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The Human Costs of Fracking

Last February, residents of the Riverdale Mobile Homes Park, a neighborhood on the outskirts of a small city in rural Lycoming County, Pennsylvania with the unlikely name of Jersey Shore, noticed an article in Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Richard A. “Skip” Leonard, who owned the land on which the 32 unit trailer park was located, had agreed to sell his property. A few days later the residents got letters from Donna P. Alston, director of communication for Aqua America Corporation, informing them that their leases had been terminated “immediately.”

A few months before the property had been re zoned as industrial. Aqua PVR LLC, owned by Nicholas DeBenedictis, who served as the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources under Governor Dick Thornburgh in the 1980s, needed the small patch of land to build a pump station. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission had given Aqua America permission to withdraw up to 3 million gallons of water per day from the Susquehanna River to their fracking operations in the north, and the residents of Riverdale had been given a “generous” offer. Anybody who moved out by April 1 would be given a 2500 dollar incentive. Anybody who moved out by May 1 would be given 1500. Since it would cost at least 5000 dollars to relocate each trailer, and since rents in nearby Williamsport had skyrocketed due to the recent influx of gas workers, it was the worst possible news. Some of the residents of Riverdale, who had lived there for decades, were elderly people in their 70s and 80s, and had little chance of finding work or new living accommodations. It was, quite literally, the end of their world.

The Riverdale Mobile Homes Park, nevertheless, has become an unlikely nexus of resistance to corporate power. When some of the families, led by Deb Eck and Kevin June, decided to resist the June 1 eviction date, they called for help from the outside. Activists from the anti-fracking movement and Occupy Wall Street quickly responded, and a makeshift blockade, which, as of June 2 is still in place, was set up to prevent Aqua America from starting construction on the pump station.

Hands Across Riverdale is on the verge of getting national attention.

This puts the Aqua America Corporation in a bad position. Judging by the way they postponed the June first eviction, they clearly don’t want New York City/Oakland style images of arrests and police brutality getting out to the news media. The residents of Riverdale are not dirty hippies in their 20s, fresh from art school with large debts and useless liberal arts degrees. They are mostly middle-aged couples with families and elderly men and women, conservative patriotic Americans who love their country and are bewildered about what the collusion of big government and big business has done to them. Nevertheless, the longer Aqua America waits to evict the 11 remaining families, the greater the opportunity to bring help from the outside, something Aqua America, if I’m to judge by the way one of their private detectives made a beeline for my car and started videotaping my New Jersey plates, clearly fears.

While WNEP, the local television station, and the Williamsburg Sun Gazette, the local newspaper, have given the residents of Riverdale sympathetic coverage that would shock readers of the Daily News or New York Post in “liberal” Manhattan, it’s still a bit unclear how the “occupation” of Riverdale will play out locally. Lycoming country is a poor, semi-rural area and the natural gas industry promises to bring jobs to the area. Nearby Williamsport has the air a boom town. Nicholas DeBenedictis, Aqua America, and the One Percent have, at their fingers, the power to coerce and propagandize that would be difficult to resist if it were brought to bear on Riverdale with the force that it was brought to bear on Zucotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza last fall. The squirrelly little private detective from Genesis Security Agency, “We Secure the Rigs,” who recorded my license plates had an air of confidence indicating that he had serious muscle at his disposal if he needed it.

Anybody who is able to get to Jersey Shore Pennsylvania to support “Hands Across Riverdale” should pay the site a visit. There is an immediately practical reason. The remaining occupants are currently in negotiation with the Aqua American Corporation, and there is a possibility that the process of re zoning the property as industrial and attempting to clear the site so quickly with a combination of threats and petty bribes was not completely legal. The threat of bad publicity could bring some relief from the corporation to the economically desperate people who have displaced. This is your chance to save people like the 82 year old Doris Fravel and the 80 year old Fred Kinley from homelessness. It’s your chance to make sure that the twin 11 year old daughters of single mother Deb Eck don’t grow into adults with bitter memories of what happened to them in their childhood. It’s an opportunity to do some very immediate, very practical good, right here, right now.

Hands Across Riverdale is also a chance to strike a blow against the corporate state and the One Percent that you wouldn’t have in New York, Seattle, Oakland or Chicago. A demonstration of 200 people in downtown Manhattan or Oakland would immediately be crushed by a militarized, big city police force. An ongoing presence of 200 people in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania would almost guarantee success.

