As a Fortune 500 company’s fracking activities in rural West Virginia leave a polluted and drastically altered landscape, locals are fighting back.
By late March the ground in Wetzel County, West Virginia, had thawed to a muddy mess. Ed Wade Jr., a short, burly man in his early forties, wore shin-high boots to navigate the ridge beyond a natural gas well pad, one of two dozen in the area. Skirting the angled ridge, Wade looked down into the ravine: the ridge had partly collapsed; dirt and boulders filled the valley below. For a few minutes, Wade just stared at it, his eyes narrowed. Then he took out a digital camera and started taking pictures.
Holding the camera out at arm’s length, he tilted it down toward the ravine. His long hair was pulled back in ponytail; he wore a gray sweatshirt with the word FRACK across the chest; the text was circled with a line through it. After getting photos of the valley, he hiked up a mud-covered embankment and took a few shots of the ridge itself, now dilapidated and sloping. The ridge had been flattened to prepare the area for drilling; Wade estimated that fifty feet had been sliced off. He had photos that documented how the land had looked before the drillers came. Now he was back to take after-photos of the worsening slip.
Wetzel is part of a rugged section of Appalachia just below the Mason-Dixon Line and, in the last few years, has become prime ground for natural gas exploration. Like much of West Virginia, Wetzel County sits above the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that underlies a wide swath of the eastern U.S. The Shale holds trillions of dollars’ worth of natural gas.
Wade put his camera away and looked out toward the horizon, which was settling into dusk. In the distance were expansive, rectangular concrete well pads, crowded with tractor-trailers and two-tone trucks lined up like dominoes, built on clear-cut ridges. Near the pads were pastures and barns and the occasional trailer home. The rest of the landscape looked like a sepia photograph of rural Appalachia in late winter: brown, almost colorless, layered hills, and leafless trees.
The controversial technique of “fracking” has made it economically viable to recover natural gas from thousands of feet below this rugged landscape: a single hole in the Wetzel County earth can generate millions of dollars worth of gas. The bulk of that money goes in the gas company’s coffers. Smaller amounts are siphoned off in royalty payments to mineral-rights holders and severance taxes for the state. For Wetzel County businesses, the influx of gas industry workers has brought much-needed new clientele to local restaurants and motels. But, amidst this local economic boom, concerned citizens worry about their pristine country turning into an industrial zone (a concern I first heard about through my job with the Public Justice Foundation), about land and road degradation and air pollution, about their drinking water being contaminated, and about how the gas industry has split apart the community.
To bring natural gas from the Marcellus Shale to the earth’s surface, an army of trucks and machinery is needed. First, seismic testing locates the sought-after gas deposits. The pad site is then prepared—trees are cleared, the ground is leveled and a cement slab poured—to hold the derrick, trucks and other equipment. Then the well is drilled thousands of feet down. (The Shale runs about a mile below the earth’s surface.) Next, steel piping is run to the end of the well and reinforced on the outside with freshly poured concrete. Finally, the well is fracked—pumped at high pressure with water, sand, and chemicals—to fracture the underground rock and release the gas. As methane surfaces, it is mixed with flowback water, other gases, such as propane, and noxious chemicals like benzene. When it reaches the earth’s surface, the methane must be separated and dried, and the noxious gases vented off. Compressor tanks pressurize the usable gas and prepare it for transport. The wastewater and sludge left over after the gases have been separated must be handled and removed from the well site, or saved and re-injected into the well during subsequent fracks.
After Wellsburg, West Virginia banned fracking near the downtown, Chesapeake rescinded a promised thirty-thousand-dollar gift for band instruments at Wellsburg Middle School.
