The Marcellus Fishbowl
Earlier this month, a 15-foot-high, 100-foot-long section of wall at a wastewater treatment plant in Vestal, NY collapsed, allowing more than 580,000 gallons of sewage to flow into the Susquehanna River. Such big news was the accident that a search on Google returns exactly three stories reporting on it, and not a single one (best we can tell) appearing anywhere outside Broome Co., N.Y.
Three weeks before the sewage spill in Vestal, a site operated by Chesapeake Energy experienced a well-control incident in LeRoy Twp., Pa. — just across the border in Bradford County. The event resulted in the release of about 10,000 gallons of fluids, roughly 99.5 percent of which was water and sand. According to estimates, barely 42 gallons of actual fracturing fluid, itself highly diluted, escaped initial containment and got off the pad. But do a search for news associated with LeRoy Twp. accident, and you get 960,000 hits on Google. In the words of the immortal Vince Lombardi: “What the hell’s going on out here?”
The answer, it turns out, is actually quite simple: The Marcellus Shale sells. The narrative that the opposition has worked meticulously to piece together — that of secret “FRACK” fluids, invented by Dick Cheney, injected right into the water table, containing a witch’s brew of all the worst things in the world — has unfortunately taken hold in some circles, resulting in a public panic anytime anything happens outside the norm at a wellsite.
You remember that accident at the U.S. Steel factory last summer in Allegheny Co., Pa that sent a half-dozen folks to the hospital? Of course you don’t — this is probably the first time you’re hearing of it. How about the accident in Clearfield Co., Pa. that happened a month before at a wellsite operated by natural gas producer EOG? No one there was injured — but the story was still covered by at least 40 different news outlets, with reports appearing in seven different countries. Some groups used the accident to call for on an immediate end of Marcellus development. Tellingly, those groups didn’t call for an end to steel manufacturing following the event in Allegheny Co.
Following the accident in LeRoy Twp., Pa., the attorney general of Maryland actually filed a lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy. His charge? That what amounts to one barrel of fracturing fluids may have gotten into a tributary of the Susquehanna River, and through that, migrated all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay. Two weeks removed from the spillage of 600,000 gallons of sewage into the Susquehanna in Vestal, Mr. Gensler isn’t exactly tripping over himself to file a similar suit against against the Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant in New York. So much for equal justice under the law.
Of course, the producers themselves don’t exactly have a whole lot of time to complain about this obvious double-standard. They’re too busy delivering jobs, revenue and clean-burning natural gas to people and places that desperately need every bit of those things right now. In fact, a piece in this morning’s Harrisburg Patriot-News reports that the Marcellus industry has generated nearly 50,000 new jobs in just the past 12 months. That’s one hell of a story. But unfortunately, if past is prologue, the only place you’ll hear about any of it is right here on this blog.