Monday, February 6, 2012

Grade school civic project takes on Dimock controversy Shohola pupils collect clean water as EPA continues probe

Elementary school pupils, apparently ignoring a message delivered by the Dimock Town Board, held a water drive for residents at the center of the nation’s hydraulic fracturing controversy last week.

Deliveries from Shohola Elementary School are expected to arrive on Carter Road this week after “little hands on a big mission,” as PaHome Page reporter Eric Deabill characterized them, staged plastic water jugs on school tables in a class room adorned with bright blue water drops cut out from construction paper. The water represents sympathy of people in Pike County to the plight of residents living in the Carter Road area of Dimock in Susquehanna County, where an analysis by the EPA has raised health concerns about the water. Officials have indentified nearby drilling operations by Cabot Oil & Gas as a suspect cause of arsenic, bar­ium and other hazardous sub­stances in wells that supply four homes. The federal agency determined the chemicals pose a chronic health risk and began investigating 60 others water supplies. In December, 2010, more than a year before the EPA finding, 15 families filed a suit against Cabot for damages related to pollution. Cabot denies that its operations have affected water supplies.

A contractor for EPA delivers water to a Carter Rd. home
The EPA assessment has become emblematic of the national debate on the safety of hydraulic fracturing. Shohola Principal Peg Schaffer told Deabill the school is not taking sides; the effort was "just about reaching out, one community to another, helping them out and it teaches our children that they have to be civic minded right from elementary school." In addition to schooling in community involvement, the students could be getting an education in politics. Not everybody is sympathetic to the Carter Road residents, and one former relief effort degenerated into a political free for all when it was met with open hostility by those who cast Dimock residents as malcontents trying to leverage public opinion against Cabot.  In a meeting attended by 150 people at the Dimock Township municipal building December 5, Matthew Ryan, mayor of Binghamton, New York, was shouted down as he tried to convince Dimock Township supervisors to allow his city, just north of the Pennsylvania border, to provide mutual aide to Dimock residents – a status typically used for relief efforts for natural disasters. Ryan warned the town could be opening itself to a lawsuit in denying water for the people. Not everybody was against Ryan’s offer, but the meeting was dominated by those who were animate that other governments butt out of their town’s affairs.  "Why should we haul them water? They got themselves into this," Supervisor Matthew Neenan yelled at Ryan. "You keep your nose in Binghamton, I'll give you that advice. We'll worry about Dimock Township." The Ryan antagonists included a group called Enough Already -- a pro-drilling grass roots organization with allegiances to Cabot. Enough Already and Cabot also successfully opposed a plan by the state Department of Environmental Protection that would force Cabot to build an $11 million water pipeline from Montrose to provide freshwater to affected homes.

Dimock has become the archetype of the jurisdictional conflicts among local, state and federal government, and grass roots battles dividing communities in New York and Pennsylvania, and the water relief effort by Shohola Elementary School students is just one of many story lines. City governments throughout New York and Pennsylvania, including Binghamton, Syracuse, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, have passed ordinance to limit or ban hydraulic fracturing. Local ordinances to regulate the industry, known as “home rule,” are being challenged by drilling proponents, who claims only the state has regulatory jurisdiction. Private trade groups are also taking sides.  While Enough Already represents businesses in Susquehanna County that support the industry, a group of New York restaurateurs, called Chef’s for Marcellus, say waste from hydraulic fracturing threatens produce from suppliers  of ingredients for New York’s culinary industry.

As more and more people living over the Marcellus and Utica shales realize they have a direct stake in their development, these kinds of battles will to continue to spread across more fronts.

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