Can fracking intrude on final sleep?

Cemetery managers and gas company executives say drilling doesn't damage graves; critics say it raises questions

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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Henry Donald Young Sr. is buried in a small pioneer cemetery next to his parents, beneath the drooping leaves of an old tree at the industrial edge of one of the largest cities in Texas.

But Young's relatives wonder how restful his final resting place has become. Thousands of feet beneath the cemetery, a company has been drilling for natural gas using the controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"I would imagine that drilling and fracking and all that vibration is bound to cause some damage," Young's son, Don, said of the 134-year-old Handley Cemetery. "But who's going to dig up their dead relatives to see if there's a crack in the casket? What's being done to Fort Worth in general, whether it's to the living or the dead, it's immoral."

Don Young, 60, has been a longtime critic of fracking, which has proliferated in the Barnett Shale formation that runs underneath the Fort Worth area. He also is the founder of a group called Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Operations.

His concern is shared by others in both rural and urban parts of Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where drilling for natural gas beneath homes, parks, churches, schools and even cemeteries has become commonplace. The fracking process, in which sand, water and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressure to extract natural gas from rock formations, has been criticized by environmentalists and others who worry about its effects on groundwater and residents' health.

Cemetery owners lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies to allow fracking, earning money that many have used to refurbish and maintain their grounds, fencing, sanctuaries and roads. Cemetery managers and oil and gas company executives said fracking, because it occurred at roughly 7,000 feet to 8,000 feet below ground, did not damage graves. And because of advances in horizontal drilling, they said, the wells and other equipment can be located more than a mile away to avoid disrupting the serene atmosphere of the cemetery.

"I'm sure there's a number of cemeteries across the United States that lease their mineral rights, just like people lease their mineral rights for their farm or home," said Jon Stephenson, secretary of the Texas Cemeteries Association, which released a statement on Friday expressing support for cemeteries that chose to explore their natural gas options. "The drilling itself is not going to occur in the center of an active cemetery. It's going to occur off the property. You do this to reap the financial benefits. It's the same reason anyone else would."

Chesapeake Energy, the second-largest natural gas producer in the country, has worked with more than a dozen cemeteries in the Fort Worth region and has drilled directly beneath many of them at depths of more than a mile and a half, company executives said.

The company drilled six wells about 1,700 feet from the tombstones at Greenwood Memorial Park and 10 wells about 1,800 feet from the grave sites at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Company officials said that they had not received any complaints from relatives about graves being disturbed, but that they did get several calls from family members of those buried at Greenwood asking if they could collect mineral-right royalties from their loved one's burial plot.

"Chesapeake Energy takes great pride in our neighbor relations -- whether those neighbors are families, schools, hospitals or cemeteries -- and treats each with the respect and sensitivity they deserve," said Julie H. Wilson, the company's vice president for urban development. "Some of our own family members are buried in these cemeteries or live near them."

But anti-fracking activists, lawyers and environmental scientists said that while there might be nothing legally wrong with fracking underneath cemeteries, they were uncomfortable with the practice, arguing that it raised spiritual and moral questions and illustrated a callousness in the desire to drill for natural gas anywhere at any time.

In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first city in Pennsylvania to ban natural gas drilling, in part after an outcry over a decision by the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh to lease mineral rights under nearly a dozen of its cemeteries, including one where three former Pittsburgh mayors are buried.

"I could see how people could be deeply offended by this, even if it didn't cause any problems," said Robert B. Jackson, an environmental sciences professor at Duke University, who is a fracking expert and the director of the university's Center on Global Change. "If something goes wrong in a farmer's field in Pennsylvania, that's one thing. But what if something goes wrong in a cemetery? It seems like at some point you have to draw a line. I can see the signs now: 'Rest in peace means no lease.' "

nation


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