Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Changing Face of Washington County

There has been a lot of discourse about Marcellus Shale drilling. You’ve heard the two most common arguments – that it’s good for the economy and its bad for the environment. But today, we’re going to talk about something a little bit different. All the drilling is significantly changing the landscape of the region.

Back in 2006 there were 24 permits issued for Marcellus Shale drilling in Washington County. The natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing was in an earlier experimental phase and not as well known. Things have changed. Last year, 250 permits were issued in Washington County. Wells upon wells are getting drilled. There are compressor stations and pipelines and more on the way. You can’t turn on a television without seeing a natural gas industry ad and every day, newspapers are full of stories. It’s what people talk about.

They have strong opinions. This is serious business. It could ruin the landscape and damage our water, poison our air, destroy our health. Wells explode. Workers get hurt. But –and this is what makes it tricky, it can create jobs, provide money and wean us off a dependency on foreign energy.

But of all the things people disagree on, there is one thing they do agree on. The Marcellus Shale, the drilling, the discourse, all of it are drastically changing the face and character of the region.

If you’ve never been, Washington County sits to the south of Allegheny County. At a little over 200,000, the entire county’s population is less than the population of the city of Pittsburgh. But by square mile acreage, the county is bigger than Allegheny County. So it’s a lot of land for a lot fewer people. With a few exceptions, it’s mostly rural, with miles of two lane roads, acres of rolling hills and vistas of trees. It’s quiet. Which is why Wayne Thompson chose to live here.

"I moved out here to Buffalo Township about 14 years ago. And I moved out here specifically to get away from the city. I mean I grew up, I could see the arches of the West End bridge out my bedroom window and I specifically picked this location to get away from the traffic, to get away from the noise," he said.

Wayne lives in a custom built log cabin off an interchange of gravely roads. It’s the kind of place that he used to cheerfully call “the middle of nowhere.”

But a few years ago, things started changing. First he was approached by a land–man – someone who wanted him to lease his land.

He signed on with Range Resources. Drilling hasn’t started yet on his five acres. But now, if you look out a window on one side of his home you see a chain of flares from rigs that have been burning nonstop for weeks. You can also hear them. They sound like an airplane flying overhead. If you look out the other side you see the beginnings of a massive compressor station.

Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection told DUQ that they’ve given a permit to MarkWest for 6 compressor station engines with a stack, two oxidation catalyst engines, four other engines and a dehydrator. That’s 13 buildings.

Listen to the story here.

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