Pennsylvania Groups Mobilize to Stop Fracking Near Schools

Posted Sept. 24, 2014

MP3 Interview with Michael Bagdes-Canning, a member of Marcellus Outreach Butler, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

fracking

Pennsylvania is “Ground Zero” for the fracking boom in the Marcellus Shale region, which extends from parts of New York state through the Appalachian mountains into Virginia. In western Pennsylvania, drillers are especially interested in what's called "wet" gas, which can be broken down into its component parts of mainly methane, but also produces other petroleum products which can be sold separately.

A group called Marcellus Outreach Butler is opposed to any fracking in Butler County, an area of Pennsylvania's green rolling hills and bucolic countryside two hours from Pittsburgh that is now criss-crossed with fracking infrastructure. They have provided organizing support to a group called Protect Our Children, which includes parent organizations in Pennsylvania and several other states that is calling for a one-mile buffer between school properties and all drilling operations. The Mars Parent Group, a member of Protect Our Children, is demanding a two-mile buffer zone and has succeeded thus far in preventing drilling operations at schools in their district. However several school districts in other parts of Pennsylvania have already leased their property to gas companies that are doing subsurface drilling and considering building pipelines across school property.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus visited Butler County in early September and spoke with parents and members of Marcellus Outreach Butler, including Michael Bagdes-Canning. Here he describes the work being done by Protect Our Children and the danger of fracking near schools.

MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING: Protect Our Children is a coalition of many, many groups working to keep drilling away from schools. It's something I think that a lot of people can agree on. Some people may think drilling is all right in certain places, but not next to schools. The reason MOB is involved is we think that once people see that drilling near schools is not good for their children, they might start thinking that drilling near anybody's children isn't a good thing, and may come to the realization that we need to stop this thing before it hurts anyone, not just their own children.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You know, the industry says it's safe and it's been declared safe, I guess, by the state authorities who are in charge of these things. So what do you think could happen if children were exposed to drilling operations close to their schools?

MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING: It's not what we think could happen, it's what we know happens. I mean, there's particulate matter, there's all kinds of stuff that's released at the sites of some of this drilling infrastructure – at the well pads, the compressor stations, at processing plants. These things are released, and those kind of things make breathing difficult for them. We don't have any actual cases where it actually happened, but we know, for example, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, last spring I think it was, there was a well pad there was an explosion on. They evacuated one mile from that well pad. What if there was a school there instead of farmland? What would have happened to those children? There was a pipeline in West Virginia that exploded and it ruined a large stretch of one of the interstates. What if that pipeline was on the property of a school? We just don't think that's something that makes any sense at all. Why the heck would you put something that dangerous next to places where lots of vulnerable people are? And I'm not just talking about kids here. I'm talking about anybody who has health issues shouldn't be around it – anybody's that's healthy shouldn't be around this stuff – but especially people that have health issues, they shouldn't be around this stuff.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Protect Our Children is asking for no drilling operations of any kind within a mile of any school?

MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING: No gas infrastructure within a mile. I guess that's the compromise position that the coalition partners came up with. I guess the least daring members of the coalition thought one mile was supported by the science, so yeah, that was it. And it's not just from the school, either; it's actually from the school property, so playgrounds are included too. We don't want kids' playgrounds to be within a mile, either.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The Mars Parent Group, they want a two-mile radius. I guess they're maybe less sanguine about the impacts. And they're actually taking some legal steps to enforce that, right?

MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING: Correct. And the Mars Parent Group came into existence after Protect Our Children. They work with us, but they found some research – again, erring on the side of caution – they found some research that suggested that two miles was in fact a better number than one mile. They've gotten letters from national medical groups confirming that it's not a good idea.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Who can set that up? Is this something that the DEP needs to do? Or who are you focusing your demands on?

MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING: We're focusing on everybody. For instance, the Mars Parent Group, they first targeted their local school board, and they got some satisfaction there, and then they targeted their township supervisors. But Protect Our Children, we are targeting all the stakeholders: we're targeting parents, to get them activated so they have information so they can approach their decision-makers. We're working with school nurses; we're working with local government; we're working with state government; we're working with green groups. We're trying to educate people so that they can make informed decisions. Legislators, we want them to be informed; we want them to hear more than the crap that comes from the industry and the industry apologists.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are there any successes you can claim at this point?

MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING: I guess it depends on how you define success. If you define it as stopping infrastructure, I'd say the Mars School District is probably our best and maybe the only real success we have with Protect Our Children. But if you define success a little more broadly, and what I mean by success there is you have people activated – they attempted to make something happen and the government body – whichever government body it was – ignored them, and now they are realizing that the government is set up in such a way that they are ... that it's not their government; that the government is not working for them, the government is working for these big corporations. If you measure success that way, right now we have a lot of good things happening in Butler County.

For more information on groups concerned about health and safety issues related to natural gas fracking, visit MarcellusOutreachButler.org.

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