In the early 2000s, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the main gas company operating in Wetzel, was not the Fortune 500 company it is today. (Based in Oklahoma City, Chesapeake Energy had a net income of $1.7 billion in 2010. It is currently #263 on the Fortune 500 list.) But that began to change when the George W. Bush administration’s EPA loosened environmental regulations for the oil and gas industries, and the price of natural gas shot up. In 2009, the U.S. moved ahead of Russia as the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and now about a quarter of our nation’s electricity comes from that production. The Marcellus Shale houses just one of many vast gas deposits in the U.S.; there are others in the upper Midwest, in Texas and Oklahoma, and out west, in New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. While natural gas exploration and retrieval have exploded in recent years, the amount still untapped in the U.S. represents more energy than in all of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves, and gas companies are scrambling to get at it. The first time I met Wade, early one morning last winter, he handed me the front page of that day’s Intelligencer, the newspaper out of Wheeling, West Virginia: “COMPANY TO INVEST $50 BILLION IN W.VA.,” stated one headline. “That there’s Aubrey McClendon,” Wade said, pointing to a picture of a silver-haired man. “Chesapeake’s CEO.” McClendon and Chesapeake are buying up drilling leases around rural America, leading to large-scale fracking operations in small-scale places like Wetzel County.
Upon arriving in sparsely populated Wetzel in 2007, Chesapeake garnered support from the community by donating to schools and the fire and police departments, sponsoring public radio, and organizing gatherings like picnics and 9/11 anniversary events. The money was a welcome shot of energy for the depressed area. Residents of New Martinsville—the five-thousand-person county seat located about twenty miles from where the drilling and fracking take place—have, since Chesapeake’s arrival, seen local businesses thriving and schools and public services improved. These donations come with a caveat: the gas company expects a certain level of cooperation in return. After the town of Wellsburg, West Virginia, which is about fifty miles from New Martinsville, banned fracking in certain areas near the downtown, Chesapeake rescinded a promised thirty-thousand-dollar gift for band instruments at Wellsburg Middle School.
In addition to local sponsorships and bringing in welcomed patrons for businesses, Chesapeake also set up an advisory panel in New Martinsville and hired a communications firm to facilitate. Many community leaders, including the mayor, school superintendent, and police chief, participated in the monthly meetings, at which Chesapeake provided dinner catered by a local church. “Chesapeake made the meetings very pleasant,” one participant recalls. The panel was scheduled to run for two years, and at the final meeting, last March, all participants received a pen set as a parting gift. “The dialogue between the industry and the community improved a lot,” another panel member wrote to me in an e-mail. Other participants echoed this sentiment. Although some did feel the meetings ended prematurely and that there were still issues to work out, the mayor strikes a high note about what the natural gas industry has done for the area: “We were really struggling before this industry arrived,” Mayor Lucille Blum, a former high school teacher, says. Her quaint town, which sits along the Ohio River about one hundred miles southwest of Pittsburgh, is now bustling. Some restaurants have reported three times their usual business.
But outside New Martinsville it is a different story. The retrieval of Marcellus Shale gas over the past four years has fractured this tiny community along geographical and class lines. Residents of New Martinsville see that fracking is helping West Virginia’s weak economy. But, many who live outside of the county seat resent that the city is reaping the economic benefits of the industry but isn’t sharing any of the burdens. “New Martinsville’s full of city slickers lining their pockets” is how one resident of rural Wetzel described it. For Wade and others who live in the county’s hillier regions, fracking is destroying a way of life for which they are deeply prideful and protective. On a daily basis roads are clogged with diesel fume-spewing trucks; one woman calls the area a “third world industrial zone.” Farmers say methane has seeped into their well water; horses and sheep have inexplicably fallen sick and died. People complain of the smell of gas, headaches and stomach illness, and some no longer drink their tap water. But they are reluctant to speak up, fearing retaliation by the gas company. As one seventy-year-old resident says, “They try to buffalo the landowners.” A retired construction worker told me that Chesapeake has tried to force him off his own land twenty-five or thirty times. Mayor Blum recognizes all this: “I know it’s very hard for some folks up there,” she says.
