According to Democracy Now!, police and private security forces raided a protest encampment of anti-fracking activists in Pennsylvania this week. For two weeks, neighbors and other concerned citizens had been helping to stave off the eviction of more than 30 families in the Riverdale Mobile Home Park in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, after residents were told they had to vacate the property and move their homes after the land was sold to the giant private water corporation Aqua America. The company plans to pump up to three million of gallons of water a day from the nearby river to funnel through a pipeline to other parts of the state to be used in industrial drilling for shale gas, through controversial hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
These Pennsylvania residents are the latest victims of the oil and gas industry’s plunder of natural resources in the state, which has been at the forefront of a growing movement of people objecting to this destructive form of energy extraction. Fracking, an intensive process that spoils millions of gallons of drinkable water in the process of removing gas from shale bedrock, has been spreading widely across the country. In addition to the wasting of water in the drilling process, fracking has be shown to contaminate water and air, and injection wells used in the process have even been suspected of causing earthquakes.
This move by Aqua America -- which stands to profit generously from expanded drilling across the country -- could be premonitory of upcoming battles over the role of for-profit water companies in capitalizing on fracking to the detriment of people’s future needs for water.
Activists Set Up Camp to Help Residents
The mobile home park that was coveted by Aqua America lies in a floodplain next to the Susquehanna River. It was a story in the local newspaper that informed the residents, some of whom had lived in the mobile home park for decades, that Aqua America bought the land to build a water withdrawal facility on the property. The company plans to take a billion gallons of water a year from the river and transport it to other parts of the state to be used in fracking. In the fracking process, each well uses untold millions of gallons of water. The residents, which include children and older Americans, were informed that their leases were summarily terminated and were told to leave the premises by June 1.
Residents were offered $2,500 to move -- even though some quotes from mobile home movers reportedly have placed the cost of moving the homes between $5,000 and $12,000. Additionally, it is not clear whether other mobile home parks in the area would have space available at a comparable rate. The evictions are also likely to disrupt community ties of residents and potentially require kids to change schools or school districts.
When six of the households were unable to move because of the financial burden, members of the occupy movement and others stepped in to help residents stand up to Aqua America. The remaining residents are currently under a gag order as they negotiate for a financial settlement from the company. The residents are demanding that the remaining residents be able to remain on the land, fair compensation for residents who left or are leaving, and a right to return for residents who have left be allowed. The campaign lasted two weeks during which activists set up a functioning community -- with cooks, medics, security detail, and a composting system. Activist Cameron Healy described a transformation of the mobile home park during this time, including a "beautification" process, as focused on serving the needs of the residents.
On June 12, residents received notice from Aqua America that excavation at the mobile home park would begin that day and that people would have to leave or risk arrest. Huffmaster Crisis Response, which activists were told was hired by Aqua America, was sent in to remove the non-violent objectors so that a fence could be erected around the park. The hired company touts on its website that it is "the leading strike management resource" to handle "high-profile labor disputes." When the protestors did not leave, some two dozen state troopers moved in. Protestors left the park after residents urged them to do so to avoid arrest. Meanwhile, residents have been allowed to stay in their homes temporarily until the negotiations conclude even while construction has commenced.
Corps Stake Claim to Pennsylvania and Its Governor
Opponents of virtually unregulated fracking in the state have argued that Pennsylvania's legislature is beholden to the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett reportedly roped in nearly $1 million from the industry during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He has since pushed for the expansion of drilling in the state, including a recent effort to push neighboring states to open up the Delaware River basin to fracking, which was thwarted by Delaware Governor Jack Markell in November who said the plan did not address public health protections.
Additionally, one of the world’s largest fracking companies, Chesapeake Energy, announced that it plans to focus its drilling initiatives in the Southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. The CEO, Aubrey McClendon, and the company have been heavy funders of Corbett. The governor, who has been criticized for pushing austerity cuts, is advocating for $67 million annual tax credit to Shell, which fracks in the state, starting in 2017, for 25 years.
Aqua America, a publicly traded company, is one of the country’s largest water “utility” corporations and part of a lobbying effort to expand fracking. It supplies bottled drinking water in Pennsylvania, sells water to gas companies in the state, and has also expressed interest in getting money to treat the water contaminated by fracking. The market for this could be huge -- Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale operators injected 94.2 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into so-called disposal wells last year. The company is an “associate member” Marcellus Shale Coalition -- the gas industry’s PR operation has spent more than $2 million in lobbying in Pennsylvania since 2010 and an untold amount on public relations.
“We are concerned that these relationships encourage investor owned water utilities to endorse shale gas development despite its risk to public water supplies,” Mary Grant, a researcher at Food and Water Watch, said.
Aqua America has joined up with Penn-Virginia Resource Partners, LP, in a joint venture called Aqua PVR LLC. Together, they will handle negotiation of water pipeline capacity contracts with producers and water intake supply arrangements. In the past few years, Aqua America also has purchased sizable plots of land in Ohio and Texas -- both of which are targets of the oil and gas industry.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of a study to investigate the effect fracking has on water quality and public health, which will look at seven sites -- three of which are in Pennsylvania. The agency is also testing the water of some Pennsylvanians who have filed complaints of contamination of their wells near drilling sites.
Anti-Fracking Movement Grows
The protest at the Pennsylvania mobile home park was one of the first large mobilizations in a rural area. It serves as a “turning point” and symbolizes a move toward direct action, said Wendy Lynne Lee, one of the activists involved in the occupation. Lee is a professor of Feminist and Environmental Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
“The company is taking advantage of economically vulnerable people . . . . This would not have happened in a middle class neighborhood,” she said. “This is just the beginning. It was an example of real engagement of the activist community protecting those, and working with those, who are affected. The anti-fracking movement is continually growing stronger.”