When drilling in the Marcellus Shale began at the Marburger Dairy Farm in Evans City during the summer, Vince Watson said he had a daily dose of noise and light – and sometimes vibrations – from the drilling.
“The house in front of me is taking on a lot of shuddering and shaking,” he said.
Watson, whose home on Glenwood Drive neighbors the Marburger Dairy Farm property, was one of about half a dozen speakers at a picnic-style gathering following a Saturday protest of drilling at the farm.
Carrying signs, and sometimes chanting, close to 100 people attended the rally near the farm along Mars-Evans City Road. Advocacy group Marcellus Outreach Butler organized the event, which was dubbed October Outrage. Member Kim Eichenlaub said the group is concerned fracking during the drilling will put crops, livestock, and milk at risk of toxic contamination.
“Milk is one of the most vulnerable of food products,” she said.
Fracking is the process used in drilling where millions of gallons of water, mixed with chemicals and sand, are pumped at high pressure thousands of feet underground to create fissures in the rock and release the gas. In a letter he sent to the Marburger family asking them to address the group’s safety concerns, Evans City resident Jason Bell said the fracking process has no place near food.
The group also is concerned fracking will release harmful diesel and methane fumes into the air.
The property is being drilled by XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil. A statement from Marcellus Outreach Butler said XTO had numerous citations by the state Department of Environmental Protection, including failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of residual waste.
What XTO and Marburger Dairy Have to Say
Karen Matusic, spokeswoman for XTO, acknowledged there had been citations, but said some of those stemmed from “paperwork” violations. Other citations have led to changes and adaptations within the industry, she said.
She noted XTO places a heavy emphasis on safety measures and provides rigorous training for all employees. The state also has strict regulations in place for drilling.
“Anything we do is a risk, and we have to do everything we can to mitigate the risks,” she said.
Some of those measures include steel, cement, and gravel casings around well pipes, which Matusic said should make it impossible for frac water to escape into the ground if something should happen. The company also is not creating any frac ponds on the property.
On some drilling sites, frac ponds are used to store the water that is pumped into the ground to fracture the shale below the surface. A storage tank holds the water after it is pumped back out of the ground. The water is then carried away on trucks.
That is not the case with XTO’s drill sites, Matusic said.
“We don’t have fracing ponds on any operation in the state,” she said. “We have a closed loop system.”
After complaints by some neighbors about the noise and the lights from drilling, Matusic said XTO erected sound barriers around the operation, even though they didn’t have to.
“We believe in going above and beyond what’s required,” she said.
Other benefits of Marcellus drilling are an increase of jobs in the area, she said. The workers also have been frequenting local businesses, including Marburger Dairy.
Ron Weber, whose home is located across the street from the well pad, said he is not bothered by noise or light from the drilling. He and fellow neighbor Sharon Hanmeyer said they weren’t worried fracking would affect their water. Nor were they worried about the dairy products at Marburger. Weber pointed out that the majority of Evans City residents use city water and not well water.
“I buy milk there all the time and I buy their iced tea,” Hanmeyer said of shopping at Marburger Dairy. “There’s no problem with it.”
Craig Marburger, vice president of the family-owned dairy farm, said the family closely examined drilling policies and procedures before leasing the property. He added the milk would continue to be carefully tested for quality.
“We just produce a quality product,” he said. “We’ve never had a product recalled.”
Marburger Dairy also takes in milk from numerous other farms around the area. According to its website, the farm processes, bottles, cools, ships, or delivers more than 25,000 gallons of milk to about 2,500 hospitals, restaurants, businesses, and schools, including the Seneca Valley School District.
Marburger said there are several other natural gas wells within a half-mile of Marburger Dairy. He believes the farm was singled out for the protest because of its high-profile location on Mars-Evans City road.
As for fears that tanker trucks and other traffic will cause damage to the roads, Matusic said XTO would pay for repairs.
“If there’s any damage that we do, just come to us and we’ll take care of it,” she said.
After the rally, protesters headed to EDCO Park in Evans City for a picnic and an education session. Among the speakers were Mel Packer, a physician assistant and well-known “fractivist” in the Pittsburgh area who is running for the U.S. Senate as a member of the Green Party.
Pittsburgh City Council member Doug Shields spoke to the group about legislation passed last year that successfully banned Marcellus Shale drilling within city limits.
Kim McEvoy and Janet McIntyre, who live less than a mile from each other in nearby Connoquenessing Township, also shared their stories.
McEvoy said that after drilling by Rex Energy near her home in the Woodlands neighborhood earlier in the year, she started to lose her hair. Her nails also began to recede. Her fiancée, Peter Sowatskey, complained of leg pains. Neither of them felt good.
McEvoy said her water also turned black and smelly. She does not have a filter on her well water. One wasn’t needed before the drilling, she said.
“I had good, clear water,” she said.
McEvoy said an investigation said her water problems were not caused by drilling. But, in the name of being a good neighbor, she said Rex Energy gave her a water buffalo.
Since the water trailer has been installed on her property, McEvoy said her problems have dissipated. She now worries what will happen if Rex Energy removes the water buffalo once drilling in the area is complete.
Her home currently is for sale. Anyone who buys the house will have to spend money to install a cistern, something McEvoy said she couldn’t afford.
If there are no changes in the drilling industry within a year, McEvoy said she plans to move her family to Oregon, where there is no Marcellus Shale.
“I don’t even feel like I can live in Butler County,” she said. “Right now, I feel like I am homeless.”