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Fracking Panel Schedules Follow-ups to Contentious Hearing

For Immediate Release: 
Monday, June 20, 2011

By Leeann Brown, Shannon Morgan and Alex Rindler

Following up on last week’s contentious hearing in Washington, Pa., the U.S. Energy department has scheduled two all-day sessions for Tuesday, June 28, and Wednesday, July 13, to listen to people concerned about controversial hydraulic fracturing operations in shale gas fields.

The department’s advisory panel, chaired by John Deutch, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, seemed caught off guard by the intense debate that forced last Monday’s field hearing to expand from two to more than four hours.

Banner-wielding “fractivists” opposed to shale gas development and industry supporters, some them with expenses funded by the industry group Energy in Depth, shouted at and over each other as policemen stood guard.

Well before the doors of the Washington and Jefferson College auditorium opened, tempers flared when conference organizers told the crowd that the list  of people who would be permitted to address the panel was already filled, mostly with fracking supporters. That decision was later reversed, more audience members were allowed to speak and the hearing, originally scheduled to run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., lasted past 11 p.m.

The building’s front steps became a second a podium from which fractivists told their stories and voiced their fears and frustrations. One man claimed that a gas drilling company had poisoned his water. “Prove it!” shouted a self-identified drilling supporter and gas worker. The pair and their adherents fell into a heated exchange

Inside the 400-seat auditorium, the standing-room-only crowd bordered on chaos as people rose to fight for their livelihoods, their land and their water. Fractivists chanted  “Our water, our land” and “Save Pennsylvania, end fracking now,” to be met with a loud chorus of boos. At one point, a bearded man took to the stage and waved a large American flag to protest fracking.

When Deutch and other panel members introduced themselves, members of the crowd began to shout at them to disclose their financial ties to the natural gas industry. Only one, Kathleen McGinty of Weston Solutions, obliged.

Some audience members gave first-hand accounts of the toll fracking has taken on their lives. One woman claimed her 70-acre farm was contaminated by gas drilling and said her family now has to buy bottled water. She held up respirators her children wear because their air has been polluted by nearby flaring emissions.

Other speakers detailed mysterious deaths of pets and animals in areas near active well sites or condemned hydraulic fracturing as an unregulated and dangerous practice. Some called out the panel members for their conflicts of interests.

Supporters of fracking described the economic benefits of natural gas development and its implications for energy independence. A number recounted how they were forced to leave their hometowns for lack of work but returned when drilling created jobs.

A few people said they had leased out their land but now regretted that decision because their property values had plummeted and they were spending large sums for medical care. In the end, they said, they had lost more money than they gained. A mother tearfully recalled moving her children to a relative’s home after they fell ill from what she believed to be drilling-related pollution.

Both camps, eager to square off in a public forum, mobilized an impressive show of force. Through it all, the panel members sat stoically, their stony expressions seeming out of place and out of touch.  

The scene in that auditorium-turned-battleground is likely to be repeated at the upcoming panel hearings and at public meetings across the country. As one man, who said his family farm has tested positive for drilling contaminants, put it, hydraulic fracturing “has left us as fractured as the rock beneath our feet.” 

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