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Practicing Precaution: On the Farm and in the Marcellus Shale

Stephen Cleghorn

My day on our organic farm in western Pennsylvania always begins with what I like to call "harvesting nutrients."  The chore involves raking up the brown pellets and urine-sweetened, wasted hay from the floor of our dairy goats' living area, then hauling that product out to gardens and fields as payment forward to a prosperous future.  

It is both arduous and boring, except for one thing.  In these days of worrying about our farm being overrun by the Great Marcellus Shale Gas Rush, the task that others inartfully call "shoveling shit" is morning therapy for me.

The agrarian poet Wendell Berry finds his peace among the "wild things" who "do not tax their lives with forethoughts of grief." I find mine among my domesticated but still innocent herd of goats when my muscles work for their well-being.  For an hour the forethoughts of grief subside. It is an act of kinetic faith, of touching the substance of things hoped for by sweeping up goat droppings.  I can do at least this much good each day, even if I cannot stop the reckless gas rush.

Since we learned of the threat to us, it has been difficult to fight off depression and a sense of powerlessness. The goat maternity barn remains unfinished.  The fall and winter garden chores rebuke me for being undone.  The renovation of our house makes no sense anymore.  Where the shale gas boom has hit, property values have plummeted. How can we plan a future with such uncertainty hanging over us?

The prospect of a Marcellus well devouring up to 10 acres of our 50-acre farm effectively negates our past and steals our future.   Five years of difficult labor may be rendered worthless.  Dreams for our future on this farm now seem delusional.  Much as I take daily precautions to create a safe environment for our goats in the barn, the world outside them could soon be rendered toxic and unsafe for their lives and ours.  

Yet no cautionary warnings or troubling evidence of serious contamination, whether from within Pennsylvania or from other gas fields all across the country, seem to deter the gas rush.


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Our political leaders have completely forgotten the Precautionary Principle, which has been simply stated as: "When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm" (UNESCO).  That principle is the only socially responsible choice when there is a risk of harming the public or the environment. At present there is no scientific consensus that unconventional drilling for gas in the shale by a method called "hydraulic fracturing" will not cause irreparable environmental harm, perhaps despoiling water aquifers that supply millions of people, including New York City and Philadelphia. 

A Scientific American article reports that the 2004 EPA study which the gas industry so often quotes as a clean bill of health was not even about hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formations; and that buried within that study the EPA noted that "hydrofracking" fluids, which are laced with toxic chemicals, "migrated unpredictably -- through different rock layers, and to greater distances than previously thought." 

The author of that article has searched for more than a year for a study that proves that hydrofracking shale formations for methane gas is a safe technology, asking "more than 40 academic experts, scientists, industry officials, and federal and state regulators" if such a study exists. It does not. 

The Precautionary Principle puts the burden of proof on those who do the drilling that it is not harmful.  The gas companies are not providing it. Instead they are vigorously resisting and trying to curtail the scope of a new EPA study on the environmental consequences of this technology, just as they continue to resist federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

As the one responsible for the well-being of my goats, I take necessary precautions on my farm to protect their health.  Our political leaders need to do the same for all of Pennsylvania by enacting a moratorium on natural gas drilling as New York just did.  The shale is not going anywhere.  We should wait until we know with scientific certainty that shale drilling can be done safely in a way that reduces to near zero the chance of ruining our groundwater. 

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Stephen Cleghorn is an organic farmer, along with his wife, in western PA. Their home and farm are under threat from the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling boom. Their website is here.



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