Q&A: The Fight Over Fracking In A Tiny Town In Pennsylvania

The tiny town of DuBois, Pennsylvania, is in the middle of a nasty fight over a fracking waste well. We spoke to BuzzFeed News' Dan Vergano about fracking and how DuBois is a microcosm of the fracking boom everywhere.

The small town of DuBois, with a population of about 7,700 people, is in the middle of a fight over a fracking waste well. After a century of logging, mining, and drilling, it now faces the environmental harms of the fracking boom — and the economic realities of its inevitable bust.

We spoke to BuzzFeed News' Dan Vergano, about what fracking is and how it's affecting his hometown DuBois. What is fracking?

What is fracking?

Fracking, in the non-Battlestar Galactica sense, is short for hydraulic fracturing (or frac'ing as they called it back in the 1940's) of rock to recover oil or gas. You pump millions of gallons of water mixed with slick stuff and grit into rock layers in the right amount and the rock crack open to release oil and/or natural gas, the fractures propped open by the grit.

Advances in sideways drilling now allow precise targeting of fracking, which has led to a U.S. revolution in oil and gas production, producing a supply bubble, which the Saudis are trying to kill by opening their spigots, in turn producing a crash in the fracking business.
One problem with fracking is that a lot of the stuff you pump underground comes back up, mixed with radium, bromine and other stuff. You either have to clean this "flowback" or dump it.

How is it affecting DuBois?

The town is right in the middle of the Marcellus shale natural gas fracturing play, one of the biggest in the world. In 2012 the town was overrun by white pickup trucks and drilling rigs from Oklahoma and Texas, on their way to and from fracking well pads. People suddenly made a good deal of money selling them beer, tires and coffee. And farmers and trout fishermen (a powerful lobby in Pa.) started freaking out about fracking fluid and flowback polluting the water, like the coal industry did in the last century, and which is still a mess. So there was your typical winners vs. losers boomtown deal.

Now DuBois is dealing with a downturn in the business as a lot of the smaller drillers go belly-up (e.g. the head of Chesapeake Energy drove his car into a bridge column a month ago) and they are dealing with a deep disposal well proposed for the outskirts of town. There are only 8 of these deep dumping wells in the state, so owning one is potentially a gold mine when the price of natural gas goes up again, and fracking resumes. But the people who live on the hill proposed for the disposal well are not thrilled with running the risks of a leak from the disposal well fouling their drinking water wells, and the watershed serving the town's water supply. So they have been fighting it for 5 years.

Is what's happening in DuBois similar to the effects fracking has had on other towns across the country?

It's a microcosm of the fracking boom everywhere, augmented by the region's history of environmental havoc left behind by the timber and coal industry, along with factories shutting down right and left over the last three decades. There's even a ghost town on the other side of the highway from the hill they are fighting over. The fight between the one winner ands the many losers is the classic boom and bust dynamic.

What, if any, is the ideal solution to this problem?

There isn't one. A lot of people suggest the proposed well is perfectly legal, but morally wrong. So are a lot of things in the USA. A good solution would be the state regulators judiciously using their powers to suggest the well owner find a hill farther out of town that doesn't threaten the watershed and working with him to find a suitable site. But this is a state that only banned abandoning played-out coal mines in 1970. We'll have to see.

What drew you to report on what's going on in DuBois?

I've covered the dispute for five years and knew a lot of the people involved on both sides, plus I grew up outside the town, so I knew the culture and I was able to avoid the uncertainty that comes with parachuting into a dispute. There is a forgotten history to this pretty hard-nosed corner of the USA, it's big-time Trump country, which explains some of the anger bubbling up in national politics right now.

Finally, I love the town, and I don't know why. It is a sucker punch in a bar fight kind of a place. We didn't want to go first person initially with the piece, but it became a natural way to instill some of that tension into the story, and take the reader along for the ride. There are a lot people who have left these kind of towns and feel the same way, it turns out.

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