|By Cathy Dyson, The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
While residents in other counties document violations on Facebook or feed them to the federal government, Pitcock and her crew let researchers and journalists, conservationists and environmentalists see for themselves the impact and infrastructure that natural gas drilling brings.
"We put them at ground zero . . .and give them unfettered access to private land," she said.
Visitors who want to study compressor stations stay in homes near the units. They hear the high-powered turbines that sound like jet engines as they run nonstop to filter and treat gas so it can go through pipelines.
College students get to stand on the edge of a well pad as it's fracked. That's when the process of hydraulic fracturing injects water, chemicals and sand into the ground to fracture the rock and release trapped gas.
During a recent visit by 30 students, "Some were in tears, some were in awe, most had no idea these wells were that big," Pitcock said. "People need to see what it really looks like."
They're in the midst of a modern-day gold rush that has brought gas companies from across the country to their doorstep.
The counties are part of the
Another possible site for gas drilling--but on a much smaller scale than the Marcellus--is the Taylorsville basin, which is south and east of
Because what's happening in
One woman is studying the impact on songbirds.
The tests normally cost about
"It's one thing to read about this stuff in books, but we get to see it on the ground and talk to the people affected," said
Boos said she was really surprised at how hard it was for West Virginians to get responses from officials when they reported polluted waters or dirty well sites.
She believes that is the most valuable lesson her group can take home, as
"How can we do it in the best possible way, to at least ensure that the regulations we have in place are followed?" she asked.
'CAMERAS AND KEYBOARDS'
The volunteers in both groups ask for donations to cover their expenses as they drive visitors to well sites and up winding roads to see buried pipelines. Pitcock says they don't have millions to spend on ads, as the industry does in touting the safety of fracking, telling viewers that chemicals used in the process are as harmless as what is in your favorite ice cream.
"For concerned citizens, our only tools are cameras and keyboards," Pitcock said.
Both groups have websites filled with photo galleries of well fires and overturned dump trucks, streams damaged by gas companies and roads pulverized by trucks.
Volunteers invest hours, patrolling well sites and watching companies.
"The citizens of the area have to be the eyes and the ears of the state," Wade said, adding the
The extra revenue has helped the office double its enforcement and permitting staff since 2011, Aluise said. The office has 48 positions, including 30 inspectors, with 27 based in the field.
The office maintains records on more than 55,000 active and 12,000 inactive wells. Companies started drilling for gas and oil in the early 1800s and have dug into the ground ever since for both, as well as for coal.
DISAPPEAR AND RETIRE
Pitcock hadn't planned to be an activist, researcher or hostess to groups such as Wild Virginia, whose members camped out in sleeping bags in her yard.
Pitcock and her husband, John, took early retirement in 2005; she has a background in adult education and he worked for
With their two sons, the Pitcocks wanted to get away from the hubbub of
"I wanted to be a private person and disappear into a hollow and retire,"
They settled in a log cabin in
Things were as they dreamed until 21/2 years ago, when the neighbor on the next mountain leased the land to drillers.
The ridge that used to be covered with trees was leveled for a well pad, and the Pitcocks have four gas rigs around them. Forests have been replaced with roads; the hoot of owls with the screech of truck brakes.
Instead of seeing a thousand stars at night, the Pitcocks said the glare from stadium lights, set up so drillers can work around the clock, is bright enough to read a book on their porch.
It's one of four types of pollution--air, water, noise and light--that Wade claims drilling brings.
"Doesn't everybody like to step out on the porch and view the stars?" he asked. "When they light up the plants, don't you think they illuminate the sky?"
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
The Pitcocks got their view of the stars again in recent months, but because of a terrible reason. Five workers were burned in a July explosion on the site across from their home. Two men later died, and operations ceased for a while.
Often, at county meetings where she voices concerns about the impact of drilling, she is surrounded by others who were born elsewhere. When people call her an outsider, she reminds them she's trying to save everyone from "the toxins."
It's tough for neighbors to connect, either in person or online, said
The Internet is not widespread "here yet, and there's not a lot of town hall meetings," he said.
That is why
"We're never going to get back what we paid for this house," she said, "so I'm not going to go quietly into the night."
LACK OF COVERAGE
Insurance companies won't cover damage from fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the process that injects high volumes of water, chemicals and sand into the ground to release trapped gas.
But, he said, it's not just because fracking is involved. He said that standard policies cover specific calamities, such as fire, lightning, thunderstorms, ice and hail.
"There's really no distinction here between fracking or any other, say, mining, operation here," Hartwig said. "This sort of thing is not covered by the policy and it never was."
FRACKING FOOTPRINT IS BIGGER
Gas industry officials say that horizontal drilling has been a game changer because the technique, which allows drills to go down, then sideways, releases more gas.
And more gas means more infrastructure needed to process, treat and separate the gas and carry it to market.
"It's a bigger footprint, but it's no different a footprint than we always had," said
Some West Virginians, whose ancestors have lived with drilling since the days machines were operated by horses, disagree.
After drilling is done, two items are left: a small pumpjack--a mechanical device that looks so much like a steel rocking horse that Texans call it a "nodding donkey"--and a tank beside it.
"That's as much of a footprint as conventional wells left," Hughes said.
Wade has a conventional well on his property.
The men and others interviewed during a recent trip to
In addition, freshwater ponds or tanks are needed to hold water that is sent down the wells and trucks have to haul in diesel fuel, chemicals and sand and carry off the fracking waste.
Plus, the well pads for natural gas are bigger because, with horizontal drilling, they can cover a broader area.
Back in the day, conventional wells needed about 40 acres to operate, said
What's more, the footprint lingers longer.
"One of the problems is West Virginians don't realize how long this is going to affect their property," said
Burd, the industry official, agreed that the current wells that drill into the
But, he pointed out, the gas companies didn't just plop the stations, pipelines and well rigs without compensating those who own the surface land or the mineral rights under it.
"Keep in mind, with every one of these facilities, someone has benefited" financially, Burd said.
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