Look to the seventh generation

I live in Wayne County in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, where drilling for natural gas is on the verge of drastically changing life in the area. This past week the Delaware River Basin Commission held a public hearing at the Honesdale High School. After spending the afternoon listening to people from a clearly polarized region give testimony, I decided to speak that evening. Below is the gist of what I said.

The economic and environmental wellbeing of our area and having a strong community characterized by treating others with respect and kindness are of great interest to me. I moved to Honesdale, PA from Wilkes-Barre, one of several places I have lived where people, like in Wayne County, claim that their children graduate from high school and then move away because there are no jobs.

Those in favor of drilling requested the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to look at the economic consequences of their regulations. I would add to this request that the DRBC look at the economic consequences not just for the current generation but for people living seven generations from now.

The DRBC could gain great perspective on regulating gas drilling by looking at a local fossil fuel industry from a previous generation. Anthracite coal provided employment for those already living in the region and resulted in a large influx of immigrants who came to work in the area. But anthracite was a finite resource and when coal was no longer being mined, people had to move elsewhere to find work. The anthracite region then had to search for other industries to sustain themselves economically.

The natural gas beneath our feet took longer to form than most of us can fathom; but we can easily imagine what the area and the economy will look like a mere 30 years from now when the infrastructure is still in place but the natural gas is depleted. The dwindling local farm bureau (formerly Wayne County but now representing Wayne and Pike Counties) is collectively in favor of drilling as a means for people to hang onto their farmland and be able to pass it on to the next generation. Those speaking on behalf of the farm bureau stressed that they represent several generations that had farmed the same land. Once traditional farmers become dependent on natural gas for income, and their land is exposed to harmful fracking fluids, will they and their descendents really go back to farming?

There is a growing number of people who have recently moved to Wayne County to become first generation farmers. In 2000 Wayne County had 3 households who were members of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Now, in just a decade, there are close to one hundred members. Sustainable farmers give me greater hope for a sustainable future than do those who sign gas leases. I have heard too many people say that if their wells become contaminated, they will simply take the proceeds from their leases and move elsewhere.

A friend I made in Wilkes-Barre in 1993 was working for the Department of Environmental Protection as an engineer to address acid mine drainage and the reclamation of abandoned mines. Today my friend continues in that same job, more than 40 years after coal ceased being mined. With dead and dying trees lining tributaries, officials with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission say the impact of acid mine drainage remains the biggest challenge to efforts to preserve ecosystems. Coal companies earned the profits but after the coal was harvested the economically bereft public was handed the bill to clean up the environment, an endeavor that will not end anytime soon. After gas companies and landowners earn the profits, will the clean up cost be socialized like it was for the coal industry?

I urge DRBC to ensure that a sound and thorough environmental impact study is done prior to allowing hydraulic fracturing to take place. Even with an exhaustive study, there will still be unforeseen consequences. Mining for natural gas is more complicated than it was for anthracite coal. I fear that the potential long-term hazards are proportionally greater.

We are not all going to agree with each other on everything, but I hope and pray that we can move forward with our differences in such a way that we remain intact as a caring community for the benefit of those who will inherit the legacy of the decisions we make today.

Mark Terwilliger

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