Primer helps residents battle shale industry with 'citizens army'
From left: June Beal, Michael Long, Joan John and Marigrace Butela, all of Dunbar, listen as Adam Garber speaks at a workshop Saturday hosted by the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center to help people organize around Marcellus Shale gas issues.
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Among 25 people who assembled at the Carnegie Library in Connellsville Saturday, Phyllis Carr was on the "after" side of the Marcellus Shale industry: Her family has been falling ill, she said, since two gas wells and three compressor stations began operating on a property 250 feet away from her home in Lake Lynn, Fayette County.
The others were still "before" and turned out to learn skills to protect their properties, groundwater and the streams they fish in.
Organizers from PennEnvironment and Earthworks held the training session, one of many being planned through the spring, to help people organize and present a case to legislators for stricter gas drilling regulations.
The group included fishermen, water-quality professionals and several environmental activists.
"I'm concerned about cold water resources," said David Gilpin of Connellsville. "Frankly, I love trout streams."
Several members of a Trout Unlimited chapter attended.
Geno Gallo said he has been approached by four companies wanting to drill on his land on the Great Allegheny Passage. He said he wants to turn it into an eco-village. "My friends and I are trying to form a watershed association," he said. "I want to be part of the solution, and I'm very concerned."
Several said they go to town meetings, talk to neighbors and friends and their legislators, "but no one listens," said one woman. "People tell me there's nothing we can do, and I'm coming to the conclusion that they're right."
Adam Garber, PennEnvironment's field director, said, "You're right, legislators aren't listening to us. We don't have $100 million to give them." He said his organization has been trying to build grass-roots power in a coalition of environmentalists, lawyers, educators, health professionals, farmers, economists, union leaders and volunteers.
The volunteers are the grunts. "You have to call people and call them again, meet with them and meet with them again," he said. "You have to go to towns and go door-to-door, from business to business."
Erika Staaf, a clean water advocate for PennEnvironment, said an effective way to enlist a citizens' army is at arts festivals, farmers markets and other public gatherings.
"Give people an opportunity to be involved right away," she said. "Hold a potluck and have everyone write a letter to their legislator. Provide a variety of opportunities so extroverts and introverts can take part. Be optimistic with each other. Moral support is what keeps people from burning out."
Nadia Steinzor, a regional organizer for Earthworks, acknowledged volunteers become frustrated because their advocacy is a longer-term picture -- environmental effects and alternative energy possibilities -- while gas companies are offering large sums of money.
"One of the most difficult things," she said, "is the tremendous urgency people feel right now."
Ms. Carr said she had no voice in the decision a neighbor made in 2005 to sign off on gas drilling within 250 feet of where Ms. Carr lives with her husband, daughter and grandchildren.
Ms. Carr and Marigrace Butela, a friend who has been working to help her get answers, said the family has suffered headaches, sore throats, nose sores and nose bleeds since.
"We started smelling smells, like paint thinner," said Ms. Carr. "We called the fire department, we called the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], we called poison control. We had to leave home six or seven times last year when alarms went off" at the drilling site.
Ms. Butela, an activist against Marcellus drilling, said the gas industry "has never met with them to explain what those alarms mean."
During break-out sessions in which participants role-played, Mr. Gilpin played devil's advocate as Sheryl Craven tried to recruit him to the cause, saying "the money can never be as important as your quality of life."
"There's a saying that you can't eat money," said Mr. Gilpin. "They're offering me a lot of money. It's hard to turn down."
"But what if your water's bad?" she asked. "Who's going to buy your property when you have to move?"
"They have technology, so I don't think that will happen," he said. "They sent two guys who seemed like good decent American fellows."
"Would you be interested in finding out more?" Ms. Craven asked. "Would you come to a meeting?"
Mr. Gilpin grinned and cocked his head, saying, "I might come to a meeting."
Like others at the session, Mr. Gilpin is already doing his own form of recruitment.
"I ask people, 'How's the fishing? Have you seen any otters?' " he said. "One guy said, 'Hey, we saw a blue herron!' and I said, 'Well, that's a result of clean water.'
"I guess since I've gotten older, I try to be subtle."
First Published January 16, 2011 12:00 am