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Collateral Damage in the Marcellus Shale

There’s nothing to suggest that in his 51 years Kevin June should be a leader.

Not from his high school where he dropped out after his freshman year.

Not from his job, where he worked as an auto body technician for more than 35 years.

Both of his marriages ended in divorce, but did produce two children, a 31-year-old son and a 28-year-old daughter.

June readily admits that for most of his life, beginning about 14 when he began drinking heavily, he was a drunk. Always beer. Almost always to excess. But, he will quickly tell you how many weeks he has been sober. It’s now 56, he says proudly.

In October 2008 he was in an auto accident, when he swerved to miss a deer and hit an oak tree head on. That’s when he learned MRIs showed he had been suffering from degenerative arthritis. Between the accident and the arthritis, he was off work for three months. Then, in May 2009, he was laid off when the company moved.

The pain is now so severe that after about 10 minutes, he has to sit.

Unable to work, surviving on disability income that brings him $1,300 a month, just $392.50 above the poverty line, he lives in the 12-acre Riverdale Mobile Home Village, along the Susquehanna River near Jersey Shore north-central Pennsylvania. The village has a large green area where families can picnic, relax, or play games, sharing the space with geese and all kinds of animals.

For most of the six years June lived in the village, he kept to himself—chatting with neighbors now and then, but nothing that would ever suggest he’d be a leader. The last time he led anything was almost two decades earlier when he was president of a 4-wheel club.

On Feb. 18, the residents found out their landlord had sold the park, only after reading a story in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The landlord, who the residents say did what he could to make their village safe and attractive, later came to each of the 37 families. He told the families he sold the park and they would have two months to leave. It was abrupt. Business-like. “We knew he was planning to sell,” says June, “but we all thought it would be to someone who would allow us to stay.”

Four days after the residents were ordered to move, certified letters made it official. The owner sold the park to Aqua PVR, a division of Aqua America, headquartered in Bryn Mawr. Sale price was $550,000. It may have been a bargain—land and industrial parks that have been vacant for years are going for premium sales prices as the natural gas boom in the Marcellus Shale consumes a large part of Pennsylvania and four surrounding states.

Aqua had received permission from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) to withdraw three million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna; the 37 families of the mobile home village would just be in the way. The company intends to build a pump station and create a pipe system to provide water to natural gas companies that use hydraulic fracturing, the preferred method to extract natural gas from as deep as 10,000 feet beneath the earth. The process, known as fracking, requires a mixture of sand, chemicals, many of them toxins, and anywhere from one to nine million gallons of water per well, injected into the earth at high pressure. Jersey Shore sits in a northeastern part of the Marcellus Shale, which is believed to hold about 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Aqua isn’t the only company planning to take water in the area. Anadarko E & P Co. and Range Resources-Appalachia have each applied to withdraw up to three million gallons a day from the Susquehanna. While the Delaware River Basic Commission, and the states of New York and Maryland, have imposed moratoriums upon the use of fracking until full health and environmental impacts can be assessed, Pennsylvania and the SRBC have been handing out permits by the gross.

Most residents had only a vague knowledge of fracking and what it is doing to the earth. “They have a lot more knowledge now,” says June, as politically aware as any environmentalist.

Aqua had originally ordered the residents to leave by May 1, but then extended it to the end of the month. It dangled a $2,500 relocation allowance in its eviction.

However, the cost to move a trailer to another park is $6,000–$11,000, plus extra for skirting, sheds, and any handicap-accessible external ramps. But, most trailers can’t be moved. “These are older trailers,” says June. His is a 12-by-70, built in 1974, with a tin roof and tin siding (“tin-on-tin”); like others, it isn’t sturdy enough to survive a move. But even if it did, there would be no place to put it. The parks want the newer trailers, but most parks are full.

So, the residents began looking in the classified ads for rentals. Because the natural gas companies are bringing in thousands of employees to frack the land, there is a shortage of apartments, most with inflated prices to take advantage of the well-paid roustabouts, drivers, and technicians who moved into the area, and spend their money on local businesses eager to improve their own profits. During the past two years, rents have doubled and tripled. “None of us can pay a thousand or more a month,” says June. The current mobile home owners paid $200 a month for their lot.

Not long after he was served his own eviction notice, June had a dream. Some might call it a nightmare; some might see it as he did, a religious experience. “It was Jesus coming to me, telling me I had to do something,” he says.

June is constantly on the move, going from trailer to trailer to help the families who were abruptly evicted. Whatever their needs, Kevin June tries to provide it, constantly on the phone, running up phone bills he knows he can’t afford but does so anyhow because the lives of his neighbors matter.

