By Tara McKinney
LEWISBURG, Pa. - Gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is transforming the region with promises of political and economic gain, but those perceived benefits must be balanced with the "social" effects on communities, a panel of experts agreed this weekend.
A group of professors and regional leaders came together Friday at Bucknell University for a panel discussion: "Understanding community impacts of Marcellus Shale development: strategies and questions." The event, part of a weekend symposium on local river towns and the issues they face, focused on the opportunities and challenges presented by natural gas drilling, such as an influx of workers and new demands on housing and services.
"The complex social impacts of Marcellus Shale have often been hidden behind discussions of potential economic gains," said panel facilitator Amanda Wooden, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bucknell, noting that community voices must be heard.
Playing to their strengths
Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Ben Marsh, who showed a slideshow focusing on river towns as community assets, encouraged the audience to think about the communities' shared interests and capacity and to come up with ways to work together to preserve those treasures. He said towns must share their strengths through government partnerships and increased communication and by re-envisioning problems.
Change in communities where gas drilling is occurring is happening fast in part because the gas companies face tight deadlines to excavate resources, said Joseph Scipione, an attorney from Philipsburg, Pa., who practices oil and gas law.
"The lease contracts the gas companies sign state that they must drill within five years of signing the contract or else they have to pay extra fines and fees," Scipione said. "There is real economic motivation for gas companies to get in and drill fast or it affects their bottom line."
Demands vs. resources
Kai Schafft, an associate professor of education and director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Pennsylvania State University, predicted there will be 60,000 natural gas wells in Pennsylvania in the next few years, which could bring an influx of workers unmatched by resources.
"There is room for lots of economic development and new opportunities for young people, but there is also an uneven distribution of the benefits," Schaftt said. "There is little to no room to develop housing which presents a new epidemic of homelessness not seen before in this area."
David Fagerstrom, president and CEO of River Valley Regional YMCA in Williamsport, said there is a need for diversity training at local businesses to deal with the region's changing demographics.
"There is a lot of anxiety out there and emotional fear of the loss of the sense of community that these small towns cherish," he said. "We need to do something together as a region to combat that fear."
Jonathan Williamson, chair of the Department of Political Science and director of the Center for the Study of Community and the Economy at Lycoming College, said local communities cannot handle the increased demand for housing or government services.
"There is no capacity for water or sewer to take on more houses. There are not systems in place for future development," he said.
Sydney Hill of the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, N.Y., said his area is facing similar issues with gas drillers.
"Our big fight is trying to stop them coming into New York state's watersheds," Hill said. "We are trying to get a moratorium on the drilling in our area. Gas drilling is not permitted on the reservation, but our water source is off-site and is not protected from the effects of gas drilling."
Matt Wilson, a master's student in biology at Bucknell from Warren, Ohio, said he is concerned about the release of methane gas as a result of the drilling.
"What scares me the most about Marcellus Shale is that methane can seep into the ground water and poison it," Wilson said. "Once that happens, there's no going back."
Matt McTammany, assistant professor of biology and environmental studies, said he was disappointed that no one from the gas industry attended the symposium to address residents' concerns.
"We've held a number of events trying to engage members of the gas industry many times and we've never been able to get any of their people to attend," he said. "I wish they could be here to hear the community's concerns and possibly help alleviate some of those concerns. Or, they could share their plans for their long term.
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