Activists oppose shale drilling in Pittsburgh region

Protesters criticize 'piggish gas industry'

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Maggie Henry won't feed her livestock soybeans because she is worried that the beans have been genetically modified. Instead, the organic farmer from South Beaver, Lawrence County, grows her own wheat and other grains to feed her pigs, chickens, cows and other livestock.

But that isn't Mrs. Henry's chief concern these days.

Just 4,100 feet from Mrs. Henry's green pastures lies a gas well operated by Shell Appalachia.

And Mrs. Henry isn't the only local resident concerned about the well, where a group of about two dozen activists staged a protest Sunday afternoon.

With shirts that read "Protect Farms for our Future," four of the protesters latched themselves to a 7-foot by 12-foot papier-mache pig, meant to represent the "piggish gas industry," Mrs. Henry said, as well as the livestock at her farm.

One of those protesters, Lisa Desantis, 47, of New Castle, said she feared that Lawrence County would soon become "a wasteland."

"I'm concerned about our water supply," she said. "As our lakes and rivers run dry, this industry takes millions of gallons of water per day."

Another protester who strapped himself to the pig, Nick Lubecki, 29, of Pittsburgh recently started a farm and is concerned about the future of agriculture in Pennsylvania.

"It's extremely disturbing as a young farmer to have to worry about the safety of the water supply in a chaotically changing climate while these out-of-state drillers have the red carpet rolled out for them," he said. "In a few years, the drillers will be gone when this boom turns to bust like these things always do. I don't want to be stuck with their mess to clean up."

The giant pink pig, nicknamed "Henrietta" by activists, blocked the entrance to the site, where flaring has been taking place for about 2 1/2 weeks.

Flares, which look like giant candles spewing flames, are used at the end of the drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- stage, to slowly release pressure in the well before the production stage.

Six state troopers from the New Castle barracks responded to the scene with plastic hand ties and bolt cutters ready, but they were able to negotiate between the company and protesters to prevent any arrests.

Mrs. Henry sees the gas well, which is in a testing phase to determine whether gas in the Utica or Marcellus shale formations would be worth drilling for, as a "threat to every living thing" on her farm.

"We're all being forced to participate in this toxic experiment, and I don't want to," said Mrs. Henry, who tried to prevent the company from drilling by filing an objection with the state Department of Environmental Protection when the company was seeking drilling permits two years ago.

Mrs. Henry's efforts have so far been unsuccessful, and she is most concerned about drilling that could take place on her neighboring 88-acre farm.

"They can put well pads on my property and I can't do a damn thing about it," said Mrs. Henry, whose 88-year-old mother-in-law signed a lease without the family's knowledge.

"The idea that somebody wants to get rich while they're poisoning the rest of us really fries my soul," Mrs. Henry said.

But, Tom Kephart, who owns the property where the drilling is taking place, said he isn't trying to get rich or exploit his neighbors.

"I have no animosity toward the protesters, but they're infringing on my rights," said Mr. Kephart, who grows crops on the 150-acre site where the drill is set up.

The gas industry, which Mr. Kephart describes as "a blessing to this area," will make it possible for him to purchase a combine or other farm equipment.

In a statement to news media, the Houston-based company said it understands the concerns of the protesters and pledged to develop the gas safely.

To emphasize its commitment to Lawrence County residents, the company has provided a phone number that residents can call if they have questions or concerns: 1-877-842-7308.

The company also outlined a series of safety principles it practices that go beyond local, state and federal regulations.

More details about those principles can be found on the company's website, www.shell.us.

After the protest, Ms. Desantis and the other protesters said they were prepared to be arrested but glad they weren't. They bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, helping to cut the chill from sitting in the snow for three hours.

"I'm happy," she said. "Right now, I'm going to go have some chili."

region - businessnews - marcellusshale - environment

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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