I live just outside of Binghamton, NY, an area once home to the largest shoe manufacturer in America, a bleeding-edge technology innovator, and what between the two of them was probably the highest-paid, best treated workforce in the world. Our neighboring towns and cities produced much of the glass consumed globally (Corning), the computers behind the Apollo mission and the Space Shuttle (Owego), film and optical equipment (Rochester), silverware (Onieda), china (Syracuse), cutlery (Camillus, Olean), and guns (Ithaca). All of that has changed today, with most of these employers having long since disappeared from our tax rolls. Those of us who still call the Southern Tier home now have to deal with the aftereffects of our prosperous past: carcinogens from industrial accidents and old industrial dump sites, a sprawling and underfunded municipal infrastructure, a declining and aging population, an increase in recreational drug use, and a population living closer to the poverty line than ever before.
Oh, and we're sitting on top of the largest volume of recoverable natural gas resource in the United States.
The coming of the natural gas industry means different things to different people. To our retired white-collar population, it brings the potential for supplemental income. To our local farmers (all of whom are small family farms, as is the case for much of New York State's agriculture), the promise of extra income to help keep their farms running. And to the layman, a vision of times long gone: an economically prosperous community, with more than enough jobs to go around. Even though it has not yet reached our borders, the natural gas industry the Southern Tier is open for business: selling hope. But what kind of impact would large scale fracking operations have on our communities? What kind of economic and infrastructural damage could it bring, and would the promised jobs bring in enough income to offset it? What hazards will working with the chemicals used in fracking expose to our citizenry, and how will even the perception of more prosperity affect the cost we pay for goods and services?
To get a glimpse behind what life is like with the natural gas industry, we'll turn to my friend Sally (not her real name). Sally lives a short drive from here, on the other side of the Pennsylvania border. She is a practicing Pagan, a mother, and the wife of a worker in the natural gas industry. With her permission, I'm reprinting her story of what its like to live within the natural gas industry.
We moved here nearly three years ago from Oklahoma, my husband's home state. I myself grew up and my whole family and many friends are in the Finger Lakes. The job he had while in Oklahoma manufactured units for water purification to be used in hydrofracturing operations. It was through this connection that enabled us to move here, to be closer to my side of the family.
The first job my husband had was running the water purification process on frack sites. I was concerned about the dangerous chemicals he handled on a daily basis and how they could affect his health, and whether they could be carried home to us and affect the whole family. He worked with biocides that kill mico-organisms in the water used, as well as friction reducing fluids. Everyone who works on frack sites is required to wear fire resistant (FR) clothing, which creates another source of concern for me. How much of the FR chemical contained in the fabric gets into my husband through his skin? Will this affect my washing machine? Will it leave residues behind that will then contaminate the whole families' clothing? The FR stuff still concerns me.
He now works as a water truck driver. One thing that I think should concern people considering allowing fracking in their communities is the amount of truck traffic and subsequent air pollution this brings. I have a hard time getting my head around how many truckloads of water are required to get one natural gas well operational. Water trucks are heavy, their loads are not stable, and this makes them very dangerous to drive. We have heard of at least a handful of serious traffic accidents involving water trucks, some resulting in fatalities. Heavy vehicles like that are also very hard on roads, driving ruts into the lanes and generally accelerating the breakdown of the pavement, opening up potholes. One good thing I can say for at least some of the gas companies, is that they have repaired at least some of the roads they use, and in a timely fashion. I have lived in four states, and Pennsylvania's roads are the worst I have observed. I'm not sure if that can purely be attributed to gas, but I don't see the state making the repairs.
My husband often gets assigned to be the "site suck truck" more than he transports water. This means that he is responsible for vacuuming up water from the containment on the gas pad. In addition to the chemicals he worked with when he did the water purification job, he can be exposed to any chemical used at any stage of the fracking process. He sometimes gets this oil-based mud on his clothes. That stuff will ruin a washing machine. Even laundromats have signs up forbidding patrons from laundering clothing contaminated with this material. You are left with ruined FR clothing, which is expensive. A pair of FR jeans runs around $100 a pair. A shirt is around $40+. Some companies provide FR clothing (and laundering) for the workers, but my husband has to provide his own. He often gets bullied into performing duties that are the job of frack hands when he works on site. I would think this is a huge liability issue, and yet it happens.
Some other things I've noticed about the impact of fracking is real estate values. Talking with people who are lifelong residents of the area, real estate prices have gone up. Many places up for sale are advertised as "gas and mineral rights do not transfer," along with a hefty price tag. There are so many abandoned properties, empty houses. The house across the road from me has been on the market ever since we moved in, has been offered both for sale and rent. Rent prices have skyrocketed with the assumption that "Gas workers make a lot of money." While I suppose they are making more than the average non-gas worker, that severely limits housing for people who don't work in the gas industry. There are also a fair number of gas industry workers who are making average range pay. The ones who are making a good living work many more hours than a 40 hour week. My husband, for example, works 12 hour days 6 days a week. This amounts to 72 hours a week, almost double the average full timer. This impacts the family the most of all. I think my children exhibit behavior problems as a result of not having enough time with their dad, and I hardly ever get any one on one time with my spouse. These hours are typical for many of the positions within the gas industry, from what I've heard.