This morning, in New Paltz, I hear again the sweet pure song of the white-throated sparrow. “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody” is one attempt to capture the song’s melody in words, though you must hear it for yourself, preferably on a calm spring morning, to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of this bird’s voice, and its soothing quality. I’m afraid that the rest of what I have to say in this column departs from its usual tone and content, but I hope that the reader will bear with me in this instance.
Just yesterday I had a taste of what spring looks and sounds like just a few hours’ drive west, and south of here, in northern Pennsylvania. I had joined a few dozen other citizens of the Hudson Valley, mostly from New Paltz, including a number of SUNY students and professors, on a bus tour of Montrose, Franklin Township and Dimock, Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware River from Binghamton. This region is currently “ground zero” in Pennsylvania for the intensive natural gas mining practice known as hydraulic fracturing, aka “hydro-fracking,” or just fracking for short. The purpose of the bus tour was to let us see for ourselves how fracking changes landscapes and communities.
We did not witness the first step in fracking, which is the drilling of vertical wells into the gas-bearing shale beds, although we did see the towers of well rigs looming from ridges in the distance. We also saw, often in shocking proximity to houses where families were still living, and in stark contrast to the rolling, pastoral landscape of woods, cornfields and pastures, what can only be described as industrial sites. At each of these sites, several acres were flattened, stripped of all vegetation, all of their topsoil washed away. On each were seen several wellheads and as many brine tanks (to hold the toxic fracking fluid which is to be pumped into the wells, and forced into horizontal fractures to release the gas from the shale), and two square steel “production units.” Such is the new, industrial landscape created by gas production here. At one site, in its last (fifth) year of development, sections of pipeline were being lowered into a deep trench in a hillside by a crane, maybe 50 feet from a farmhouse. In other places we saw the hundred foot wide swaths cleared through forests for the larger pipelines, looking like new ski trails running down the hills, pale green with new grass sprouting from their recently graded and seeded fill. Finally, we stopped along a country road to listen to the heavy drone of a compressor station, heard day and night throughout the surrounding countryside. And always, wherever we went, there were big, heavy trucks rumbling down the narrow country roads, often a series of tank trucks carrying waste fracking fluid, or trucks loaded with sand for use in fracking, forming a kind of industrial caravan.
I thought how similar in some ways this region is to ours, and yet how stark the difference between them is. One way to think about this critical difference is to list some of the things that have been added to, and subtracted from, the lives of people, animals, and plants since the establishment of the hydraulic fracturing industry in Pennsylvania. Here is a modest attempt at such a listing:
ADD: Jobs (some, most short-term, many to migrants from states like Oklahoma, Louisiana).
SUBTRACT: Any possibility of revitalizing the traditional mainstays of rural economies: agriculture and tourism.
ADD: (To the earth) Fluid containing toxins like benzene and toluene, injected under pressure into wells.
SUBTRACT: (From local streams) Millions of gallons of fresh water, and very likely stream insects like mayfly nymphs and the trout which feed upon them, as water levels drop.
ADD: (To local roads) Constant truck traffic, damaging road surfaces and filling the air with noise, dust and fumes.
SUBTRACT: Any chance of enjoying a stroll down what was once a quiet country road.
ADD: Noise, night and day, from droning compressors, clanging drilling rigs, roaring gas flares.
SUBTRACT: The aforementioned song of the white-throated sparrow (Too noisy to hear it). Other songs, like those of the hermit and wood thrush, will also likely be silenced as these and other songbirds are driven from their breeding grounds, unable to hear each other’s songs, so crucial to courtship and the establishment of territory.
SUBTRACT: Bats, who can’t find their food by echolocation amid all the background noise.
ADD: Many mosquitoes and other flying insects, without bats to control their populations.
SUBTRACT: Pollinating insects and hummingbirds, disturbed and possibly driven off by noise pollution and some of the wildflowers that depend on these pollinators.
Of course, this is only a list of possible outcomes from fracking, and a partial one at that. It leaves out many of the most serious hazards associated with the practice, such as pollution of ground and surface water from the inevitable leaks and spills. I avoided this topic because it is already receiving much attention from those concerned about the effects of fracking, and rightly so. I wanted instead to take a look at how life in a place such as the Hudson Valley might be affected when fracking works the way it’s supposed to. My little exercise in fracking arithmetic on a relatively tranquil spring morning here in New Paltz, has convinced me that we don’t want to see the results of this bitter calculus working itself out in our region. If we don’t want it in our backyard, we should fight hard to keep fracking out of others’ backyards, at least in our own state. Should we join the growing resistance to hydraulic fracturing in New York? For the sake of our children’s health and well being, and for the sake of the precious and irreplaceable ecosystems that delight us every day, and also support our lives? From what I’ve seen lately, the answers to these questions seem obvious. As the saying goes, just do the math!
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.