April 07--DODDRIDGE COUNTY, W.Va.--Diane Pitcock is so passionate about showing others the way fracking changed her rural community that she opens her home to strangers.
She leads West Virginia Host Farms, a grass-roots group with volunteers in 14 counties.
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."
Pitcock, in Doddridge County, and the Wetzel County Action Group to the north have hosted several hundred visitors from Mid-Atlantic states in recent years.
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 Marcellus Shale, a massive underground formation that includes West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
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 Fredericksburg. A Texas company has leased more than 84,000 acres in five counties and hopes to begin drilling for natural gas by the end of this year or mid-2015.
Because what's happening in West Virginia could occur in this region, The Free Lance-Star talked with Pitcock about her experiences.
Visitors with West Virginia Host Farms tend to stay up to a week as they set up equipment to monitor air pollution or noise levels.
One woman is studying the impact on songbirds.
Researchers from Duke University are examining water quality, before and during drilling. Officials did baseline water samples at 60 homes in Doddridge County for free, testing for every possible chemical the drillers might use.
The tests normally cost about $1,500 and are vital when landowners contend that drilling has polluted their water, Pitcock said.
Wild Virginia, based in Charlottesville, aims to protect native trees, plants and animals in state forests. It brought a group of researchers to West Virginia last year and returned to Pitcock's home with a group this past weekend.
"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 Misty Boos, the group's managing and development director. "It's so much more powerful coming from an individual."
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 Virginia agencies say they have more stringent regulations about drilling near homes and water.
"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.
Bill Hughes and Ed Wade Jr. of the Wetzel County Action Group are armed with both. Their photos are imprinted with the GPS location as well as the time and date.
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 West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality doesn't have enough inspectors.
The department's Office of Oil and Gas doesn't agree. In 2011, the legislature voted to increase "permit fees for operators rushing to tap into the Marcellus Shale," said Thomas Aluise, a DEP spokesman.
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 Verizon.
With their two sons, the Pitcocks wanted to get away from the hubbub of Baltimore County, Md.
"I wanted to be a private person and disappear into a hollow and retire," Diane Pitcock said.
They settled in a log cabin in Doddridge County before Christmas 2005. She planned her organic garden; he sat on the front porch and shot at targets. Sometimes they slept under the stars.
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.
Diane Pitcock's activity hasn't.
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 Kyle Nuttall, a lawyer in Buckhannon, south of Morgantown.
The Internet is not widespread "here yet, and there's not a lot of town hall meetings," he said.
That is why Diane Pitcock will pursue her new cause for as long as she can. She will never get the retirement she wanted, and she doesn't want others to suffer the same fate.
"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."
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
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.
In July 2012, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. was the first major company to say it wouldn't cover damage caused by the process. Nationwide researched the issue for months and found "the exposures presented by hydraulic fracturing are too great to ignore," according to a press release.
The Insurance Information Institute gave a slightly different twist on the matter. Robert Hartwig, the president, confirmed that standard homeowner and commercial property policies won't cover the cost if the ground shifts at a fracking site and breaks the foundation of a nearby home, or if the chemicals taint a drinking water well.
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 Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia.
Some West Virginians, whose ancestors have lived with drilling since the days machines were operated by horses, disagree.
Bill Hughes and Ed Wade Jr., who make up the Wetzel County Action Group, pointed to dozens of conventional wells during a seven-hour tour of their area.
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. Diane Pitcock, who runs the West Virginia Host Farms activist group, hoped to get a conventional well on her property so she'd have natural gas to heat her home.
The men and others interviewed during a recent trip to West Virginia said they were shocked by all the infrastructure that comes with horizontal drilling. Because the wells produce different types of gases--such as methane, used to power home appliances, or ethane, a waste byproduct that's eventually turned into plastic bags--more systems are needed to separate and process the gases.
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 Bill Patterson, a native West Virginian who currently lives north of Atlanta. Current wells require about 640 acres because horizontal drilling allows them to cover a large range, Patterson 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 Kyle Nuttall, a lawyer in Buckhannon, south of Morgantown. "They're wheeling and dealing for the next 10 years" when estimates suggest the Marcellus Shale will be mined for at least 30 years.
Burd, the industry official, agreed that the current wells that drill into the Marcellus Shale are bigger "and much more prolific."
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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