Fracking the People

By Steve Novotney

I asked Belmont County Commissioner Matt Coffland what he thought of the fracking-under-the-Ohio-River proposal a couple of months ago, and he replied, “I sure hope they don’t pop a hole into it.”

And then he laughed, and that’s because Coffland was only joking. The commissioner continued to urge West Virginia leadership to seek as much protection as possible for the waterway just as he has done with Ohio officials and Buckeye State Gov. John Kasich.

The current proposal under consideration by West Virginia officials involves drilling into the earth below the historic river in order to harvest natural gas from the Marcellus Shale located below in Marshall, Wetzel, and Pleasants counties. State officials are considering the bids at this time, and Gastar Energy was reportedly the highest bidder for mile markers 121 to 123; Statoil was the highest bidder for mile markers 124-125; and Triad Hunter placed the highest bid for mile markers 123 to 124. Triad was the highest bidder, according to state officials, for property under mile markers 145 to 147 in Pleasants County.

But, in jest or not, poking a hole in it isn’t the only concern.

Despite the fact a few other states have inked similar deals without incident, this proposal has attracted much opposition in the Northern Panhandle, a region of people also concerned with roadway/traffic conditions, freshwater well contamination, air pollution, and employee safety. Fracking in the Appalachian region, many believe, is actually a trial-and-error experiment that has placed the citizens in gas-producing counties in an enduringly unfair position.

There are pros and cons that have arrived to the Upper Ohio Valley with the gas and oil industries, and lease holders, business owners and their employees, and local governments have realized revenue gains for the past several years. The industry has been described as, “generational,” and employee opportunities are expected to increase for local residents.

But the positives mean little to the concerned, it seems, and one of the most vocal activists concerning the fracking industry has been Robin Mahonen, the founder of the “Wheeling Water Warriors.” She and others have addressed several aspects involved with fracking, and they have not feared confronting local, county, and state governments whenever they believed it was necessary.

My family has not considered moving away because of the changes produced by the natural gas exploration, but Robin and her husband, Eddie, have packed up and departed the area. Fracking is one of a few reasons, she says, why they have sold property and set up a new homestead in Florida.

Below is a letter she has sent to Gov. Earl Tomblin, as well as to many publications throughout the Mountain State. Robin offers her story and her reasons for feeling the way she does, and I believe it’s important to offer all sides of every issue so Weelunk readers can decide for themselves.

Dear Governor Tomblin:

My name is Robin Mahonen, and I am a social worker, musician, and activist, and founder of a grassroots group in Wheeling, W.Va., called the “Wheeling Water Warriors.” I am here today to present you with this petition, signed by 3820, to urge you to reconsider your plans to permit hydraulic fracturing under the Ohio River. This idea is economically short sighted, environmentally unsound, and shows a disregard for the health and well-being of the citizens of this state, as well as the adjacent states who also drink water from this river.

I brought my family of four young children to West Virginia 23 years ago, in 1991, to enjoy the wild wonderful beauty of this state and to watch them grow up and thrive in a rural setting. I was born in Los Angeles and raised in New York City, so I understand both the concept and the reality of living with pollution very well. When I met people here for the first time and told them I had moved to West Virginia from New York City, the most common question was, “Why?”

In surprise, I’d answer, “For the natural beauty, the low cost of living, the friendly people, the low crime rate, need I go on?”

I was surprised to find so many native West Virginians had such a negative view of the place they were born and raised. I CHOSE to come here and make this state my home, and for many years I loved it here. I brought both my parents here to live and care for them in the country in their golden years. I expected to live out my days cradled in the arms of the mountains of West Virginia. As a social worker for many of those years, I had a private mental health practice and was active in my church and other cultural and community activities. I came to know and love many wonderful people who call themselves Mountaineers.

I want to tell you why my husband and I are now leaving this fair state.

