18 July 2011

Hiking: a great opportunity for some fracking research

It was a beautiful day in the Pennsylvania woods. So perfect that every description seems cliché: blue skies, birds chirping, calm breeze. It all applies. Beneath my feet was the Quehanna Trail (QT), a 75-mile backpacking loop in Moshannon State Forest and Elk State Forest. Out for an overnight hike to get away from the city and explore our new state, (and to take advantage of the most rare scheduling phenomenon in medical resident life: the three-day weekend), Richard and I set out from the trailhead at Parker Dam State Park in Clearfield County.

Less than a mile from the car, we cross a clear-cut swath of hillside running 50 feet across and as far I can see up and down. Similar to space made for power lines, but sans towers, the first thing that I think is: ski hill? Wrong. Welcome to the great state of Pennsylvania where the Marcellus Shale natural gas race has been underway since 2007. It was a pipeline, the first of three pipelines that we crossed eight times in 23 miles of trail.

Not virgin to the concept of utilizing natural resources for public benefit and government profit, I thought little of the pipeline and kept walking. But less than a mile from the pipeline, we found a notice stapled to a tree that said, “Attention Quehanna Trail Hikers: There has been an industrial incident in the area. It is recommended surface water (springs and streams) not be used for potable use.” No date, no specifics.

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 I saw many similar signs from natural resource managers warning of bears or water quality. They all gave a vague message including just enough information to warrant curiosity, but not enough to change one’s plan mid-hike. If nothing else, I would request that dates be added to these signs. That way if the sign is cautioning occurrences from over a year ago, as I would later learn the QT sign was, I could make a decision for my circumstances whether to heed the warning or not. While I understand the logic of leaving off the date so to avoid people disregarding the message because they’ve reasoned the content is too old, if you really want to warn people it’s probably best to give as much information as possible.

Dates aside, this QT notice didn’t mention the type of “incident”, what substances might be contaminating the surface water, and what other options backpackers might have. It is reasonable to assume, I believe, that a hiker would begin their trek with a couple of liters of water. But it is also reasonable to believe that they will need to refresh their supply at some point along a 75-mile trail. After a few miles of hiking, we found a matching sign facing the opposite direction on the trail and concluded that we were exiting the contaminated area. But wouldn’t it be nice to know that the area of potential harm finite and you will eventually pass through it?

The number provided on the sign is for the Pennsylvania Department of Forestry. As we didn’t have cell service at the time, the number wasn’t much help. When I called the following Monday I was told the “incident” was a natural gas mine blow out from June 2010. The Forestry Department was concerned of contamination, but after extensive testing found nothing in the water along the QT. I was also told the signs should have been taken down.

Since little information could be gathered from the sign, I did my own research. A 16-hour, uncontrolled flow of fracking fluid and natural gas spewed from a well operated by EOG Resources. While the PA Department of Environmental Protection claimed that no polluted water had reached a waterway, they did find the operators at fault for the accident. While this incident is uncommon in its lack of severity, it is most definitely common in the natural gas industry that has exploded in Pennsylvania in the last few years.

According to a report from This American Life that aired on July 8, 2011, Penn State’s Professor Terry Engelder estimates 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under Pennsylvania and the surrounding states. Since the announcement of his calculation, industry, politicians, and the universities of the state have banded together to get the most out of this resource as possible. But at what cost? There are very few government regulations on Marcellus Shale drilling. By putting so much effort into extracting this fuel we could be delaying the more pressing issue of developing more renewable resources for the future.

So much for just a taking a walk in the woods.

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