peaceful it was. A while back there was coal mining, now they mainly farm, and there’s still gravel extraction. “Folks are good at living on the land.” she said, “In fact, they are pretty self-sufficient. I have a friend – a hunter – who lives pretty good on deer and beaver meat.” I knew there was fracking to the west, and a lot of gas leaseholders in this county, so that gave me my opening. I said, “Then I guess you’re glad they aren’t drilling here?” “Nope,” she answered. “I wish they were. Be good for business. I could use some of the gas guys coming into my bar. Besides, living on the land is what we do. Ain’t no big deal.”
Feeling full and charged up again, I left the tavern and headed west toward New Milford, enjoying quiet roads occasionally disrupted by oversized pickups or trucks hauling goods, antique stores and auto repair shops, farms and the smell of fresh manure. Because I had a long day I pushed on for hours. Gradually the traffic grew busier with water tankers, pickups with gas logos on the doors and trucks with a strange assortment of pipes. They tended to travel in caravans. A few times they didn’t give me any room, and since Pennsylvania roads have few shoulders, I was forced off the road into brush. I had been warned about gas industry traffic, so I wasn’t surprised, but I also became much more vigilant about what was coming up behind me.
By the time I reached New Milford it was late afternoon and I was starving again. I started looking for a place to get a bite, and saw a sign for a Deli. Finding the parking lot, I pulled up to a log cabin that seemed more like a lakeside camping store and than what any New York City dweller would call a Deli. I was the only person in the shop when I entered. Soon after a waitress arrived. After I ordered she began cooking.
And talking. She served lots of people from the gas industry. I learned later that New Milford is heavily leased and there are quite a few wells there. The waitress went on to say there was that there was a lot of drug abuse in town. In fact, her brother was in a treatment facility. In addition, crime had increased considerably. “Did she wish the town was free from fracking?” “No,” she answered. “There were no other options before the industry came in. It’s helped more than it’s hurt.” I asked her if everyone in town felt like she did. “Pretty much,” she answered. I asked if she would fill my water bottles. She walked behind me and returned with a plastic gallon jug. “Why bottled water? I’d be fine with tap water,” I lied. She answered, “Our water has just been tested and I don’t have the results, so I’m playing it safe. Besides, our well was shocked once before after it was tested so there might really be something wrong.” I looked at her quizzically. She said, “Look, if it wasn’t for the gas industry I would have closed this place a few years ago.”
An hour or so later I arrived at Montrose. On the way into town I was passed by 3 caravans, one of white pickups with the logo for Cabot Oil and Gas on the doors, one of water tanker trucks (later Vera Scroggins explained to me how to tell if they were empty or full and if they were fresh or waste water), and one with large beds full of a strange assortment of pipes and valves, which I learned later were drilling pad trucks. Perhaps it was my state of mind and the coldness of the day, but Montrose seemed to belong in the west, not Pennsylvania. The streets were dusty and a steady wind gave the town a gritty feel that reminded me of Laramie in the winter. I looked for the Montrose Hotel, which was listed on Google Map as one of three places to stay (the waitress in New Milford had suggested I might not find a room because the motels might already be full of industry workers). I found it next to McDonald's, as Google indicated. It was offset from the road and the parking lot was enormous and largely empty, except for a pickup and two large tanker trucks. I went to the door. It was locked but there was a notice of a phone number to call for a room. Having few alternatives, I called the number. The woman who answered the phone was very pleasant, and when I told her I was on a bicycle, she said she had one small room downtown at the Montrose Inn, which I was welcome to use if I didn’t mind a small room. The price was modest. I immediately said yes.
I biked downtown. The hotel clerk was loquacious. I learned the hotel/motel businesses in Montrose had been consolidated in the last few years and the third alternative no longer existed. When I asked if business had been better since the gas companies had come to town, the clerk said yes, although it had tapered off in the past year. As to the recent slowdown, she said the gas companies explained to the hotel owners that they were pumping so much gas out they needed to slow down for a while they built pipelines to accommodate the gas, and that was why there were layoffs. This situation is only temporary, of course. But something about the way the clerk recounted the story made me feel like I could ask her outright if she supported fracking. She demurred, saying she wasn’t a political person and she just wanted to get along with people.
After a shower and a bite to eat (and a glass of an excellent local IPA), Vera Scroggins arrived. We moved to a quiet table in the restaurant and began to talk. Vera grew up in Elizabeth, NJ and has always stood up for herself. As I told her about my conversations with the locals on the way to Montrose, she started to speak more aggressively. The passivity of local people made her crazy – so many people were standing by the sidelines watching this community be torn apart, afraid to get involved. Vera knew many people whose water and air have been contaminated (some of whom she introduce me to on Sunday when she gave me a tour). Only a brave few are willing to speak out.
