Sen. Scarnati Turnaround on Shale Gas Drilling in His Home Watershed: “The Bore Hole Will be Abandoned”
Big news. Good news. Remember when Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, the largest fracked gas producer in the U.S., decided to sue the frackers because he didn’t like their activities in his Texas backyard?
At the time, we thought perhaps we should deliver some pizza to Rex Tillerson’s legal team to show our support and solidarity. But we were too busy tracking workers’ deaths in the shalefields at the time, so we never got around to it.
Now in a similarly contradictory move, Pennsylvania State Senator Joe Scarnati, Republican from Jefferson County, has announced — proudly — on his own website, on August 11th, 2014, that the watershed in his own backyard will be protected from water contamination from fracking:
Flatirons Development, LLC, has agreed to discontinue Marcellus drilling operations of the Brandon-Day well which is located upstream of the Brockway Borough Municipal Authority Rattlesnake Reservoir. The existing bore hole will be abandoned, sealed and reclaimed to eliminate the possibility of watershed contamination.
This is a huge turnaround for a Pennsylvania state senator who has denied the possibility of water pollution from drilling and fracking for the past five years, frustrating the bejesus out of his constituents. Scarnati, the PA Senate’s President Pro Tempore, is a powerful and controversial figure.
Sen. Joe Scarnati actually authored the highly anti-democratic Act 13 — the law that imposed a gag order on physicians and which, if not overturned, would have stripped municipal rights from towns all across Pennsylvania, preventing them from protectively zoning or regulating any aspect of shale gas operations. That includes well pad construction, drilling, and fracking right through compressor stations, waste impoundments, and pipelines.
It’s not as if Sen. Scarnati’s turnaround means he will become an approachable, community-oriented advocate for clean air and clean water. He shows no particular sign of caring about fracking-impacted communities beyond his back yard. In fact, he was furious when Act 13’s municipal rights-stripping clause was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Jenny Lisak of Pennsylvanians for Clean Water and Air (PACWA) reports:
Several of us in his district happened to have a meeting with him right after the Supreme Court announced their decision, and he was angry.
Nonetheless, Senator Scarnati’s public statement this Monday, “Statement on Flatirons Ending Marcellus Drilling Operations at Brandon-Day Well,” expresses only pride and self-satisfaction at his contribution to convincing a fracking company, Flatirons, based in Commerce, Colorado, not to drill the Marcellus Shale well that impacts the watershed Scarnati draws from at his home and at his office:
“This recent decision by Flatirons Development to stop plans for drilling at the Brandon-Day well is a good and responsible decision for our community. Earlier this year after taking part in numerous discussions and meetings regarding this well, I reached out to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to express serious reservations with permitting any further drilling at the proposed site or any nearby site which could potentially compromise the reservoir.
“Toby Creek Watershed Association President Bill Sabatose and members of the Toby Creek Watershed have done an outstanding job monitoring the process surrounding this well and working to make sure the watershed remains clean. This decision is a strong testament to the successful teamwork of area residents, local leaders, DEP and Flatirons to do what is in the best interest of our community to ensure public safety and protect our natural resources.”
Anatomy of a Victory
Senator Scarnati has traditionally been so hard for his constituents to reach that even on the other side of the big, 67-county state of Pennsylvania, I’ve heard the breadth and depth of frustration experienced by those who steadily worked at educating him about high-volume slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing in deep shale, and its impacts on water, air, health, climate and communities. He seemed like Teflon. A wall. A fortress of denial. A loyal servant to the fracking industry. So, how did this turnaround come about?
Clearly the work of Toby Creek Watershed Association President Bill Sabatose, whom Scarnati himself credits for sounding the alarm about Marcellus Shale fracking in the Brockway watershed, is critical. But a victory on this scale is never the work of just one person or organization. We notice three elements contributing to the turnaround.
First of all, turnout. Repeatedly, no matter the weather, no matter the frustration level, no matter the perceived hopelessness or powerlessness, people — ordinary people, smart people, dedicated and informed people — turned out to public hearings about Flatiron and the Brockway Watershed. As the Punxsatawney Spirit reported on February 24th, 2012, in “Brockway Residents Question Flatirons’ Proposal:
BROCKWAY — Wednesday night, more than 150 people attended a public hearing to voice their concerns about a gas company’s proposal to drill in Brockway borough.
Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-25), state Rep. Sam Smith (R-66) and state Rep. Matt Gabler (R-78), called the meeting to give Brockway residents the opportunity to get answers from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Flatirons Resources, the company whose proposal has caused dissatisfaction for local residents.
