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Fracking Cases in Pennsylvania Expose the Human Cost of Drilling

Energy

The environmental costs of fracking, from earthquakes to an alarming rise in methane emissions, has been well reported. The human cost of fracking, however, is not heard often enough. In Pennsylvania, two recent cases in Susquehanna County have put the controversial drilling process at the forefront.

As jury selection kicks off in the notorious fracking water contamination case in Dimock against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp, a family of maple syrup farmers in the same northwestern county will potentially lose their trees, and thus their livelihood, to make way for the company's latest fracking pipeline project, the 124-mile Constitution Pipeline.

The federal lawsuit—Scott Ely, et al. v Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation et al.—involves two couples, Scott Ely and Monica Marta-Ely, and Ray and Victoria Hubert, who claim that Cabot Oil & Gas Corp contaminated their water supply during fracking operations near their homes.

Residents in the small village reported health problems with their coffee-colored water, such as rashes, nausea, headaches and dizziness.

"We haven't had clean water since he was in kindergarten," Marta-Ely, pointing to her 13-year-old son Jared at a news conference during a break in jury selection, Reuters reported.

The Dimock case dates back to 2009 when 44 plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against the company. In the five years since initiating litigation, the Elys and Huberts are the only plaintiffs remaining on the case as the vast majority have settled with the company.

Dimock, Pennsylvania, aka the ground zero of fracking contamination in the east coast, was the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland that infamously featured the town's flaming faucets due to its alarming concentrations of methane.

Pointing to court documents, Reuters reported that the trial "will bring light to a state law that assumes that a gas driller is responsible for water well contamination within 1,000 feet of a drilling site that develops within six months of drilling."

According to NPR's StateImpact, Cabot has already accumulated more than 130 drilling violations at its Dimock wells, yet insists that methane migration in Dimock's water is naturally occurring. The company is currently banned from drilling in a 9-mile area of Dimock but is trying to lift the ban, StateImpact noted.

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"The evidence will show that Cabot met or exceeded the applicable standards of care in the drilling and completion of the ... wells," according to court documents seen by Reuters. "Cabot will present evidence that the plaintiff's water is potable."

During the fracking process, massive quantities of water, sand and toxic chemicals are shot into shale formations to release natural gas.

The White House boasts that the boom in "cheap" natural gas has put the country's dependence on foreign oil at a 40-year low and Marcellus Shale that runs beneath most of Pennsylvania is a "key target" for Big Oil and Gas and accounts for nearly 40 percent of U.S. shale gas production.

Roughly 6,000 fracking wells dot Pennsylvania's map and have significantly altered its landscape. Photo credit:
NRDC

Meanwhile, maple syrup farmers in the Susquehanna county will have their maple grove seized due to the construction of the Constitution Pipeline, RT reported.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave notice on Jan. 29 to proceed with tree cutting on the Pennsylvania portion of the pipeline.

RT noted that Cabot Oil is one of the partners of the $875 million pipeline that will take natural gas from Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale to New York. The other joint parter is the energy company Williams.

The Holleran family, which has been at the center of this fight, has had their property seized via eminent domain, with neither landowner permission nor previous compensation, their Facebook page says.

According to RT, about 200 maple trees will be cut, or 80 percent of the maple trees on the property.

"The last couple of days, and especially this morning have been emotionally crazy. This is a hard time for my family, and it's taking us a bit to work things out," family spokesperson Megan Holleran wrote on Facebook after FERC's decision.

Construction of the pipeline is currently stalled, as environmental groups and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have successfully blocked the New York portion of the pipe.

However, as lawyer Mike Ewall of Energy Justice Network said, “Constitution Pipeline Company is threatening this family’s livelihood for a pipeline that may never be built. They still don’t have FERC’s permission to construct, yet they bully and intimidate landowners while offering paltry compensation for taking their land.”

Watch the video below to learn more about the case.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."