The safety of Wetzel County roads is one of the biggest issues. A typical headline in the local newspaper reads, “ANOTHER NATURAL GAS DRILLING TRUCK ROLLS OVER EMBANKMENT.” Wade has photographed hundreds of accidents and road blockages caused by industry vehicles. Over the past four years of “documenting abuses,” as he calls it, he has filled a two-terabyte hard drive with thousands of photos and videos of fracking’s side effects on community life. His credo is “Never make an argument without documentation,” and he spends his days and nights traveling Wetzel’s hilly, rugged roads to the twenty-four well sites Chesapeake maintains locally. He closely follows Chesapeake activity on the Citizens’s Band radios that he installed in all of his vehicles. (In addition to an all-wheel-drive Subaru, he has two Ford Escorts, two pickup trucks, and a four-wheel ATV. His off-and-on work as a unionized boilermaker still pays pretty well.) He knows who is on the roads, where they’re going, and when they’re transporting heavy equipment or doing something else that might pose a danger to citizens. Wade’s house is also wired with CBs. (He estimates having spent six thousand dollars on radio equipment to monitor the industry.) Wherever he is, Wade is rarely out of earshot of CBs, the main means of communication in a region where cell phone service is spotty at best.
Teel knew there was nothing he could do, so he asked the man to make sure the road didn’t get too close to his wife’s vegetable garden. When Teel came home the next day he found the entire area bulldozed.
With jobs in aluminum and coal shrinking, many local workers were hoping the new industry would be hiring. But most gas industry workers come to Wetzel from out of state, and the county’s unemployment, at almost 12 percent, remains the highest in the state. (West Virginia has an overall unemployment rate of 7.9 percent.) These days, many lawn signs around Wetzel display a now-ubiquitous message: “DEMAND LOCAL JOBS FOR LOCAL WORKERS.” Chesapeake, meanwhile, offers its own take: “We’ve had great success in hiring a capable local work force,” one of its spokespeople, Stacey Brodak, told the Intelligencer last year. (For this article, Brodak and other representatives from Chesapeake did not return any of my calls or e-mails requesting interviews.)
“They’re good with PR,” one local man explained. “Commercials during Mountaineer football and basketball games, that kinda thing. But the operations side is different.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“Ruthlessness,” he said.
Dewey Teel, the retired construction worker who told me that Chesapeake had tried repeatedly to force him off his land, lives in a house that is now sandwiched between two well pads. A large man with cloudy eyes and big, scarred hands, Teel said that he and his wife bought their home here a few years ago to retire and live peacefully. But Chesapeake has made that difficult. Teel came home one evening last year to find a newly erected gate secured with a chain and padlock at the base of his driveway. Later, gas workers tried to keep Teel and his grandson Travis from cutting down firewood on their own property. Another time, a Chesapeake rep came to his house saying that they had to put in a new road to better access one of the well sites. Teel knew there was nothing he could do, so he asked the man to make sure the road didn’t get too close to his wife’s vegetable garden. But when Teel came home the next day he found the entire area bulldozed.
Even people who don’t live within walking distance of a well site have been profoundly impacted by the gas industry’s presence. Gas odors are constant and often sickening, people say, and with all the traffic and accidents, it’s a daily battle to get down the mountain to New Martinsville. Wade’s photographs evidence a variety of accidents on Wetzel’s narrow roads: dump trucks smashed through guard rails, semis tipped sideways and straddling roads, cranes toppled down into ravines, drill rigs fallen off the back of semis, pickups stuck in roadside ditches. Wetzel’s snowy winters pose further hazards: “Last winter I got a call from one of my girls,” Wade said. He has two teenage daughters who live with their mother. “This is during a blizzard. She tells me there’s a semi on the road with chains on all the tires. It’s a Flammable 3. That’s like a goddamn bomb waiting to go off. And it’s on these slippery roads with chains on the fuckin’ tires. And my girls are in a car right behind it.” We were at Wade’s house. Newspapers and files were stacked everywhere around his home office—on the desk, the floor and nearby chairs. Everything had to do with the natural gas industry.
He plans to use his extensive documentation as evidence in lawsuits against Chesapeake; some are already in the works.
Wade is guarded about his personal life, but he did tell me that he avoids leaving the rural areas of Wetzel County, where he was born. He doesn’t even like going the twenty miles down the mountain to New Martinsville. “Too busy,” he says. He lives alone in a spacious, single-story house set far back from a dirt road. The view from his back porch is of layered hills and plunging hollows. Inside, there are deer and elk heads high on the walls, and every room has a mounted space heater, where, during the cold months, blue flames flicker behind a grill. (Wade runs his home on natural gas, which he receives for free from wells on his property. These wells—much shallower than those that sink to the Marcellus’s depth—were dug decades ago by a different gas company in exchange for free gas for the property owner. All Marcellus gas, which is not user-friendly, is piped out of the county.)