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I have always been alarmed by mountaintop coal removal, but since the fracking industry has moved in, the entire area has changed. I have seen water levels in our small streams and ponds disappear as the frackers remove our water at will to serve their operations. The air around active frack pads is hazardous to health, and the methane gas released throughout the fracking process is a major contributor of global climate change. Our water has been contaminated by spills. The noise generated at these pads approaches that of a jet engine when the wells are being flared. Workers have died in fiery explosions. The huge trucks run people off our small rural roads. Some of the out-of-town workers, with no ties to the community, litter our roadsides and take the jobs that were promised to locals, some of them living in RV “man camps” and others driving the costs of housing beyond what our locals can afford. A promising young college student was killed in our hometown in an unfortunate altercation with some of these same workers.

Personally, I was offered $45,000 by a company for oil and gas rights to my 16-acre property in Triadelphia, W.Va., and turned it down. For me, it would have been tantamount to selling my soul. I am horrified to think that anyone would consider fracking under the river, the lifeblood of so many, to be a sound idea.

When I first visited West Virginia, I came as a tourist enjoying whitewater rafting, and was awed by the natural beauty I saw here. How many tourists will want to come to West Virginia now, when we can’t guarantee they will find clean water to drink? Who wants to view naked mountaintops, frack pads, and cracker plants?

This natural beauty needs to be preserved for future generations, not used as a cash cow. As someone raised in the city, who came here for the natural beauty, I am appalled by the callous disregard for this beautiful land, by people who were born and raised here, including you, Gov. Tomblin. We all are stewards of this earth, and we all should be ashamed.

Every single one of my four children decided to leave West Virginia, even though they grew up here. My daughter was a two-time, record-breaking West Virginia track champion, yet left as soon as she graduated. I have no grandchildren yet, but I would not want my children to bring their children to grandma’s house if they had to be exposed to the chemicals and radiation being released into our community. We have friends in the MCHM-affected areas who still do not drink their tap water. I have a friend who lives in a house in the shade of a frack pad, and her little girl, age 8, got leukemia. Another friend is surrounded by four fracking pads, and their child was born with developmental disabilities. One child sickened or damaged for fracking is too many. It is our responsibility as adults to insure that our children are growing up in clean, safe environments. West Virginia can now guarantee neither.

As an activist, I know that there are some who will no doubt be happy to see me leave, you perhaps included. But please recognize that there is an ongoing population drain in this state, and I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to make this sad decision for our family’s own health and well-being. I have literally been brought to tears as I bear witness to the various communities devastated by fossil fuel and fracking operations. I will continue to advocate for West Virginia from my new home. Further, my husband and I are keeping our house in West Virginia, with the hopes that things may change. You, Governor Tomblin, are in a unique position to help change this.

What would we like you to do? Start by protecting our Ohio River. Do not allow drilling under the river, as the potential risks greatly outweigh any short-term economic benefit. This river is the drinking water and source of life to well over 3 million Americans, 10 times the number of residents impacted by the disastrous MCHM spill into the Elk River just this past winter. We have no right to endanger the water of people downriver. Support, fund, and enforce SB373 to protect our water from further contamination.

This bill was passed unanimously last year following the MCHM water crisis, largely because of citizen pressure, and is under attack by the industry. This legislation is a start and is designed to protect West Virginians and their water. Invest in solar and other renewable clean energy sources which protect our public health and environment while generating long term jobs for our locals. This is not just a regional issue, as the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels cause global climate change, impacting everyone on this planet. Most importantly, recognize that fossil fuel extraction is not a boon to West Virginia, and the long-term costs of this extreme industry are not worth the risks to the people of this state. Fossil fuels are, and will inevitably continue to become, more and more difficult to extract, and therefore, more expensive. Solar energy has, and will continue to increase in efficiency and decrease in costs.

We need to create good jobs in this state, and solar jobs are growing 10 times faster than national average employment growth.

Follow the leads of progressive communities who have recognized that fossil fuel extraction is not only a death-producing, but also a dying industry. Solar and other technologies are the future, and fossil fuel extraction needs to become known as a historical technology whose day has come and gone, like the dinosaurs they came from, when we didn’t know any better. As educated and intelligent people, we now know better.

Put West Virginia on the cutting edge, rather than bringing up the rear. Take a stand, make a statement, and develop policies which reflect this reality.

Robin Mahonen, Wheeling Water Warriors


feature photo by Steve Novotney