The River Twice: A New Documentary Film About Natural Gas Drilling Along the Susquehanna River In The Works
She and her fellow crew are heading up to the New York / Pennsylvania border to begin a float trip down the Susquehanna. Along the way they will interview residents of Bradford County, in the lands of the ongoing natural gas boom, and begin filming a new feature documentary.
The River Twice will be a record of changing times along the Susquehanna River. We invite you to follow along here on the POW blog for the next 5 weeks.
Presented below in its entirety is Cecily’s first blog posting The River Twice: Susquehanna or Bust:
And we’re off!
The drive up to the Endless Mountains was slow, hauling a load like this. Strapped to the back of the little blue pickup truck is a half dozen 55-gallon plastic barrels and some scrap wood, pulled from the alleyways of Philadelphia, that will soon become our floating home for the next five weeks. We’re headed to the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, where we’ll once again put together our junk raft, the Jamcracker, cast off, and see where the river takes us.
Ah, life on the river! Drifting in the June sun, a couple of Huck-Finn-&-Jims: camping on islands, cooking skillet cornbread, waving at the blue herons and fishermen. The stars above, the water below, and just a thin layer of canvas between our heads and the sky…
And (fiddling with our shortwave radio, we hear) severe thunderstorm warnings for our destination, Bradford County, PA. The New York/Pennsylvania border, like many places this spring, has been experiencing some wickedly strange weather. My mom (bless her) called to tell me that a tornado tore down the Connecticut River yesterday. Strange weather, strange times. We’ve been caught in a storm on the river before, so we’ll be keeping a weather-eye open. But in a way, it’s what flows under our barrel pontoons that worries me more.
Bradford County, through which our annual river float winds for much of its course, is at the heart of Pennsylvania’s unconventional natural gas drilling boom. With over a thousand gas wells permitted, many of them along the river and its tributaries, the impacts are already being felt. While some landowners are benefitting financially from leasing to the gas companies, this new method of gas extraction — high-volume slick-water horizontal hydrofracturing, or fracking — has troubling public health and environmental implications.
Each time a well is “fracked,” millions of gallons of water are mixed with tens of thousands of pounds of chemicals and injected under high pressure deep into the earth, to flush methane from the shale. The chemicals used include known carcinogens such as benzene, as well as endocrine disruptors and biocides. When water is recovered from the wells, it’s been found to contain heavy metals and radioactive elements from underground, including arsenic, cadmium and Radium 226. In Pennsylvania, it’s legal to store this “produced” water in shallow, open-air flowback pits dug into the earth, and it has been common practice to bring it to ill-equipped municipal wastewater treatment plants, which eventually release it back into our waterways. Methane migration into drinking-water wells, and global warming and air pollution are also associated with shale gas drilling.
The River Twice – Our chapter in a long, long story
Though this will be our third annual journey on the Susquehanna, this year is different. There’s a sense that this place is changing, and we want to make a record of how. The River Twice is a documentary we’ll be shooting as we float. We want to bear witness to this majestic river and landscape and the stories of the people who live here.
The Susquehanna is a river with a 444-mile-long story to tell. Humans have made our livings by it for millennia, and it has a unique place in the history of American extractive industry. Indigenous and euro-american settlers have hunted and farmed its banks. In the 19th century it bore Penn’s woods — old-growth timber of world-famous quality — to markets for shipbuilding. In the 20th century, it saw some of the largest deposits of anthracite coal on earth taken from its watershed, and it was the Susquehanna River itself that put a stop to deep mining in the Wyoming Valley, when the river burst through the too-thin-wall of a Knox coal mine, killing twelve miners. And in 1979, a little island in the river below Harrisburg, PA, made headlines globally; the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown led to the release of 40,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater directly in the Susquehanna.
And now the shale gas rush is on. What will this new and largely unregulated form of gas drilling mean for this ancient river and the communities that live, drink from and make their livings in its watershed? What stories will be added to —and lost from— its history, and what will history make of our actions?
For the next five weeks, I’m going to float, and watch, and listen.