Vera is no stranger to trouble. She has been charged with wiretapping for recording a lawyer, and trespassing on oil and gas property during one of her many “fracking tours.” You can learn more at the excellent NPR website know as State Impact. Yet, Vera is generous with her time and her information, and wanted me to see a drill pad at night. It’s an amazing sight. Although we couldn’t get very close, we could hear noise way off in the background. For a good example of what night drilling can sound like if you live next door, check out one of Vera’s own youtube videos.
October 2, 2015
In the morning I awoke to the sound of trucks idling. I looked out the small upstairs window of my room. In the parking lot behind the building was an idling truck. It seemed this might be a caravan getting ready to leave for the day. Yet, I had no clue as to why they were in the parking lot behind a hotel in the center of town.
This day was to be a simple one. The night before Vera had offered to let me stay at her place in nearby Brackney for a few nights. She had to attend a hearing in Harrisburg on Friday, so she wouldn’t be able to give me a tour until Saturday anyway, and this solved a few problems. I was delighted to get her offer. Heavy rain was forecast, so I knew it would be good to have shelter nearby. In addition, I knew that I would learn a lot by staying with Vera. I also needed time to manage communications, do some reading and write in my travel blog. And there was the ever present reality that I was trying to keep my costs down. So, with good fortune smiling on me, I bought some goodies as an offering at an amazing store for local farm produce (I could smell fresh apple cider donuts a block away in spite of dust and rain), and biked up to Brackney with a backpack loaded down with food, a short 14 miles due north.
Vera lives on a pleasant lake surrounded by modest homes, many of them mobile homes. Her place was cozy and inviting. I settled in, acquainted myself with her dog Oscar, and waited out the day.
Around 10 pm, Vera came home. She had stopped in Wilkes-Barre to pick up her grandchild Arizona, who was going to stay with her for awhile. Arizona was like Vera – cheerful and intense. It was great having all this humanity around me, especially as the temperature plunged and the rain grew harder. Way out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Joaquin was making himself noticed. Little did I know at the time that this Hurricane was devastating the Caribbean and the coast up through the Carolina’s.
October 3, 2015
This was the big day. If there were to be one day on this trip that would take me into the belly of the beast that is fracking, this would be the one. I was not disappointed.
We began in the north part of Susquehanna County, near Bracken. A well has been drilled 3000 feet away from Laurel Lake where Vera and her many neighbors live, so it took only a few minutes to get there. The entire pad was visible. Vera patiently pointed out the well caps, storage tanks, pumps and many other features of the pad. Because this kind of technology is was new to me, I probably missed a lot, but I could tell it took out a sizable piece of land in an otherwise undisturbed field near many homes. I also knew there were over 400 functioning wells in this county alone, with 42 compressor stations, where the gas is piped in, compressed, cleaned and moved into larger pipelines for transport to regional, national and international markets.
We saw many more pads. They grew increasingly closer together as we approached Montrose, each with clearly marked identification and no trespassing signs. A few years back the gas companies weren’t using signs, and Cabot Oil and Gas (the company that issued a restraining order against Vera Scroggins) was one of the last companies to put them in place, even though they were one of the largest gas companies in the area. Now signage is required, and must specify company information, owner, GPS location, consumptive water use, etc.
Eventually we made our way south to Franklin Township, the site of the famous case of the Mannings against WPX Energy. The Manning’s and several other neighbors water was contaminated at the same time, and the Manning's pushed for a review from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A review exonerated WPX. You can read about this case in State Impact here.
Vera was explaining this situation to me as she pointed out house after house. The houses were reasonably close together in spite of the rural setting, and the rain made the houses looked depressing and beat up. Vera’s information was coming fast. “This one was contaminated, and that one. This one is probably contaminated but they never stepped up. There. See that flare stack?” (I could see at least four from the car) “That’s what the company put in to keep the methane from building up in the house. Now it’s flowing out of the stacks. All around us. Feel safe?” Vera stopped talking and turned abruptly into a driveway. “This is where the Manning’s live. Maybe they are home”, said Vera. I didn’t know who she was talking about. We got out of the car.
A woman came out of the house. She was pretty and soft spoken. She gave Vera a smile and Vera said, “This is the bicycle guy I told you about. “Michael, this is Tammy.” “Would you like to come in?” Tammy asked. I wasn’t expecting such a welcome and before I knew it we were in the living room of her simple home. Tammy’s husband sat on a couch, the son sat in an easy chair behind us playing video games on an iPad and her daughter stood nearby. Vera began talking. The conversation quickly began moving faster than I could track, so I pulled out my cellphone and began taping. This video is rough, but I believe it captures the feeling of some of what the Mannings have been through, and also features Vera Scroggins explaining her current feelings about the Pennsylvania DEP (which have improved). At the beginning Vera is referring to a new methane flare off Carter Road in Dimock (more on that later). You can see it here.