Turnout continued to build. Residents in at least four counties within Scarnati’s district protested at two of his offices in July 2013, as part of a statewide call for a fracking moratorium:
One Senator received protesters from four counties at two different locations simultaneously. Senator Scarnati, who has accepted cash and gifts from the gas industry and ignored his own constituents harmed by gas drilling, was besieged by a rally in western Pennsylvania in Jefferson County, generating television coverage here: “Protesters Take to Senator’s Offices.” Scarnati staff also met simultaneously with moratorium advocates in Wellsboro, Tioga County, at a meeting organized by Protecting Our Waters. From Channel 10:
BROCKWAY, JEFFERSON COUNTY – About 30 people protesting fracking met outside of Senator Joe Scarnati’s office in Brockway. The protesters were from across Clearfield, Jefferson and Elk Counties.
“We came out to try to tell Joe Scarnati that we would like him to enact a moratorium on fracking for many, many good reasons, primarily for the protection of our air, water and land” said protester Mike Kamandulis.
Second of all, education: hard-hitting, specific, science-based, repetitive. Here, Jenny Lisak is among several voices commenting on the long-term process:
There may be good reason to keep sharing information and educating, even though most times we feel quite inefficient and unsuccessful in this fight.
I often send Scarnati the same information I am compulsive about sharing on our local listserve, prefacing with ‘I’m not sure you are seeing the same information as I am but as a constituent I am seriously concerned about …’
I have also sent him the “List of the Harmed.” I think we should all share the news we are so appalled by with our legislators. I suspect they don’t see the news we see.
Sabatose, who is on the Fish and Boat Commission, sees and hears a lot of the drilling-related impacts. Sabatose also owns Brockway Analytical, [which] does water testing for nearby communities and industry.
BACWA (Brockway Area Clean Water Alliance), whose members belong to Brockway’s municipal water authority (as well as others), have been very active in educating Brockway citizens about the risk and impacts to their water supply. Some of them are on our local listserve. Our group (PACWA) helped BACWA have a showing of Gasland 1 at the firehouse in Brockway a few years ago and a few months ago we showed Gasland 2 in Brockway with the help of Doug and Briget Shields and Elk County CARES (Scarnati did not attend either event).
Scarnati is also hearing from others in his district who are coming to him with their issues about traffic, fumes, noise, property rights, seismic testing, water contamination, injection wells, etc. Two injection wells (one in Elk, one in Clearfield County) in his district are being fought by his constituents.
Could Scarnati have watched the expose Triple Divide and learned of the contamination in Potter County, which is in his district? The infamous blowout and subsequent water contamination in Moshannon State Forest, Clearfield County, was in his district. So are the methane migration problems in Tioga County; the high levels of aluminum found in a local water source which began bubbling, foaming and drying into pure white flakes in Elk County; the extensive water contamination problems in McKean county; the road destruction in all of his district; the illegal dumping of flowback on township roads in Jefferson County, and on and on.
Local residents held at least one demonstration outside Senator Scarnati’s home office in the fall of 2013, with several organizations participating, demanding that Scarnati protect water and air from shale gas fracking operations.
Sandra Folzer, PhD, is among those who have made sure to visit Senator Scarnati at some of his other offices, not just his home office in Brockway. Folzer, a homeowner in heavily fracked Tioga County and recently retired from teaching at Community College of Philadelphia, plans to praise Scarnati directly for protecting Brockway’s Rattlesnake Reservoir from fracking:
I have been to Scarnati’s office in Wellsboro several times in past to protest fracking. I shall call, and possibly visit, to tell him of my support for this action.
If the folks in Scarnati’s district had given up or given in, history might be different and that well bore might not be being abandoned and sealed as you read this. But folks didn’t give up and didn’t give in. Folks kept their assertive attitude, individually and collectively. Jenny Lisak, also a Protecting Our Waters Board member, again:
The more you think about it, how is it possible that Scarnati could come to any conclusion other than that this is a very dangerous and destructive industry? He should be protecting the water supplies for all of us. Will he do the right thing and protect us all?
I can’t take any credit for his announcement except as part of a larger community of concerned citizens but I’d like to think the chipping away by all of us voicing our concerns is having the positive outcomes we’re striving for!
Stephen Cleghorn, PhD, a sociologist, farmer, writer, and longtime fracking opponent who also lives in Scarnati’s district, has also let Scarnati know his views, in person, in public meetings, and by email. Twitter adds another element of condensed communication potential: Cleghorn reports,
I tweeted as soon as I saw Scarnati’s announcement from his website:@senatorscarnati Good decision, Joe. Thank you. Now please extend same protection to all Pennsylvanians.
There’s more to this story, of course, but that’ all for now. Add in your comments if you like, below. And the next time you find yourself tempted to contemplate what appears to be your own powerlessness or despair in the face of extreme energy extraction corporations, remember this victory and pour yourself a cup of old-fashioned TEA: Turnout, Education, Attitude.