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Headley Family’s Nightmare with Gas Drillers Profiled in New York Times

June 29, 2012

Drilling blowouts, a flaming spring, leaky gas wells, a polluted creek, and a dog rescued from a sludge pond, with health impacts lasting six months for the dog’s rescuer, Linda Headley:  New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman reports on the Headley family’s nightmare experience with fracking in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Residents of this heavily impacted county say it’s “ludicrous” to refer to over-regulation of gas drillers when, from their perspective, the opposite is true:

At the ground level of that [energy] revolution Mr. Headley, a 53-year-old former body shop owner and unemployed bus driver, does not see any regulations at all.

For three years, he and his wife, Linda, have wrestled with the land men, natural gas drillers and pipeline builders who are turning this very sleepy corner of Western Pennsylvania into an energy boom land. The farm Mr. Headley bought in 2006 for his semiretirement has become something of a nightmare. Gas wells leak. Drilling blowouts have spewed fine, chalky bentonite into trout-stocked Georges Creek, turning it a milky white. A spring where his wife’s three horses once watered now bubbles and belches. Touched with a flame, it will ignite.

The Headleys blame the men who worked on the drilling platform in their front yard for the disappearance of their beagle, Sarah. Linda had to rescue their remaining dog, Banjo, from a sludge pond, leaving her hands cracked and burning for six months.

And last month, a dispute over an $11,000 payment for a pipeline right of way ended with state troopers, guns drawn, pouring out of 10 patrol cars and accusing Mr. Headley of criminal trespassing on his own land. A judge forced the gas company to pay the money — and slapped Mr. Headley with an injunction to keep 50 feet from the pipeline running through his property.

“They’re doing whatever they want, whenever they want to,” he said, shaking his head as he walked by the shale gas well head and separation tanks humming in sight and earshot of his front porch.

Yet, Weisman reports, anti-regulation jingoism still dominates the region’s public political discourse:

“We have these Big Government policies out of D. C. that are turning off the lights,” said Keith Rothfus, a Republican House candidate in a newly drawn Western Pennsylvania district he calls “America’s new energy capital.”

Ordinary residents in southwestern Pennsylvania, strongly disagree:

“It’s the Wild West,” said C. J. Callahan, a 29-year-old banker in Point Marion, grabbing dinner with his wife and newborn baby at Apple Annie’s, just down the road from the Headleys. “There aren’t regulations. It’s just, get it out as quick as you can, because they’re going to do the regulations down the road.”

Weisman, the New York Times reporter on the beat who dug down deep enough to post this otherwise excellent story, does not appear to have done his homework enough to discover just how many southwestern PA residents have been profoundly “unlucky” in relation to gas drilling impacts. As Weisman puts it,

The fortunes to be made have salved the headaches and heartaches in this stretch of Gasland. The Headleys are the unlucky ones. The wells on their property are spinning off an estimated $20,000 a month in royalties — not for them, but for the New Jersey man who sold them the property, but kept the gas rights.

But many other families have been harmed so badly, in terms of their health, well-being and economic survival, that they may not be “made whole” again. In Washington County, Stacey Haney, her neighbor Beth Voyles, and their families and animals suffered the death of 21 animals, including dogs, horses, goats, and stillborn puppies, as a result of nearby gas drilling, particularly a frack waste impoundment less than 1000 feet from her home. Frackcheck reports:

Stacey and her children also became sick. Her son was twice hospitalized with stomach (liver and kidney) pain, nausea, fatigue and mouth ulcers, forcing him to remain out of school for a year and a half. Stacey and her daughter experienced similar symptoms… The water smelled bad, Stacey said, and later, after the family started using bottled water, their symptoms receded.  After being contacted by Stacey, the PADEP found ethylene glycol and arsenic in water samples.

The New York Times published an in-depth article, “The Fracturing of Pennsylvania” (November 2011) which also detailed the deaths of animals and the sickness experienced by Stacey Haney and her two children, who have since been silenced by a gag order. But Weisman implies the Headleys are the only unlucky ones in southwestern Pennsylvania. This leaves out other horrific gas drilling impacts: the deaths of Terry Greenwood’s cow and calves; the destruction of Ron Gulla’s farm; Darrell Smitsky’s dead goats, contaminated water, and rashes; and the skin lesions, headaches, and “overwhelming chemical smell” experienced by residents of Rae, also in Washington County, PA. The troubles in Rae, as reported by StateImpact this past April, “A Link Between Heavy Drilling and Illness?” and the health impacts which turned the Haney family into desperate environmental refugees are especially disturbing and certainly not “salved” by the fortunes made by others in Gasland.

That caveat aside, Weisman’s snapshot of the realities of Marcellus Shale drilling in southwestern PA is vivid. For fracking companies, it’s heaven:

Mr. Headley said the drilling foreman on his property told him he had drilled all over the world but never in a place easier than Pennsylvania: “Ask for what you want and you’ll get it,” he quoted the driller.

The last word? That goes to retired junior high school principal Joe Bezjak, who

called the notion of overregulation “ludicrous.” In fact, he said, the whole region is bought and paid for by the gas men. Last month, police officers handcuffed him at gunpoint after a foreman on his property accused Mr. Bezjak of threatening him in a dispute over the farm’s electric fencing that had been repeatedly torn down by pipeline builders.

“I had a peaceful, loving life,” Mr. Bezjak, 73, said. “Believe me, I haven’t had many enjoyable days since these people have been around.”

Read the full story, “In Western Pennsylvania, An Energy Boom Not Visibly Stifled,” here.

  1. amwar suleiman permalink
    July 2, 2012 4:17 am

    Thank God that the NY Times is reporting on fracking objectively.

    • amwar suleiman permalink
      July 2, 2012 4:20 am

      I am pleased that the NY Times is reporting on how fracking is damaging to human and animal health


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