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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

He drops the hoof. "This friction is caused by greed. Scripture says that at the end of times, it will take over. I could have been engulfed in it, too: we all like to make money. But I was taught at home that money not worked for"—money from leasing, that is—"is no good."

The prospect of deep drilling has strained relationships not just among the Amish. "My cousin wanted no part of this, but his wife and kids did," Ivan Dubransky, the former power company worker, tells me. "He ended up signing, but now he won't even talk to me about it."

"I went on the township's Facebook page to ask questions about the seismic testing near me, and someone told me to go chain myself to a tractor," says Suzanne Matteo, a local resident who now travels to distant post offices to avoid her pro-fracking local postmistress.

IT'S TEMPTING TO THINK of the Amish as low-carbon innocents, the last people on earth who would knowingly invite oil and gas companies to intrude upon the land that sustains them. And the sight of wooden buggies parked near chemical tankers does spark some cognitive dissonance (as does learning that some Amish feel animosity toward energy companies only because they settled for $3 an acre, instead of $3,000).

"They don't have televisions or the internet, so they can't learn about fracking or even see if the landmen are lying," says one scholar who has studied the Amish.

But "the Amish are capitalists," says Erik Wesner, a former scholar of Anabaptism who founded the website Amish America, which examines Amish culture and communities across North America. They're astute businesspeople, Wesner continues, and "they make individual decisions, so long as they don't go against their Ordnung," or rules and standards.

Besides, the Amish have to pay taxes like anyone else, and farming has never been lucrative. They say the wells, as presented by the gas companies, seemed innocuous. According to Hahn, the technological isolation of the Amish can make them easy marks: "They don't have televisions or the internet, so they can't learn about fracking or even see if the landmen are lying when they say their neighbors have leased and that they could make a lot of money."

Landmen even brandish maps, Hahn adds, with plots falsely marked as leased. Dubransky says that landmen tried fooling him, as well. "I had a kid tell me I'd have more protection [against other drillers] if I signed a lease than if I didn't," he says, incredulous. (Pennsylvania law doesn't allow energy companies to drill under non-leased property, so by not signing a lease, Dubransky kept his land protected.)

With other concerned community members, Hahn last year formed the Fracking Truth Alliance of Lawrence and Mercer Counties, which hosts forums to raise awareness about oil and gas development. Amish men have come to several of these, Hahn says. The group fought, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Wilmington Area School Board from leasing district-owned land to an energy company. And it's currently trying to raise money to help Amish families test their water before deeper drilling and fracking begin. Without such baseline data on pre-drilling conditions, it's impossible to win a lawsuit should water later become polluted.

"It costs $1,200 for a Tier 3 test, which is the broadest spectrum," Hahn says. "But many of these families live below the poverty level." (The Penn State Cooperative Extension Service recommends twice-a-year testing for the next 30 years if there is drilling and fracking activity near your house to monitor any potential pollution. Pricing may vary.)

The Amish worry about water quality for themselves, for their livestock and their gardens; they also worry about heavy traffic, which could shatter the carefully cultivated tranquility of their daily rhythms. There are reports, in other fracked counties, of well-servicing trucks running horses and buggies off the road. In Minnesota, an Amish family is fighting a rail yard that will wash and load fracking sand, on the grounds that the noise and traffic may prevent them from practicing their religion. Constitutional issues aside, their legal action is noteworthy because the Amish way is to resist quietly, if at all.

ONE AFTERNOON, I ACCOMPANY Hahn as she makes a cold call on Fred Kingery, the financier who owns the vacant 100 acres across from her house. In the double-height living room of his large stone house, a gas fire glows in the grate and nautical paintings decorate the walls. Kingery explains his pro-drilling position, which is based on a belief that the burning of hydrocarbons isn't warming the planet, and that Marcellus gas will free the nation from dealing with its political enemies.

Hahn interrupts. "I'm screwed if you do a platform across from my house."

"I wouldn't want one across from my house either," Kingery concedes. "But that's just how it is."

Hahn frowns, and Kingery adds, "It's not about the money. It's all about energy independence."

"It's constant noise and high-voltage lights."

"It's not forever," Kingery sighs. "These issues come with progress. It's part of the process, whether it's the railroads or building skyscrapers." Hahn realizes she's getting nowhere. She asks Kingery if he tried to persuade her neighbors to allow seismic testing on their property.

"No," he says. "I wasn't trying to talk them into it. But I spoke to them about it because I thought it would be in their best interest."

A FEW SHEEP-DAPPLED MILES AWAY, a drilling rig towers 150 feet above a soybean field behind Sam and Lydia Mullet's farmhouse. The drill pad sits on land owned by Dorothy Hurtt, an elderly "English" woman—as the non-Amish are known—from whom the Mullets bought their property 18 years ago. The steady thud of drilling, which has gone on round the clock for several weeks, makes normal outdoor conversation impossible. The Mullets have nine children; the family subsists off its extensive garden (a strawberry patch produces 200 quarts a day at its peak), fees from training carthorses for others, and sales of the bentwood rockers that Sam Mullet crafts in a workshop behind the house. Asked how the drilling has affected her, Lydia answers in a tremulous voice. "I'm depressed about it, but we feel helpless because it's not on our land. And the lights shine through our windows at night. It's not relaxing." Since the work began, Lydia has been waking at 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep.

"I just hope it turns out good in the end," Sam says.  "My attitude is live and let live, as long as it's not hurting the earth. We try to avoid conflict."

The Mullets' 3-year-old son, bright-eyed under his broad-brimmed hat, skips about his father's workshop with a length of strapping and motions for his visitors to peep inside a cardboard box, where five yam-sized puppies squirm. "I don't want your kids outside breathing that silica dust once they start fracking," Hahn says to Lydia.

"Okay," Lydia answers, diffidently. "I think they're going to be done here in another week or so."

"They're just doing the first well now," Hahn tells her. "You know they could put 12 wells on that platform?" Lydia's face goes ashen. She looks shocked. She had no idea that the pounding could continue for several more months.

"We don't want to go to court, to testify about water problems," says one Amish resident. "We try to avoid conflict."

If the drilling and fracking weren't temporary, Sam tells Hahn, he'd likely move away. Perhaps this is possible: the Amish own thousands of acres throughout Lawrence and Mercer Counties. But a new address is no guarantee that drilling won't intrude—the Marcellus underlies a vast area, and neither water nor air pollution stick to property lines.

I ask Mullet if his community would ever take a unified stand against this sort of activity, as Andy Miller had hinted they might. He shakes his head and answers slowly. "We don't want to go to court, to testify about water problems. But we're glad for people like Carrie to do this." Mullet's voice trails off. Then he repeats, in a tone halfway between resolved and resigned, "We try to avoid conflict."

Hahn smiles weakly. She feels deep empathy for families like the Mullets, who are stressed and sickened by the drilling activity nearby and are living, she says, in constant fear and worry. "If something goes wrong here," she asks, "who's going to help you? The government? I don't think so."

After her confrontation with Kingery, Hahn is hopeful that he won't allow Atlas to put a drilling platform near her house, should the company eventually piece together the acreage it needs. But she still worries that a well within a few miles of her property could affect the food she plans to grow. And so for her own family's sake, as well as the sake of her Amish neighbors, she continues to pull together community forums, to take water samples around the county, to talk to her new neighbors and prepare them for what's coming—and what's at stake.

"We want the industry to know that we are out there," she says. "We want them to know that we're watching what they're doing, and that they can't just come in here and sandbag us."

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