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Fracking the Amish

In a community that shuns technology and conflict, the intrusion of gas wells shatters tranquility and brings unexpected schisms.

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Activist Carrie Hahn explains the potential risks of the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking to one of her Amish neighbors.

This story was originally published on the website of OnEarth magazine.

A bleak December sky hangs low over rural Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Here, in areas populated by large Amish families, open fields roll toward the horizon uninterrupted by electrical wires and telephone poles. Stepping from a car that seems grossly out of place in this 19th-century landscape, Carrie Hahn, a newcomer to the area, takes a deep breath of mud and cow outside an Amish farmhouse. Suddenly, like an apparition, Andy Miller appears on a flagstone path, his face hidden beneath beard and broad-brimmed hat. He quickly ushers us inside a large, unfurnished mudroom to escape the wind.

Miller, who is in his late 40s and has nine children, is a leading member of the Old Order Amish, who eschew all modern conveniences. (Like all the Amish names in this story, Miller's has been changed at his request, to respect Amish traditions and preserve his anonymity.) Standing against a western window, a silhouette of felt hat, bushy sideburns, and stiff cotton work clothes, he explains how he came to be in the uncomfortable position in which he finds himself today: dealing with multibillion-dollar energy companies that use high-tech methods to shatter the earth and release mile-deep pockets of natural gas.

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Decades ago, Miller says, oil and gas companies began prowling around western Pennsylvania, locking residents into leases for conventional gas wells, which are relatively shallow and unobtrusive. Many landowners had no idea that once they had assigned their mineral rights, often for a thousand times less than the going rate, the leaseholders could return and burrow deeper into the same piece of property.

This time around the gas companies intend to drill into the Marcellus Shale—a 400-million-year-old, mile-deep formation that sweeps from West Virginia, across Pennsylvania, and into New York—then turn their bits horizontally and continue boring for another couple thousand feet. Wells are then injected with millions of gallons of highly pressurized water laced with sand and chemicals; the solution fractures the shale and releases pockets of natural gas. This is fracking.

"When money rules, a lot of bad things happen to a community," says one Old Order Amish leader.

Miller sold his mineral rights to a company called Atlas, which was bought by Chevron in 2011. "The money helped," he says, "but I wished I knew more of what to expect." Now, thanks to people like Carrie Hahn, Miller understands that producing gas in this manner is no simple matter. Over a period of months, workers carve a multi-acre drilling platform out of forest or field, then cram it with mixing tanks, storage tanks, compressors, gas pipes, flaring towers, diesel generators, office trailers, and porta-potties. Nearby, they dig plastic-lined ponds of several acres to hold either freshwater or "produced" water that flows up and out of the wells. During development of the site, trucks carrying water, chemicals, sand, and other equipment come and go—up to 1,000 of them a day.

"We don't want huge gas companies coming here because of the heavy pollution, the traffic, and so much money," Miller says. "When money rules, a lot of bad things happen to a community." But good things have happened, too. With his payout from Atlas, Miller installed new drainage tiles to reduce excess water in his fields (yes, using only horse power). Other Amish families in the area have used gas royalties to build greenhouses or sawmills. "Buildings have to be kept up," Miller says, shrugging. "But we would have survived without the money, somehow."

Since the shallow well went in, Miller has managed to keep energy companies off his property, despite his lease. He gave an earful to a representative who tried to get near his well on a Sunday, and he continues to refuse access to a Texan seeking to seismically map his land (Miller has no obligation to permit this testing). I press Miller, who is now invisible to us in the darkness, to explain how he can legally stop a company from fracking if it owns the mineral rights on his property, but he deflects my inquiries. "It's time for the community to take a stand," he mutters enigmatically. When his wife, in a long skirt and a bonnet, lights a kerosene lantern and places dinner on the kitchen table, Hahn and I know it's time to leave.

FOUR HUNDRED OLD ORDER AMISH families live in and around Lawrence County's borough of New Wilmington. Extended families live in plain white houses—no shrubs, no shutters—surrounded by gardens, barns, farm fields, and long stringers of ever-flapping laundry. Horses, cows, and sheep graze on rolling pastures; horses and buggies deliver children to one- or two-room schoolhouses served by an outhouse and an outdoor water pump. Old Order Amish don't use cars or phones, electricity from the grid, indoor toilets, or upholstered furniture. Many live off their land; some run small businesses. Wooden signs at the ends of driveways advertise their wares: rocking chairs, maple syrup, eggs, fudge, donuts, firewood, sawdust, and fresh produce.

Soon, however, customers—including the thousands of international tourists who visit the Amish countryside each year—may be chased away from this homegrown bounty as New Wilmington, like other communities before it, is transformed by the industrial frenzy of shale-gas extraction.