After we said our goodbyes to the Mannings, we headed over to Shanti Temple, which is a country farmhouse owned by Swami Saraswati. Several days before my visit Vera had appeared at a hearing in Harrisburg with Swami, a Hindu spiritual teacher. Last year a gas well was drilled on a hill just above his house (which is easily viewable from his upstairs windows), and his water became highly discolored shortly after in October, 2014. The outcome of the hearing had been reasonably positive, and it looks like Swami will be delivered bottled water from Cabot.
As we pulled into the driveway, Swami walked up to our car. I could not have been more surprised. He was dressed in a saffron robe and sandals and walked through the rain as if it wasn’t there. He was smiling from ear to ear. He spoke with a heavy South Asian accent. I could have been in Boulder or New Delhi, but rural Pennsylvania? “Oh, this is the bicycle man you told me about,” he said to Vera. then he looked at me, “You are riding around to make the world a better place?” he said, with no trace of irony. I replied, “Well I don’t know about that, but I am interested in fracking. And I’m interested in spirituality as well. I think those interests are connected.” His grin grew even wider. “Then come in the house”, he said.
Vera had told me she had met Swami at a lecture he gave about the illusion of free will. Given that Vera is an intensely focused activist and that Swami was living in a house where the water was contaminated by a gas company well directly across the road, I was very intrigued by the obvious juxtapositions. Once inside the house, I asked Swami about free will. I wasn’t expecting the rich response I got, but I was able to record it. If you would like to hear a discussion about free will delivered by a Hindu spiritual teacher living next to a fracked natural gas well in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, click here.
Next on the tour was the coup de gras, Carter Road in Dimock Township, Montrose, PA, the center of a famous 9-square-mile region where the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has prohibited the drilling of any new wells. This is the road made famous in Josh Fox’s Gasland, where he interviews Roy Kemble and in Gasland 2, the indomitable Victoria Switzer.
On the way to the land “banned” by fracking, Vera pointed out some other homes and told me more about contamination issues of nearby residents. I made severl short videos as she spoke, one can be viewed here and the other here. Then, Vera turned south down Carter Road from State Highway 2024. Almost immediately, she pointed out the site for the former property of Craig and Julie Sautner that Cabot Oil and Gas purchased in 2013. Cabot subsequently demolished the three-bedroom ranch in September and sold the empty lot to a neighbor for $4,000. The new deed includes a clause – called a land covenant -- that forbids residential dwellings on the property. Unfortunately by this time my phone camera battery had died, so I couldn’t film or photograph the oddly empty lot or mocking “effigy” of the Sautner family and yard sign for Dimock Proud, a community group that supports natural gas drilling and promotes a positive image of the township’s environment, supposedly placed there by the neighbor who purchased the empty lot. Later in the month the Sautners and Cabot completed a confidential settlement that ended their part in a bitter lawsuit against the company. You can read about it here.
Cabot bought another property a mile down the road after that and then settled with 30 families, all of whom signed non-disclosure agreements except for activist Ray Kemble, who has remained a vocal activist ever since. Here is Ray Kimble in an interview in “From the Front Lines” from urbandistasterrecords.
Our last stop for the day was at the home of the indomitable Victoria Switzer. Her large and beautiful - more like a home one would find in the hills of Berkeley or Aspen than in Susquehanna County, PA. Victoria is a retired public school teacher, and with her husband Jimmy Switzer was busy building their retirement dream home when Cabot leased their land and most of the land surrounding them. It was not long before their well water became contaminated. This led Victoria, an unlikely candidate for an activist, to become quite busy in local activism against fracking. She is profiled in Josh Fox’s second film on fracking, Gasland 2.
Although Victoria and Jimmy were preparing to go out to dinner when Vera, Arizona and I arrived at the end of the day, Jimmy welcomed us in and Victoria joined us for a glass of wine soon after. The conversation was varied, from how beautiful their home was to Jimmy’s biking interests (he’s a far more serious distance cyclist then I am, having managed to hit a top distance of 235 miles in one day, to my top distance of 86 miles). Interestingly, Victoria wasn’t very interested in talking about Cabot or her contaminated water. Nevertheless, she showed us jars of contaminated water (milky and gray) and did say that she and Jimmy regretted leasing their land. She also said they had entered into a NDA and cash settlement agreement for the water contamination suit with Cabot that allowed them to finish their home and to move forward in their lives. We said our goodbyes and headed back to Vera's home.
The next day I left for the Finger Lakes region in New York to learn about LNG, butane and methane storage issues in salt caverns near Watkins Glen at the base of Seneca Lake. I will blog about that trip that after I return from #P2Bcop21 and #COP21 in Paris.