Trucks and equipment from Texas, Oklahoma, and other midwestern states have become commonplace in the Big Woods.

There are only a few places left in Tioga County quiet enough that people still look out the window when a car drives by. Covington, a small village in eastern Tioga and home to David Darby and his wife, is one of those places. Darby, a former professor of geography and geology at nearby Mansfield University, has attentively followed the development of the Marcellus Shale in the news and from a first-hand perspective in the community. He and his wife have built this house with the intention of never moving again, but in the end, the Marcellus Shale may prove to make their life in the Big Woods less peaceful than they had envisioned. “If you lived in Harrisburg,” Darby says, “you would be used to that sort of traffic.” Not so, he implies, in Tioga County.

As we talk, he warns me that our conversation may be interrupted because their water is supposed to be tested by a certified laboratory today. Water testing is one of the two consistent pieces of advice offered by the legal savvy or experienced lessee of drilling rights, as in the now-familiar phrase: “If you are going to lease, get your water tested.” But the Darbys are not considering signing a lease, nor is their one and a half acre residential lot worth the time and interest of any gas company. Nonetheless, because of drilling about to commence less than a mile away, “we are getting our water tested for a second time. Not cheap, $350, but it’s good insurance.” Darby says.

Expensive though it is, there is little choice otherwise to ensure your own protection in the event of any kind of court case about water issues related to drilling. “If something does happen, it’s up to you to sue these companies. Experience tells me that the first thing they are going to say is that ‘it wasn’t us, prove that it was us who caused your water to go south.’” (In the case of Cabot in Dimock, Pa., the company still refutes allegations that improper drilling procedures caused methane contamination in dozens of local wells, with concessions in response to extreme pressure from the state government.) Even then, Darby has little optimism about the success of any court case brought against the massive gas industry. “Dutch Shell just bought East Resources for 4.7 billion dollars. Are you going to take a company like that to court?” Faced with such an imbalance of power and resources, “what you can hope to do is generate publicity, like the man down in Dimock. When the reporters come around he runs water in the sink and sticks a cigarette lighter into the sink, and BOOM!” Darby chuckles, “that’s how you deal with those kinds of problems.”

But these “kinds of problems” are not a new thing to the Big Woods. “This part of Pennsylvania and west of here has gone through two major periods of exploitation.” Darby explains.  “Pennsylvania was the coal-mining capital [of the U.S.] and then many of the mines played out, the companies folded and left, and we were left with a mess which we are still dealing with today.” In Covington, the headwaters of the Tioga River still run orange from old acid-mine drainage. “It’s acidified. And it will be acidified the day they put me in the ground.” Darby says. “And then the lumber boom came…”

Five-acre wellpads such as this one in the Tioga State Forest will soon dot the Commonwealth's public lands.

“The lumber companies came in and basically stripped the northern part of Pennsylvania. In many areas there wasn’t a tree left standing for square mile, after square mile, after square mile.” Accompanying the industry, of course, there were the boom times. “Everybody had a job, lots of economic activity, but when the trees were gone, things folded.” According to Darby, Tioga County has yet to recover its pre-logging population. Though thankful that the forests have grown back from the era of lumber exploitation, “What I’m fearful of, is that we’re looking at a third boom.”


Citizens are not the only actors who feel the impacts of this boom surging into Tioga County; underfunded state regulatory agencies also have to deal with the sudden onslaught. “The people I know in DEP, [the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has prime responsibility for regulating the drilling] for the most part, are conscientious, hard-working people who have the welfare of the Commonwealth at heart and who want things done the right way,” Darby says. However, it is hard to even find the right way, when laws regulating drilling date back to 1954, and do not even account for the type of extractions methods that are in use today. “Unfortunately, this whole matter has come at the wrong time.” Darby said, echoing DCNR’s Secretary Quigley, whose separate agency largely is responsible for the state parks and forest lands. “There’s been a ‘perfect storm.”’

“So we have an outdated law, and we’ve got an environmental agency that was ill-equipped to see this mass of people moving in from the outside; many of whom had very deep pockets and were willing to spend money to court decision makers.” he explains. Darby continued, “DEP was ill-equipped to deal with this problem. They were handicapped, and so, I can’t fault them.” They have become more assertive in their enforcement and bolder in their threats, in Darby’s view, as can be seen in the responses to violations and accidents such as the blowout in Clearfield County. Still, the problem remains that the resources and regulations of the agency need to be built up to respond to the enormous scope of the regulatory challenge. Darby also unsettlingly remarks, “Talk to anybody that works on a pad, and they will tell you, inspectors never come on the weekends. They never come after 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Fridays it’s probably closer to 2:00 or 3:00. So if you are going to do something that might be against the law, you do it then.”

Due the size and location of their home and property, David and his wife find themselves in a peculiar situation. They and many other residents of the Northern Tier could potentially suffer ill-effects of drilling without ever receiving a single royalty check. They are too small to negotiate with the gas company but that smallness also relates them closely to water and communities nearby that could be affected by actions on other properties. Their circumstances might soon be even more commonplace in Pennsylvania if the industry obtains its desired concession to the severance tax debate. In exchange for accepting the additional tax burden of a severance tax on resources “severed” from the ground, lobbyists have proposed the concept of what they call “conservation pooling” and their opponents call “forced pooling.” Under the justification of obtaining the highest efficiency yield of gas from the land (and thus reducing the number of drill sites), properties surrounded by others under lease could be forced in turn to lease gas rights, whether or not the landowner desires to comply or not. It in effect would be a use of eminent domain on behalf of private corporations, although with the claimed public good of reducing surface drilling.

Tioga State Forest, near Blossburg.

Looking beyond the issue of private land ownership, there is yet another property resource question that has yet to be fully addressed by the law, the industry, or the voice of the people. Publicly owned lands, including parks and state game lands, but particularly state forests, have been leased out for drilling in order to fill gaps in the state budget. Governor Edward Rendell mandated in fall of 2009 that DCNR produce $60 million in revenue from leases of public land.

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