As work crews have moved into the area, gas stations, lunch counters, coffee shops, the local hotel, and a tanning salon (favored by the wives of imported workers) have profited. Large landholders have done well, too, receiving up to $3,500 an acre for their mineral rights. "We've got some wealthy people now," says New Wilmington Mayor Wendell Wagner. "Investment advisers and lawyers are advertising their services."

"A lawyer told us fracking was the best thing that had ever happened [in a nearby county], and that we'd better sign up. He came back recently and said it was the worst thing that had ever happened to his county."

But the town is seeing more friction, too, between landowners who trust energy companies to do the right thing and neighbors—sometimes even family members—convinced industry will cut corners and ravage the countryside. (Atlas Energy, which has leased mineral rights on several Lawrence County properties, including Miller's farm, would not comment for this story.) "I've been to town meetings and seen pictures of what's going on," says Ivan Dubransky, 64, who grew up in the area and worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. "We're in the same situation now that Washington County was three years ago. Back then, a lawyer told us fracking was the best thing that had ever happened down there, and that we'd better sign up. He came back recently and said it was the worst thing that had ever happened to his county."

These are familiar concerns and conflicts, even supplying the plot for the new Matt Damon movie Promised Land. But in the small towns of western Pennsylvania, where many landowners have zero control over the fate of hydrocarbons beneath their property, the battle lines can be oddly mutable, and the Amish, many of whom have been rooted to this landscape for more than five generations, now find themselves in deeply unfamiliar territory.

LUCKILY FOR HER AMISH NEIGHBORS, Carrie Hahn, 47, is adept with a smartphone. She knows her way around county records and has no problem challenging corporate or local authority. With her husband, Bill, and their two horseback-riding, soccer-playing teenage daughters, she moved here from Pittsburgh nearly two years ago, seeking a healthier lifestyle and room to start a market garden. (A registered Republican, Hahn also works as a nutrition advocate for the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes a diet centered on fresh produce and animal products.)

The Hahns spent considerable time searching for property in the area, but an uptick in oil-and-gas drilling had tripled the price of land that included subsurface mineral rights. The Hahns could see that drilling would soon be a part of their daily life, so they started digging into what that might mean.

"I spent hours every day, researching, and reading anything and everything I could find on the environmental, financial, and social impacts of fracking," Carrie Hahn says. "Soon, we were looking for land anywhere the shale was not."

This was physically impossible if the family wanted to stay in western Pennsylvania, but the Hahns decided that controlling the rights to minerals beneath their home would be the key to minimizing their exposure. Thousands of leases have already been signed in Lawrence County, although only 26 wells destined for hydrofracking had been drilled as of June 2012. Residents are looking warily toward Washington County, to the south, which has 896 deep wells, and Bradford County, to the east, which has 1,795. According to estimates by Terry Engelder, a Penn State geoscientist, the Marcellus shale formation might contain enough technically recoverable natural gas to supply the entire United States, at the current rate of use, for up to 20 years.

The Hahns eventually purchased a modest house on 14 acres, and they continue to turn down offers from landmen seeking to purchase their mineral rights. But the couple knows that holding out will do little good if a deep well is drilled on the 100-acre property across the street, where rights have already been leased to Atlas Energy. "That would be the end of my organic farm," Hahn says.

But she hasn't given up hope. Before Atlas can sink a well on that property, it needs to piece together rights to hundreds more acres to make its investment worthwhile, which means the company is pursuing mineral rights from some of the Hahns' Amish neighbors. And that's why Carrie now spends her days going door to door with rolled-up property maps, standing on wind-whipped porches and in dimly lit vestibules, respectfully explaining the risks of hydraulic fracturing to a community that, because of its religious convictions, is largely immune to both the cries of energy independence that rally fracking supporters and to the consumer opportunities that fracking windfalls might put within their reach.

THE NEXT MORNING, Hahn introduces me to Seth Bender, a sprightly farrier, 35 years old and the father of six. "I'm against the drilling because I live here," he says as he bangs a horseshoe against an anvil in a drafty barn. "I've heard about the sinkholes and the earthquakes. I'm too much of a land lover to favor drilling. I want to keep the land the way God made it." Bender's Amish neighbors leased their land, "but I don't think they'd have signed if they had it to do over again," he says. "People here think, ‘If everyone's done it, then so will I.'" He rasps the hoof of a bay mare, muddy in her harness. "Lots of people said they wouldn't drill, because it's against the elders, the rules. But they signed anyway and don't talk about it. That two-sided thing used to be against our teaching."

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