For Release Saturday, February 4, 2012
Hydrofracking’s vast grid of pipelines is having an enormous impact on the rural Northeastern landscape — the topic of my prior two columns in this Citiwire series. But what’s the impact on local economies, jobs and real estate?
The experience of slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic entering the historic Bradford County (Pa.) seat of Towanda, could discourage any resident or visitor. One local businessman reported that his daily commute escalated from 20 to 45 minutes. From a window table at a Main Street café in Towanda, one observes the non-stop freight train quantity of huge, rumbling trucks. One wonders what the vibrations must be doing to structures along all routes, from 100-year-old Main Street buildings to older roadside churches.
One shopkeeper reported the loss of most local customers unwilling to face downtown traffic. She gained onetime customers from the families visiting gas workers.
Experienced engineers, technicians, geologists, surveyors and drill rig operators come from elsewhere. Training programs exist in upstate New York but it will be years before locals in either Pennsylvania or New York will be qualified. Passing the drug test for applicants is often a problem. The high local employment — Bradford has only a 6 percent unemployment rate — is mostly the ancillary businesses created by the gas companies, such as restaurants, hotels, supply companies and some truckers.
The effect on real estate is changing every locale. The tourism economy many of these localities depend on is threatened. Few available rooms are left and one new hotel being built in Towanda already has most of its rooms reserved by gas companies. Tourists support local arts companies and programs, along with all kinds of festivals. Hunters, fishermen, kyackers, hikers and others are asking unanswerable questions or already going elsewhere.
Homes are now hard to sell, if not valueless, and farms are valued based on whether a well is on site or nearby. Banks are crying foul over their mortgagees who have signed leases without seeking permission, in effect changing the use of the mortgaged land. Those banks resist new mortgages for property with gas leases.
“Residential mortgages prohibit borrowers from committing waste, damage or destruction or causing substantial change to the mortgaged property or allowing a third party to do so,” Elizabeth N. Radow wrote in the New York State Bar Association Journal last Nov/Dec. Radow’s alarming article raises questions about owner’s potential liability and uninsurable property damage not raised elsewhere.
Susquehanna and Bradford are popular retirement and summer locations for New Yorkers and Philadelphians, not unlike many second-home communities in New York as well. Local property owners are divided over drilling but real estate brokers say the second-home market has effectively ended. No one will buy because of uncertainty — either drill sites are already nearby or might be created.
No one has begun to measure increased local health and safety costs and strained emergency services due to vehicular accidents. There are eight policemen in all of Susquehanna County. Volunteer fire departments are overwhelmed by the 911 calls. They are easily awakened at 2 a.m. for gas truck accidents. Local hospital services are over-stretched. Sometimes the vibrations and rumbling is so loud from wells sites not even close by that windows rattle and sleep is disturbed. Truck spills are not uncommon. Accidents do happen and no amount of stiff regulation will eliminate irresponsible rogue operators.
What has for generations attracted people to the area has been the character of the rural farm country that is now being industrialized. If you have historic sites that are difficult to visit and historic landscapes now being scarred, many Pennsylvanians wonder what will they have left. The support of visitors and second homeowners is critical for farmers’ markets, Main Street stores and varied local economic activity.
The potential harmful consequences are so enormous and so uncertain, one must ask — is this new method of mining energy truly worth the price that’s being paid for it?
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books.
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