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Two schools, one a vocational technical high school and the other an elementary school, sit on tracts of land a few blocks from the house in which I grew up, in Ford City (Armstrong County), Pennsylvania. The communities served by them are, for the most part, not particularly prosperous. Household incomes, wages, home prices, rents, and levels of education are below the state average; while poverty, unemployment, and air pollution are above it.
Many property owners in the area are elderly women, living on small pensions and social security. Their property taxes finance the schools, and as these rise, the tax burden can be considerable. This encumbrance is made subjectively worse by the fact that these older taxpayers no longer have children in school.
For the local school board, rising costs—including those for the ever growing number of administrators—and a limited and potentially rebellious tax base have created a budget crisis. The current budget shows a deficit of five million dollars. However, the board has come up with an ingenious way to deal with its revenue shortfall.
To help pay its bills, the school board is courting (or being courted by) two energy companies, with an eye toward leasing public property for natural gas hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” According to the school district’s solicitor, the two “frackers,” which are owned by members of the same family, are “offering” to acquire leasing rights on tracts of land near the two schools. “We’re trying to do what we can to bring some money in,” said Board president Joe Close. “Superintendent Stan Chapp said the district projects it could earn up to $1.5 million on it during the next 15 to 20 years.”
The frackers have been busy in Pennsylvania and across the nation—buying and selling leases, greasing the palms of friendly politicians, convincing local residents to sell property rights to them, and ruining the landscape. As the Natural Resources Defense Council states:
Natural gas producers have been running roughshod over communities across the country with their extraction and production activities for too long, resulting in contaminated water supplies, dangerous air pollution, destroyed streams, and devastated landscapes. Weak safeguards and inadequate oversight fail to protect our communities from harm by the rapid expansion of fossil fuel production using hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Fracking has also been implicated in earthquakes. In arid regions, it uses an inordinate share of the local water supply. And it releases methane, a major contributor to global warming. A group of scholars at Cornell University have argued that fracking might be environmentally “dirtier” than mining and burning coal.
Should the school board reach an agreement with the two energy companies, school kids and those living nearby will soon be hearing explosions, drinking contaminated water, suffering increased air pollution, and watching the woods turn into wastelands. Fires from the wells might light up the night sky. And it is not difficult to imagine that students will be fed large doses of propaganda extolling the virtues of gas drilling and all the jobs it generates. Perhaps, like McDonald’s, the energy corporations have prepared educational materials for the schools. The Vo-Tech already offers a program in “Natural Resources Technology”; among the “10 ‘Hot’ Career Opportunities” listed for this area of study is “Gas Exploration Manager.”
It would be nice to think that the citizens of the school district would protest this blatant intrusion of an extraordinarily environmentally destructive business into the public schools. But I doubt that they will. The poverty of the area and the lack of decent jobs have hardened people. They are for whatever saves them money or gets them some. The frackers are seen, not as parasites wreaking havoc on the earth, but as sources of jobs and windfall income. Some coal truck drivers have begun to haul water for the gas drillers, who use millions of gallons for each well. Homeowners, approached by company agents, have sold the right to use their land to the frackers, often for paltry sums of money. My sister took $600. And then put her house up for sale. As Louis XV said, “After me, the deluge.”
If put to a vote, I have no doubt that taxpayers would vote overwhelmingly in favor of the school district leasing the land to the two energy companies. The less they have to pay for education, the better. They won’t be much concerned with the environmental consequences of fracking. The Ford City region is already beset by severe pollution. Carcinogenic chemicals from the old Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant have been leaching into the nearby Allegheny River for years. Some of the highest levels of harmful airborne particulate matters in the nation plague residents. Strip coal mining and coal hauling despoil the land and spread dust and grime everywhere. Residents routinely burn trash in their backyards, delivering more pollutants into the atmosphere. And as a map published recently in the Scranton Times Tribune shows, Armstrong County’s water is already contaminated by fracking. Yet despite all this, there is no popular movement apparent; people seem to accept the poison and even get angry with anyone who points out the obvious. We once witnessed a man who, rather than paying someone to tear down an old house he owned and hauling the refuse away, was burning it, bit by bit, in a circular pit. No one but us seemed to notice or care.
As those at the top of the economic heap become fantastically wealthy, they use their money to create a society that will allow them to continue to add to their fortunes. Every institution and every facet of life must be controlled and, if possible, turned into an opportunity for making more money. Those without money find themselves in such perilous circumstances that they soon enough become willing to take whatever crumbs the plutocrats give them and to do whatever the rich want them to do. Turning a blind eye to the harm done by natural gas hydraulic fracturing no doubt seems a small price to pay for lower taxes, some jobs, and a few hundred dollars for giving the frackers access to your land.
MICHAEL D. YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly review magazine.He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. He is the editor of Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. Yates can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org