There’s Betty and William Whyne. Betty, 82, began working as a waitress at the age of 13 and now, in retirement, makes artificial Christmas trees. She has a cancerous tumor in the same place where a breast was removed in 1991. William, 72, who was an electrician, carpenter, and plumber before he retired after a heart attack, goes to a dialysis center three times a week, four hours each time. They brought their 12-wide 1965 Fleetwoood trailer to the village shortly after the 1972 flood. Like the other residents, they can’t afford to move; they can’t find adequate housing. “We’ve looked at everything in about a 30 mile radius,” they say. They earn $1,478 a month from retirement, only $252.17 above the federal poverty line. One son is in New Jersey; one is in Texas, and the Whynes don’t want to leave the area; they shouldn’t have to.

There’s April and Eric Daniels. She’s a stay-at-home mom for their two children; he’s a truck driver whose hours have been reduced. Their 14-by-70 trailer is valued at $13,200; she and her husband were in the process of remodeling it, had already paid $5,000 for improvements, and were about to start building a second bathroom. April Daniels had grown up living in a series of foster houses, “so I know what it’s like to move around, but this was my first home, and it’s harder for me to leave.” Their trailer provides a good home, but can’t be moved. “We’re pretty much on the verge of just tearing down the trailer and living in a camper,” she says. They don’t know what will happen. They do know that because of what they see as Aqua’s insensitivity, they will lose a lot of money no matter what they do.

Doris Fravel, 82, a widow on a fixed income of $1,326 a month, has lived in the village 38 years. She’s proud of her 1974 12-wide trailer with the tin roof. “I painted it every year,” she says. In June, she paid $3,580 for a new air conditioner; she recently paid $3,000 for new insulated skirting. The trailer has new carpeting. Unlike most of the residents, she found housing—a $450 a month efficiency. But it’s far smaller than her current home. So she’s sold or given away most of what she owns. She may have a buyer for the trailer, and will take $2,500 for it, considerably less than it’s worth. “I can’t do anything else,” she says. “I just can’t move my furnishings into the new apartment,” she says.  Like the other residents, she has family who are helping, but there’s only so much help any family can provide. “I never knew I would ever have to leave,” she says, but she does want to “see one of those gas men come to my door—and I’d like to punch him in the shoulder.”

Not only are there few lots available and apartments are too expensive, but most residents don’t qualify for a house mortgage; and there are waiting lists for senior citizen and low-income housing. The stories are the same.

No one from Aqua has been in touch with any resident. But, the company did hire a local real estate agency. The agency claims it has made extraordinary efforts to help the residents find other housing. The residents disagree. April Daniels says “some of the Realtors have gotten real nasty with the people in the park—they just don’t understand that we are all in a hardship, so we get mad and frustrated and take it out on them.” But there really isn’t much anyone can do. The natural gas boom has made affordable housing as obsolete as the anthracite coal that once drove the region’s energy economy.

The residents, with limited incomes, have lived good lives; they are good people. They paid their rents and fees on time; they kept up the appearances of their trailers and the land around it. They worked their jobs; they survived. Until they were evicted

And now it’s up to the residents to try to survive. They have become closer; they listen to each other; they hug each other; and, the tough men aren’t afraid to let others see them cry. “The pain in this park is almost too much at times,” says June.

If something goes wrong, the residents have to fix it; Kevin June is the one they call. If he can’t fix a problem, he finds someone who can. In this trailer park, as in most communities, there is a lot of talent—“we help each other,” says June. His job is to make sure the residents survive until they can move. I’ve had the Holy Spirit running through my veins a long time, but it’s running real deep right now,” he says.

A half-dozen families have already moved, but most say they will stay and fight what they see as a politically-based corporate takeover.

During the week Aqua PVR issued eviction notices, its parent company issued a news release, boasting that its revenue for 2011 was $712 million, a 4.2 percent increase from the year before; its net income was $143.1 million, up 15.4 percent from the previous year. But, for some reason, the company just couldn’t find enough money to give the residents a fair moving settlement. “They just expect us to throw our homes into the street and live in tents,” says June.

“I went to see a state representative to ask what he could do to help,” he says, “but his secretary just coldly told me there was nothing that could be done because whoever owns a property can do with it what he wants to do.” He never saw the state representative.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—armed with an industry-favorable law recently rammed through by the Republican-controlled legislature and eagerly signed by a first-term Republican governor who received more than $1,6 million in campaign contributions from the energy industry—has decided that fracking the earth, threatening health and the environment, is far better for business than taking care of the people.

Kevin June and 36 families are just collateral damage.

Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist and author of 17 books. His current book is Before the First Snow,

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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