Jersey Shore and Williamsport lie at a pressure point. Twenty years ago, the Lycoming County was a semi-rural area of farms, quaint old houses, and green rolling hills. It still appears that way if you early in the morning or on the weekend, but drive west on Route 80 on a weekday to see the real north central Pennsylvania. My drive from Roselle, New Jersey to Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, which should have taken 4 hours according to Google Maps took close to 5, not because I got lost or stopped to admire the scenery but because I got stuck in one of the gigantic traffic jams that seem to be a constant presence near Bloomsburg in neighboring Columbia County. Driving east back home to New Jersey, where the way was clear sailing, the traffic jam on the western side was even worse than it had been the day before, a line of 18-wheelers that stretched out over the better part of 3 miles. The “natural” gas industry, and it’s no more natural than coal can be “clean,” is, like the anthracite coal industry a century before, the hand of the One Percent on the countryside’s breast, ready to grab what it wants and force itself into the earth without any regard for environmental or social consequences.

Indeed, as Wendy Lee argues in her excellent article “Why Fracking Epitomizes the Crisis in American Democracy: Profiteering and the ‘Good American’” the current boom in “natural” gas may not even be about “natural” gas or energy at all. It may just be the next big speculative real estate bubble masquerading as a patriotic engine for “energy security.”

“It turns out that even the patriotic rhetoric of “cheap and abundant” natural gas is simply a cover story for the acquisition and marketing of land–country to be sure–but demoted from national idea to transferable real estate. To identify the good of this corporation with the health of the country is to identify the health of the country not with the freedom of its citizens, not with the stability or strength of its democratic institutions, but with its market value–fifteen million acres in McClendon’s case. The state, moreover, has not only become an enthusiastic player in what Arthur Berman, respected energy consultant, calls a Ponzi Scheme, it is now engaged in the erection of laws–including laws that criminalize protest–aimed at protecting what now must be called America, INC.”

Hands Across Riverdale starkly poses the question “does profit trump human rights” and provides its own answer, no. Hands Across Riverdale addresses the issue of why capitalism values some people and doesn’t value others. During the occupation of Zucotti Park, for example, the corporate media covered the “inconvenience” to the local population in downtown Manhattan as the central issue of the occupation. If only one business owner lost only one customer because of an Occupy Wall Streets drum circle, or if only one employee was late for work because of an Occupy Wall Street march, the New York Daily News and the New York Post would argue constantly, then that immediately superseded both the right to protest under the First Amendment and the larger societal and economic issues raised by the financial industry’s capture of the Obama Administration. Local issues came before national issues. Local issues were the only issues. In Jersey Shore Pennsylvania, on the other hand, One Percenter Nicholas DeBenedictis and the Aqua America corporation are sweeping aside a 40 year old community as if it were nothing more than a minor inconvenience. The lives of 32 working class families have been wrecked. Those who would defend fracking have reversed the stance that the NYC media took on Occupy Wall Street. A 100 or so people living in a trailer park, they argue, do not supersede the profit motive. More than the profit motive is at stake. Why should 32 families, or even the environmental health of the Susquehanna Valley supersede the need for America’s “energy security?”

An hour’s drive south of Riverdale is the blackened land where the small Pennsylvania City of Centralia once stood. In the early 1960s, a fire in the city dump spread to the abandoned mines underneath. Slowly the city cooked, Slowly it died. By the 1960s, the great Anthracite coal companies of Northeastern Pennsylvania were a thing of the past. Decades before they had given up their mineral rights to the soil, mineral rights that had become almost worthless as oil replaced coal as a source of power. By relinquishing the rights to the land they had already stripped and used to their satisfaction, they also released themselves from the obligation to clean up after themselves. It will be little different with the “natural” gas industry and with fracking. Whatever we know and whatever we don’t know about the environmental consequences of fracking, Nicholas DeBenedictis and the Aqua America company will be long gone by the time they’re genuinely felt. Don’t let Riverdale and Jersey Shore become the next Centralia. Support Hands Across Riverdale while you still can.

Stanley Rogouski is a writer and a photojournalist living in New Jersey.

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