How a Small Town Is Standing Up to Fracking

Mike Belleme

Mike Belleme

Rolling Stone

May 22, 2017

Justin Nobel

On October 24th, 2012, several agents from Pennsylvania General Energy, an oil-and-gas exploration company, met privately with local officials from the rural western Pennsylvania community of Grant Township. Fracking was booming in Pennsylvania, and PGE had been trucking tens of thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater to faraway injection wells in Ohio. Developing an injection well somewhere in Pennsylvania could save the company around $2 million a year, and Grant Township, a swath of woods and hayfields slightly larger than Manhattan and populated by a mere 741 people, seemed like an especially good spot.

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Most of the meeting's attendees – which included the three Grant Township supervisors, a rep from the local state senator's office and an official from the county's office of planning and development – will not speak about the event. But about 10 months later, one of the supervisors passed along a notice to a retired elementary-school teacher named Judy Wanchisn. In lettering so small "you need a magnifying glass to read," says Wanchisn, the notice declared that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "plans to issue an Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit to PGE  . . .  to construct and operate one class II-D brine disposal injection well." Wanchisn had no idea what that meant, but she could tell it was bad.

Wanchisn, now 74, lives about a mile from the proposed injection-well site, in a modest white ranch house overlooking East Run, a creek that's popular with anglers and home to an ancient salamander species called the hellbender. She was born and raised in Grant Township and taught elementary school for 20 years in the neighboring community of Purchase Line. When she received the EPA announcement, she was enjoying her retirement, spending days with grandkids and girlfriends, gardening and taking care of her husband, who has a heart condition. But she soon found herself spending more time in front of the computer, researching injection wells.

Fracking involves sending millions of gallons of chemical-laden pressurized fluid into deep layers of rock, creating fractures that release trapped oil and gas. In the past decade, Americans have been enjoying the cheap domestic energy resulting from the fracking boom, which now produces two-thirds of the country's natural gas and half of its oil. But fracking has also created its share of unwanted byproduct. Some 36,000 oil-and-gas wastewater-injection wells – disposal sites for the fluid that seeps to the surface after a well is fracked – lie sunk across our land. Pennsylvania presently has only eight active injection wells, but several are in the process of being permitted. And as the incredibly gas-rich Marcellus shale layer is developed, along with another massive shale layer a few thousand feet beneath it called the Utica, there will surely be more to come.

Fracking wastewater is a toxic brew containing some of the carcinogenic and flammable chemicals left over from the fracking process, as well as heavy metals and radioactive elements like radon and radium that seep out of deep rock layers. Between 2005 and 2014, America pumped approximately 189 billion gallons of fracking wastewater down injection wells, the equivalent of letting the full force of Niagara Falls gush directly into the earth for 14 and a half days. "They started drilling without having any idea what they are going to do with the waste," says Penn State ecologist William Hamilton, who writes a blog about western Pennsylvania. "To me, pumping it into the ground seems like a very foolish way to dispose of a toxic material. There are going to be gigantic, unknown and long-term consequences to this."

Oil-and-gas companies in Pennsylvania once delivered fracking wastewater to sewage-treatment plants. But in the summer of 2008, residents began noticing that their water had developed a funny taste and their dishwashers were malfunctioning. A steel plant reported the water was corroding its machinery. Last year, the EPA banned the practice. The majority of fracking wastewater produced in Pennsylvania is now treated in industrial facilities and reused in fracking wells. Eventually, the mixture becomes too toxic to handle, at which point it is pumped into an injection well. In 2011, a well operated by EXCO Resources oozed waste for four months into a remote forest in central Pennsylvania. A landmark study published last year in Environmental Science & Technology, co-authored by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, determined that a West Virginia injection-well site was "impacting the stream that runs through the area." USGS studies have also linked injection to earthquakes in Ohio, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Essentially, Wanchisn learned, the ground beneath her would be used as a vast toxic-waste storage locker. PGE planned to inject 42,000 gallons of fracking wastewater a day into a layer of rock 7,500 feet beneath the ground, where it was to remain for eternity. The pumping would continue 24 hours a day, every day, for half a generation or more – Wanchisn's teenage grandchildren could be married with children, and PGE would still be injecting fracking waste.

Judy Wanchisn, who rallied neighbors to fight back. "People didn't want anyone messing around with their water," she says. "They understand 'you poison my water and I don't have a home.'" Mike Belleme for Rolling Stone

In October 2013, about 30 residents raised safety issues with the EPA at a public hearing in Grant Township's small municipal building. The president from the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, Sherene Hess, worried about the durability of the well's cement casing, along with the rock layers' ability to hold the waste. Others expressed concerns about seismic faults and the toxicity and radioactivity of the fracking wastewater. Plans to monitor the well were lacking, and there were unresolved issues concerning the hazards of transporting waste to the site. "What we don't know about injection wells," Hess told the assembly, "may, in fact, hurt us."

After the meeting, Wanchisn assumed the system had worked: The community had presented a well-researched array of scientific facts and formally filed its complaints. How could the federal government's environmental watchdog permit a well in a town that widely opposed it? For five months, Wanchisn heard nothing. Then, in March 2014, she received a letter from the EPA. The injection well had been approved. "We were novices," she says. "We thought someone was going to save us, but what we hadn't yet realized was that no one was going to save us but ourselves."

Despite calls from Donald Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, to roll back "out of control" environmental regulations, in reality, the federal government rarely blocks projects outright. Battles tend to unfold within the regulatory system once a project gets the green light – a community marks out a certain threshold for pollution and tries to ensure the polluting industry stays below that mark. When it comes to fracking, the EPA has been especially business-friendly, declaring injection "a safe and inexpensive option for the disposal of unwanted and often hazardous industrial byproducts," and has approved thousands of wells across the country.

"Americans are often under the belief that the EPA or their local state environmental agency is going to save them from environmental pollution, and that is simply not the case," says Leila Conners, a documentarian whose 2016 film, We the People 2.0, examines how corporations undermine American democracy. "What people have to realize is that they are participating in a system that is not working. Across our country right now, companies are allowed to dump their waste pretty much for free."

But as construction on the injection well neared, Wanchisn and the other Grant Township residents began to wonder why they had to accept the EPA's ruling at all. With the help of outside advocates, the small community landed upon a radical strategy: It adopted an ordinance that granted residents the right to local self-government, essentially seizing the power to bypass the EPA. According to the new laws of their renegade township, not only could humans defend themselves against PGE, but so too could the streams, the salamanders, the hemlock trees, the very soil underground. As outrageous as it might seem, the move thrust Grant Township onto the front line of a new environmental movement: It's the battle to grant legal rights to nature. And amazingly, it appears to be working.

Read more at Rolling Stone.