After years in trucking, Wade went into boilermaking and joined West Virginia’s union. He used to earn close to one hundred thousand dollars per year when he was working full-time (he still takes shifts here and there). Now, no one is paying him to work sixteen-hour days monitoring the gas industry. But he has no plans to let up. There are other Wetzel residents also keeping tabs on Chesapeake, and together they make up a fracking watchdog organization, the Wetzel County Action Group. It’s a shoestring operation: all dozen or so members volunteer, there’s no bank account or official nonprofit status or any regular source of funding, and the group’s bare-bones website is updated only about every six months. When I asked Wade how often the group meets, he frowned: “Not as often as I’d like.” But he is content working alone. Chesapeake rotates personnel and often operates twenty-four hours per day, so Wade is regularly up during the night. He plans to use his extensive documentation as evidence in lawsuits against Chesapeake; some are already in the works. He and the WCAG have negotiated for significant changes to how Chesapeake conducts business in Wetzel: There is now a staging area along Route 7, the main road into New Martinsville, at which every truck driver checks in before going out to a well site; all truckers must carry CBs and are required to update each other on their positions in order to minimize road accidents; and escort vehicles lead school buses at the beginning and end of every school day.
Even with these changes, though, Wade thinks it’s a miracle there haven’t been fatalities from the hundreds of accidents. I looked through photos of family after family carrying grocery bags and other belongings around a mess of machinery. On one of my trips to Wetzel I was driving a rented Ford Focus, a compact car. To pass Chesapeake trucks going the opposite direction I had to pull over as far as possible and come to a full stop. On many turns there are no guard rails, nothing to keep a vehicle from being forced off the road and down into a ravine. What’s more, the roads themselves are now in rough shape, rutted and potholed, from the hard driving of industry vehicles. And they are not only badly beaten up but are also littered with pipes and other drilling paraphernalia. A retired engineer named Bob Whipp is in charge of the repair work, which is being paid for by Chesapeake. Whipp attended the final community advisory panel meeting in New Martinsville to talk about road restoration. At the meeting, he said that he was working with a professional paving outfit to get the roads back in shape. But when I asked him for details he said that he “isn’t permitted to speak with the media.” “Not permitted by whom?” I asked. “Chesapeake,” he said.
Travis Teel told me that for a while he was working on Chesapeake cleanup crews, but after handling the wastewater and sludge he had sores all over his legs: “Burned the soles right off my boots.”
The relationship between Chesapeake and the community is touch-and-go, and, at times, hostile. The response from locals has not been solely Wade’s camera-and-CB strategy; people have reacted more aggressively as well. Hate crimes have been perpetrated against truckers traveling to well sites: they’ve hung dummies wearing Chesapeake t-shirts with nooses around their necks; placed sharp objects in the roads along routes the truckers often pass; displayed banners showing a stick figure being sodomized by a drill rig. One man took his chainsaw to an above-ground pipe used to bring water to the fracking site. But Chesapeake seems to pay the closest attention to Wade, often noting his presence over the CB, calling him out by his vehicle and sometimes by name. When I asked him about this, he shrugged. We were in the Subaru. He reached across me and opened the glove compartment to reveal a gun. “That’s why I got my permit,” he said, and snapped it shut. He now carries a gun whenever he goes out. A few of the other members of the WCAG do the same.
When two Halliburton subcontractors were stranded in a snow storm last winter, Wade drove home and came back with food and water. “Told ‘em to use the radio to call their families. These guys’re out here from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas. Just tryin’ to make a livin’ but ain’t never been to Wetzel and have no idea where they’re goin’ or how to drive in that kinda weather.” WCAG members told me about others they’ve helped: a young man who was sprayed in the face with toxic powdered lime and nearly blinded; the worker whose nylon suit melted to his skin after a condensate tank he was working on exploded.
