Tioga County lies at the heart of the region marketed by the Commonwealth as the “PA Wilds.” Named for an Iroquois word meaning “where it forks,” Tioga is a 1,134- square-mile county located in north-central PA and a part of the Chemung sub-basin of the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. But it currently has taken on the form of a beehive of activity as gas drilling slowly moves westward from where it began in earnest in Susquehanna County in 2008. Entering the small town of Wellsboro (named in 1806 for the wife of a town father, not today’s gas wells), I found nothing short of an ongoing traffic jam in the downtown this past summer as quaint gas-light lined boulevards not only handled the traffic of local business and tourists, but also of tractor-trailers, tankers, and dump trucks bearing materials and waste to and from well-pads throughout the area.

Route 6, highway accident on westbound lane.

Truck after truck howls its way through the narrow streets, creating a constant din that, like the drilling rigs they service, runs around the clock. The actual rigs, however, remain somewhat elusive in the Big Woods. Their effects are easily observed, but it is surprisingly difficult to spot the head of a rig rising above the tree-line.  On my first visit, heading out of town into the forestlands on U.S. Route 6, the main artery of the PA Northern Tier, a traffic jam held up a long line of pick-up trucks, commercial vehicles, and the occasional personal vehicle. The cause of the tie up finally became visible: an 18-wheeler in the opposite lane with its cab burnt to a barely identifiable hulk. The large piece of equipment on the trailer is the only clue that it was a gas-industry truck. Traffic accidents, like death and taxes, are ubiquitous. But the Marcellus Shale boom brings odds that are simply unavoidable, with traffic in rural regions like Tioga County increasing exponentially and roads not built to handle such high volumes.

Asked about the safety of drilling in a larger sense, particularly its use of hydraulic fracturing technology to set loose the gas from so far below the surface, geologist Carl Kirby, director of Bucknell University’s Marcellus Shale Initiative, uses a related metaphor in his question-response: “Is driving a car safe?” It is a calculated risk. But if there is not enough information available, then the calculation may not prove correct. The gas industry, for example, accurately says that its drilling technology has been practiced for many years. But it has only been in the last few years that it has been applied the way it is being used in the Marcellus Shale. A great deal of information remains unknown, including how the drilling will affect other variables such as traffic and Big Woods tourism.

When I came back to the area again for a more extended stay, I decided to try to get around the traffic and travel by bicycle, also enabling a closer attention to details of effects in the countryside. But over-nighting at a cabin in Hills Creek State Park, amid the calls of owls and rustling of a woodchuck beneath my floor, there is another sound floating in over the lake. It is a faint, but nonetheless constant humming, sometimes indistinguishable from a tractor gathering hay in the fields. It is the sound of a Marcellus Shale gas well, about a mile from the entrance of this park.

Frack tanks waiting for removal from completed wellpad.

I had found the site in twilight, cycling west from the cabin towards Wellsboro for supplies. First I spotted a completed well area, or “pad” as the industry calls them, just off the main road and less than a quarter mile east of the new site where the drilling actually was going on. A “Christmas tree” of pipes protected the wellheads, so called by workers for its similarity to a tree with many branches. The tanks containing the hazardous flowback water still loomed off to one side, silent, intimidating, and covered in warning labels. Flowback water returns to the surface after the hydraulic fracturing is done. Also known as “frackwater,” it is a primary concern of environmental agencies and worker safety. The water has a salinity five to ten times that of seawater, is usually at least mildly radioactive, and contains a cocktail of chemicals, most of which remain a guarded industry secret as permitted by a loophole in the Clean Water Act of 2005. A few other non-descript tanks, pipes, and other equipment lay around the pad, but by all other criteria this is nothing more than a parking lot now. Off to the west, the lights come on at the new drill rig and every few minutes the dull background hum from the pad is broken by several peals from what sounds like Thor hammering on the drill shaft. Turning away on a bicycle, the most efficient and greenest vehicle available, it is an interesting paradox to use this form of transportation to explore the beginnings of the greatest domestic energy boom in recent history.

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