Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Return To/From the
'Sacrifice Zone'

I recently moved back to the Sewickley area after a long stint in western Colorado. The 'Western Slope', as that region is known, is rich in many potential sources of energy. The local paper there dubbed the region "Energy Alley" in a series of articles last year.

Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, Uranium, and Oil Shale (not to mention lots of sunshine) exist in varying degrees of abundance across many areas of this region. Aiding those who would seek to profit from their extraction is the split estate concept - where surface landowners do not own the mineral rights underneath. One group of documentary filmmakers went so far as to dub the region a "National Sacrifice Zone", which usually refers to an area where the cost of cleanup, whether physical or economic, exceeds the perceived value of the area requiring such a restoration.

This moniker has been used to describe facilities and areas associated with the nuclear industry, particularly those involved in nuclear weapons development and testing, but also in the processing of uranium and the generation of civilian nuclear power. The test sites in Nevada, along with the area around a weapons plant in Hanford, WA are mentioned, but there are a great many towns and cities that have been touched by the nuclear industry; Grand Junction, CO and Canonsburg, PA have one thing in common (besides great candy stores); they've both had major cleanups of uranium mill tailings from within their boundaries.

Western Colorado is also where gas and oil drilling using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" has been going on for several years, and where, as in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Marcellus Shale region, community activism is on the rise in response to several accidents involving the use, transport, and disposal of fracking fluids.

Many of my posts over the last couple of years have dealt with energy, in particular the extraction of natural gas from areas in both states using the controversial fracking process. This has been of particular interest of late to Pennsylvanians, given the ramping up of drilling activity, revelations of additional potential threats to potable water supplies as a consequence of fracking, and significant changes in the state's regulatory posture by the new Republican governor, Tom Corbett.

Lots of questions are being asked, and new activity is always occurring while the debate rages on. Municipal governments seem hard-pressed to learn or remain current while landmen sniff around, and energy companies buy up or lease large swaths of acreage. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other partners seem to be doing a great job of cataloging some of what's been happening in the area through their PIPELINE website, which is provided in the sidebar here as a feed.

People seem to be reacting along fairly predictable lines with regard to what appears an inevitable march into the area by energy companies, drilling contractors, and the additional economic and environmental impacts that accompany them. Having seen the sacrifices made both here and elsewhere, I have the following observations...

As a public safety professional in Colorado, I participated in the design, procurement, and implementation of several projects designed to improve emergency response capabilities in the areas I served. Nearly all of these projects were either partially or completely funded by grant programs that received their funding from state-imposed severance taxes and impact fees. Only those counties that were impacted by energy development were eligible for the grant funding.

Gov. Corbett's steadfast refusal to consider a severance tax on the gas taken from Pennsylvania wells defies logic, especially in lean economic times. As a "newcomer", my reaction may be too simplistic, but why would the Governor prefer to balance the budget on the backs of school districts, and thereby schoolchildren? Probably has something to do with the Governor's opinion of teacher's unions, but that's for another post, along with the simultaneous push for educational vouchers.

State Rep. Jesse White (D-Cecil), writing in March on, outlined the problem rather well:
"In some places, nearly one-third of the municipal budget is going to these issues, there is no way under the law for these taxpayer monies to be recouped, and the gas industry has yet to step in and take a proactive role...As a result, local taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab, which is almost offensive considering the amount of money being made by the natural gas industry in our backyards. The message from local municipalities was clear: While local governments are not trying to kill the goose laying the golden egg that is Marcellus Shale, the taxpayers should not be forced to foot the bill for the nest."
Rep. White, along with several others in the legislature, have been lobbying for legislation to allow municipalities to levy impact fees, to help assure that the energy developers help to pay for the increased needs for infrastructure and government services brought about by their activities. Putting this in the hands of individual boroughs and townships seems to me a slippery slope, considering the sheer number of municipalities and the potential lack of consistency between them. Bell Acres got ahead of the curve this week with the adoption of an ordinance; what's next for their neighbors, and the rest of the area?

Should Gov. Corbett's reticence toward severance taxes prove insurmountable, perhaps all of those multiple little governments can learn something from some Pennsylvania landowners, and approach the issue cooperatively. That's something that industry, taxpayers, and citizens might all be able to agree on.

Most states where gas drilling has been going on for years have a solid means of generating revenue and enforcing regulations to protect workers and residents alike, even though it's comparatively more expensive to move gas from areas such as the west to where it is needed the most, like here in the east. That's what's driving the Marcellus boom - proximity to market.

The energy industry put a lot of money into Gov. Corbett's campaign. It's obvious that they want a sweetheart arrangement in the Marcellus Shale.
Responsible citizens need to continue to stand up and tell the Governor that this is not acceptable. Vince Townley's editorial in the May 5 Sewickley Herald echoed similar sentiments.

I would also not place a great deal of credence in any noise made by the energy industry about shutting down or scaling back operations in response to efforts to levy taxes and/or fees in Pennsylvania. In other places it's chalked up to the cost of doing business; in as prime an area as the Marcellus Shale, where the supply is literally in the backyard of the demand, the same operating principle will likely apply.

Many of us, myself included, owe our existence and our well-being to many of our ancestors who toiled in mills, mines, factories, refineries, and other trappings of the Pittsburgh region's turbulent industrial past and subsequent reclamation. The working conditions, health effects, economic instabilities, and other byproducts of that history continue to manifest themselves in the present day, whether in heightened levels of infirmity among this area's significant older population, or clusters of cancer or other illnesses in populations that have settled in and around reclaimed industrial sites.

This region, this state, faces too many difficulties stemming from its fragile infrastructure - systems for moving vehicle traffic, delivering potable water, and safely treating and disposing of wastewater are aging, and are being retrofitted and improved constantly. The Marcellus Shale boom will impact all of these systems, from the water trucks that will traverse country roads to provide well sites with fracking fluid, to the treatment plants (and perhaps soon, disposal ponds) that the used fluid will travel to and through, to the downstream intakes where many towns draw their water supplies.

Many of my ancestors sacrificed themselves to the industries that sustained them - Quod me nutrit, me destruit - so that future generations might not have to. I've known two children from this area who have succumbed to cancer. Regardless of whether or not there is any connection to those lives lost and the environmental challenges facing the region where they were born and lived, for me that's two deaths too many.

These individual cases may constitute a quieter 'sacrifice' that does not match the physical devastation of an entire geographic area. Here and elsewhere, the devastation has been economic, and the restoration slow. Marcellus Shale gas development offers the possibility of revitalization of many areas, but without adequate government oversight, appropriate revenue generation and distribution, and a commitment to protecting the land and water, those who benefit will be few instead of many.

How much more will this region be asked to sacrifice now, without being able to reap some collective benefit, and without solid assurances that the process will be conducted in such a way that will protect future lives and land from potentially becoming part of another National Sacrifice Zone?

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