The WCAG is also deeply concerned by fracking’s effects on Wetzel’s environment, especially its water and air quality. Wade carefully scrutinizes local streams for any evidence of contamination, and one of his WCAG colleagues, Bill Hughes, has been on the air beat for years. Indeed, air quality is a regular issue for folks in hilly Wetzel. When gases vent from compressor tanks, the smell is unmistakable and can be carried quite a distance by the wind. In the evenings, smog from all of the diesel trucks hangs on the horizon. The disposal of fracking wastewater presents another environmental hazard. Travis Teel, Dewey’s grandson, told me that for a while he was working on Chesapeake cleanup crews, but after handling the wastewater and sludge he had sores all over his legs. “Burned the soles right off my boots,” he recalled. He also said the gas odors were often overwhelming: “Not long ago I was out huntin’ over the hill from one well. We started to smell it bad. My buddy used to work on a rig, and he could tell it was frack gas. The headaches started and we had to get outta there quick.”
Four years ago, Marty and Lisa Whiteman’s sheep farm was the first place in Wetzel County that Chesapeake drilled. In the spring of 2007, a company representative came to Marty: “You’ll be able to just mow around it,” the man said. “The well head’ll be about the size of a kitchen table.” (When Chesapeake first arrived in Wetzel, the gas company approached a number of landowners, like the Whitemans and the Teels, on whose property they hoped to drill. According to many people who received company representatives at their front doors, there were often two representatives: one clean-shaven and dressed in a business suit, the other bearded and wearing Carhartt overalls, so they could appeal to either type of landowner.) Marty was offered fifteen thousand dollars—as long he signed a waiver agreeing to the company’s plans to drill. He signed it and took the check.
When Wade and I visited the Whitemans one Saturday morning last winter, their single-wide trailer was warm and smelled like frying bacon. They offered me a seat on the couch where a number of cats lounged. Marty Whiteman is short and heavyset with sharp, blue eyes, reddish hair, and a thick beard. He had on jeans and a camouflage sweatshirt over a good-sized paunch. After Marty saved enough money over twenty years of working as long-distance truck driver, he and Lisa bought land in Wetzel, where they’re both from. They wanted to raise sheep in the country. In the last four years, though, the agrarian life they wished for hasn’t been so pleasant: “We’ve been gassed out dozens of times,” Marty told me that morning.
“It’ll make you sick to your stomach,” Lisa added from the kitchen.
Marty Whiteman believes signing that waiver [on West Virginia’s Well Work Permit Application] was his biggest mistake. “I know I screwed up,” he said sadly, his eyes downcast.
Not long after Chesapeake began its work, Marty and Lisa were distressed by the loss of their pasture. Their land was overrun with trucks and drillers; the fracking activity was much more invasive than they were led to believe. Later, Chesapeake representatives again approached Marty. They said they were going to drill two more wells. Marty protested, but the company ignored him and went ahead with the work—without providing any further compensation. Indeed, Marty and Lisa, as surface owners, have little say in whether or not a well gets drilled; the gas company simply fills out the application, submits it to the Office of Oil and Gas in Charleston, the state capital, and goes to work. The applicant—besides providing fifteen days’ notice of the plans to exercise mineral rights on the property—is not beholden to the surface owner at all. The best the surface owner can hope for is a fifteen thousand dollar check, which Chesapeake dishes out, one time only and off the books, as a sort of olive branch.
On West Virginia’s Well Work Permit Application there is a section titled SURFACE OWNER WAIVER. Marty told me that he had had trouble understanding exactly what it said but didn’t worry about it because of the “mow around it” and “kitchen table” comments, and, of course, because of the fifteen thousand. So he signed it. At the top of the waiver, a line of bold text reads, NOTE: YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO FILE ANY COMMENT, immediately followed by WHERE TO FILE COMMENTS AND OBTAIN ADDITIONAL INFORMATION, and then the address and phone number of the Office of Oil and Gas at the Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston. These “comments” must be filed within fifteen days of the driller’s application being submitted, and they are the only medium through which a surface owner can raise concerns over the planned well or subsequent wells. Based on such “comments,” the Chief of the Office of Oil and Gas in Charleston might deny an operator’s permit, but there is no explanation of why it might behoove the surface owner to file comments in the first place—or what those comments might consist of. Marty Whiteman never thought about what “comments” he might file. He believes signing that waiver was his biggest mistake. “I know I screwed up,” he said sadly, his eyes downcast. He’s right: near the bottom of the waiver is a subsection called VOLUNTARY STATEMENT OF NO OBJECTION. It reads, “I have no objection to the applicant drilling another well within 50 feet of this well should a problem arise during the drilling of this well. I also have no objection to drilling within 200 linear feet of my water well or dwelling.”
