Appalachian Basin

A Lack of Media Coverage on Shale Development?


Tom Wilber recently wrote on the decline of journalism and surmised that phenomenon is resulting in limited media coverage of shale development requiring citizen journalists to fill the void.  That’s one way of looking at the situation, albeit one that is slightly removed from recent experience.

Last week Tom Wilber penned a nearly 1,700 word article on the decline of journalism, the subsequent rise of alternative media outlets and the impacts this is having on media coverage of shale development.  Inherent in Wilber’s narrative is one main point: as journalism continues to decline, “mainstream media outlets” have fewer resources to investigate claims of natural gas contamination — which is supposedly allowing the industry to “keep matters of public interest…from full public view.”

While Wilber’s observations about journalism’s decline are accurate, his assertions about its impact on media coverage, and his romanticism of the anti- shale development movement, make his narrative hard to accept from a reasoned point of view.

confusedAccepting Wilber’s premise requires lifelong northeastern and central Pennsylvania residents to ignore the events of the past four years and jettison any historical knowledge they have of the area, not to mention the substantial media coverage it’s generated over time. In reality, the media and all-too-eager activists have turned northeastern and central Pennsylvania from a relatively unknown rural area into the epicenter of an international movement, based not insignificantly on speculation, projection, and even outright falsehoods.

This is especially noticeable in Dimock, Pa. This small town was once unknown to the majority of residents in northeastern Pennsylvania, let alone the nation and world. However, as Dimock landowners Anne Van Lenten and Jim Grimsley noted, that dynamic changed almost overnight. In January 2012 they wrote:

“We moved here in 2003, looking to eventually retire in a quiet country setting…Since April of 2010, our town has received much negative publicity due to the litigation of the Carter Road families.  Environmental groups, movie stars, movie directors, and out-of-state politicians have all jumped on the band wagon in an attempt to put a halt to hydraulic fracturing of horizontal natural gas wells… A compilation of half-truths and misinformation has turned the name ‘Dimock’ into a dirty word.”

Don’t just take Anne and Jim’s word for it, either.  Fueled by the insatiable media appetites of Josh Fox, Mark Ruffalo and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dimock was touted by reporters across the globe as “ground zero” of what can happen when shale development goes awry. To wit:

In 2009 the New York Times featured the town as the “Dark Side of a Natural Gas Boom”.

In 2010 Vanity Fair referred to Dimock as “A Colossal Fracking Mess”.

In 2011 the UK publication The Guardian featured an op-ed by Josh Fox titled “Shale Gas’s Dirty Secret is Out,” highlighting the Pa. town.

In 2011 the Herald Scotland used the town as an example of how shale development can create an ecological disaster.

Closer to home, the coverage was equally notable. While Wilber characterizes the Scranton Times-Tribune coverage as “doing what they can,” the Society of Environmental Journalists saw things a bit differently when they awarded one of that paper’s reporters, Laura Legere, with the “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting” for her coverage of Marcellus Shale issues. One of the frequent topics? You guessed it: Dimock.

A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World Before the Truth Has a Chance to Put Its Pants On

Of course, in Dimock both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both disproved many of the water contamination claims. According to EPA:

“EPA took steps to sample water in the area to ensure there were not elevated levels of contaminants. Based on the outcome of that sampling, EPA has determined that there are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.”

Nonetheless, the Dimock media frenzy was advanced with the assistance of Vera Scroggins, a local activist whom Wilber describes as an “amateur videographer who lugs equipment over hill and dale, into town and country… providing a repository of information otherwise unavailable.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Scroggins’ “repository of information” would otherwise be unavailable is because almost every one of the claims she has professed has been shown to be inaccurate. A few examples:

She was an antagonist for the litigants in Dimock, which had claims determined to be unfounded by both state regulators and the EPA.

She was a driving force behind claims in Franklin Forks, where she persuaded the Manning family that shale development was the cause of their water woes. She also pitched that narrative to national media outlets to cover the saga from her perspective. Again, a state investigation proved water quality issues had nothing to do with shale development.

She has blamed naturally occurring algal blooms in a local creek on Marcellus Shale development, despite the fact they occur in the creek every year, a product of the natural world she claims she wants to protect. Of course, that didn’t stop the local NBC affiliate from highlighting Vera’s baseless claims.

Scroggins also helped advance Crystal Stroud’s assertions of water contamination, which were also featured by local trial attorneys before state regulators found the claims to be unfounded. (Notice a trend here?)

Scroggins has even harassed local businesses simply because they serve employees working for natural gas companies.  You can see in the video just how intrusive her tactics are viewed by those exposed to them.

And, we all know – unfortunately – about her strident disdain for the Irish (and we’re not talking about Notre Dame, either).

In fact, almost every claim Scroggins has made has been found to be without merit. Most sources with that kind of record would find themselves begging for attention; in Vera’s case, some media outlets seem all too happy to highlight her claims, only to realize later that they’ve been duped.

In that sense, Ms. Scroggins is indeed a repository of information – false information, to be more specific.

Are Sealed Settlements Really Benefitting the Natural Gas Industry?

To drive home his point, Wilber notes that “hundreds, if not thousands of cases sealed in documents that are never opened because their public relevance goes unchallenged, and that’s largely because mainstream media outlets have fewer resources.”

However, this only tells part of the story.  As Wilber noted, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington Observer filed suit to a settlement between a natural gas producer and a southwestern Pennsylvania family to have the documents unsealed. While Wilber claims the media challenge revealed DEP didn’t maintain records of a nearby investigation, this leaves out the most important part of that whole saga: the plaintiffs admitted that there was no evidence to support their claims. This was made clear by the affidavit the plaintiffs signed :

1. With respect to Plaintiff minors’ alleged claims involve nuisance and personal injury claims, there is presently no medical evidence that these symptoms are definitively related to any exposure to the activities of Defendants set forth in Plaintiffs’ [Complaint].

2. The minors have alleged claims for nuisance and personal injury in connection with Defendants’ business operations.  There is presently no medical evidence supporting that these claims related to any exposure to Defendants’ business operations as set forth in Plaintiffs’ Complaint. See Exhibit A.  And presently, the minors are healthy and have no symptoms that may allegedly be related to Defendants’ business operations.

Investigations of harm should begin and end with discussions about whether that harm actually occurred, not sideshow issues about a private, legal, contractual agreement between two parties. If our goal is safety, and ensuring that operations are conducted in a responsible manner, then shouldn’t affirmations of safe operations be good news worth sharing with the public? And, on a similar note, if accusations of harm turn out to be baseless, that’s also relevant, especially in the headline-driven world that too often defines the public discussion about shale development.

There is one point where we can find common ground with Wilber, however.  Media coverage could benefit from more legitimate investigatory work. Where we differ is that we believe at least some of those resources should be directed to examining the accuracy of claims of anti-shale activists. After all, they have developed a pretty extensive track record of making, and using the media to advance, accusations that in too many cases have been dismissed by scientific and regulatory reviews.

If we’re going to apply scrutiny to the industry for its claims and activities, then shouldn’t we place an equal level of attention on those whose who criticize and allege harm from industry activity? Many of those folks, remember, are employed by organizations with explicit missions to stop natural gas development. Isn’t it worth understanding if their claims are valid – to provide a public check against them just making stuff up?

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