In the course of Citizen Sense fieldwork in northeastern Pennsylvania, we have met several citizens who are monitoring and mapping their environments in order to understand how unconventional natural gas extraction is changing the area. Meryl Solar is one person who has extensively documented the impact of this industry. Her house sits within an intensive area of fracking activity, located approximately 2,000 feet from DTE Energy’s Bluestone Gathering pipeline. Solar has developed an interactive map where she has geo-located the fracking sites in her area, including the names of operators, the site inspections that have taken place, and the violations cited. Developed over the course of three years, she has also differentiated extraction activities through icons and color coding that designates drilling permits (black pin), drilling and compressor sites (yellow pin), environmental violations (red pin) and polluted areas (blue).
Fracking Sites in Pennsylvania by Meryl Solar
(zoom and navigate to view the multiple points of interest)
Last updated in December 2013, information about the sites documented on the map comes from several sources, including SkyTruthAlerts, which informs about permits issued and when drilling or fracking starts; as well as Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) notices of violations of wells. PA DEP eFacts informs on new permits of well pads, wells, pipeline impact areas, compressors, water withdrawal sites and impoundments, although it does not map where these activities are taking place. The complete activity status of a well pad is provided by MarcellusGas.Org, a group focused on objectively gathering data that may in turn be used by property owners. For pipeline and compressor station data the weekly Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Bulletins were used, which required phone calls and emails to officials for accurate locations and updated information (this data is accurate through 6/2013).
The type of “citizen-sensing” practice taking place here is complex and analytical, drawing together multiple data sources and re-presenting the location and extent of fracking activities in an easy-to-use map that is not otherwise provided by industry or government agencies. One of the most surprising aspects when looking at the map is the high density and concentration of fracking infrastructures dispersed through the territory.
Out of the multiple readings that could be made out of this meticulous document, one point of focus could be brought to the environmental violations, which are represented by black pins on the map. Pollution events bring with them a number of distributed effects. In the Dimock area, pollution at a natural gas site has included leaked drilling fluids that have spilled into a creek, where a fish kill was reported. Illnesses have been reported near spill sites, and the health of both people and animals has been affected in areas of pollution where methane, VOCs and other air pollutants migrate in and around infrastructure.
The effects as well as the origins of pollution events can be multiple. They range from contaminated land and water, spills of production fluid that impact the surface of the ground on a well pad, fire and explosion at a compressor station, or failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of waters. The sources of leaks are often difficult to precisely locate, which is due in part to the lack of public access to fracking sites and difficulty of undertaking independent monitoring. The map produced by Solar documents the many ways in which citizens are developing other inventive ways of gathering and representing data where it otherwise does not exist or is not available in a coherent location.