“Now they’re gonna put another well head on the ridge there,” said Lisa. I looked out the window to where she was pointing. The ridge wasn’t more than a few hundred feet from the house.
In West Virginia, as in some other states, there’s a critical difference between owning land and owning the mineral rights to that land: as the name implies, “surface owners” own the surface of their land—not what’s below it. Mineral rights are different; they give the owner claim to what’s under the earth too, which includes, of course, natural gas. Mineral-rights holders are therefore entitled to royalties on gas wells’ yields, and, by law, are allowed to do ‘what’s fair and reasonable’ to extract materials from their piece of land—all without the surface owner’s permission. The owner of the mineral rights below Dewey Teel’s land, for instance, lives in Charleston. Some owners of Wetzel County mineral rights don’t even live in West Virginia—they’re in Pennsylvania or Ohio or even further afield. Mineral rights date back generations; they have been automatically passed down within families or when property changed hands. For decades only lawyers knew they even existed. Now, however, with royalty incomes from gas well yields reaching into the six and seven figures, mineral rights are no longer just an old legal term buried in ancient deeds.
It is rare for a Wetzel County resident to own both land and the mineral rights below it, but I did speak with one such person. (He requested that I not use his name in my story—and that I not be too specific about the whereabouts of his land—explaining that he wasn’t sure how Chesapeake would react and didn’t want to cause any trouble.) On a cold day last spring, I met him outside his house where he was feeding logs into an outdoor stove. He took off his gloves, and we shook hands. His house was somewhat in disrepair, but two new-ish looking trucks were parked in the driveway. Regarding his lease with Chesapeake, he lamented that he’d probably gotten less than he could have. True enough, mineral rights in Wetzel are now being leased for as much as one hundred times more per acre (five thousand dollars compared to his fifty), and royalties are about five percentage points higher (17 or 18 percent compared to his 12). At the time, though, he was worried that he’d miss out if he didn’t sign right away. I asked how much his royalty payments were, but he wouldn’t say. Mineral-rights leases last five years, and he has three more on his.
Earlier this year, I started following Chesapeake on Twitter. The first Chesapeake tweets I read claimed factual inaccuracies in Gasland, the scathing 2010 documentary about the natural gas industry. Others promoted contests to win tickets to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, a 46-inch HDTV, and Visa gift cards. Chesapeake is also in the habit of tweeting quotes, ending each with the hashtag “#CHKquotes.” Every morning, company employees are sent these quotes in an all-staff email. They vary from the Biblical to the literary to the thought-provoking: “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21); “A true friend stabs you in the front” (Oscar Wilde); and “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so” (Douglas Adams).
In the kitchen of the Whitemans’ trailer, Lisa was done cooking. Wade, who had been up since before dawn visiting well sites and helping a neighbor put new siding on his barn, got one plate of pancakes, a second of potatoes, and bacon. He opened a can of Mountain Dew, spit his chewing tobacco into the trash, and sat down to eat. “I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee,” Marty said, opening a canister. “They say if you play by the rules and work hard you’ll be prosperous. That’s the American dream, right?” He looked out the window toward the ridge that Lisa suspects will be the site of the next well. “It’s all bullshit. I can hardly believe this is America.”
For a while, we ate our breakfasts in silence. Wade was the first to finish. He took a last swig of Mountain Dew and cleared his plates, saying he had to get back to his CB and camera, back out on the road.
Avi Kramer, a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., also works in communications at the Public Justice Foundation.
Photograph courtesy of Randy Harris