Jim Watt, captain of the Morris County Fire Department, is one of the few registered Democrats in the rural southwestern Pennsylvania town of Prosperity. But he instinctively understands why most of his neighbors are likely to vote for a Republican in November’s elections for governor and the U.S. Senate: Both candidates have promised to boost the natural gas industry.
“It’s a small community, and you don’t really hear that much negative about the industry because the individuals that are having gas extracted from their properties have become quite wealthy, and money talks,” Watt said in an interview at the firehouse. “I think that the residents want to see the development of the gas industry continue so that they can line their own pockets.”
In a range of interviews in the rolling green hills of rural southwest Pennsylvania, most people expressed no concern that the economically vital natural gas industry could pose a threat to their drinking water. Still, there was some dissonance on that issue. And some residents questioned whether politicians had their best interests at heart, disputed other energy pledges they have made or voiced doubt that a GOP candidate could win the governor’s race.
In gas-rich Washington County, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, many have been financially rewarded by leasing their land to gas companies since a fracking boom began there in the first decade of the 2000s. And those residents look forward to more of the same, especially if the latest spike in natural gas prices encourages drillers to resume production at local wells that were capped in response to years of low prices.
Lease and royalty money in country towns has paid for new tractors, fencing, barn roofs and personal tax bills and boosted sales of coffee and muffins at local establishments. Those factors seem to outweigh worries that drilling and fracking can contaminate drinking water with a cocktail of chemicals that facilitate the extraction of gas but can then find their way into aquifers and endanger the health of anyone who drinks from them.
In 2018, Eliza Griswold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America” presented voluminous evidence that gas drilling poisoned air and water, damaging the health of one family and driving its members from their Washington County home.
But in Prosperity, a farming community of fewer than 1,000 people about 10 miles south of Washington, the county seat, most people said they had not experienced water contamination as a result of gas drilling and saw no reason to disrupt an industry that has boosted the local economy for more than a decade.
“As a recipient of the income from it, I can’t say that’s something we haven’t enjoyed,” said Marilyn Lindley, 80, who with her husband, John Lindley, 82, raises about 150 beef cattle on 488 acres outside Prosperity. “We upgraded farm equipment, built fences—that has been a good thing.”
Lindley said she and her husband signed a lease in 2010 with Range Resources, a Texas-based natural gas exploration and production company, and have one gas well on their property that has boosted their income over the last 12 years.
Their grass-fed cattle drink from about 25 concrete troughs that are fed by springs. That water has been tested and no problem has been found, she said in an interview on the porch of her white farmhouse overlooking the town.
Lindley said she had read the book about Prosperity and was disturbed by its contents, even though they do not match her own experience of working with the gas industry. “Is that the truth? I would really like to know the truth,” she said.
In deciding how to vote in the governor and U.S. Senate elections, Lindley, a registered Republican, indicated that she remains skeptical about efforts by politicians to win votes by tying themselves to the gas industry. “Politicians, they say what they think we want to hear,” she said. “I don’t know that I believe everything they say.”
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor and a loyal supporter of former President Donald Trump, promises more investment and fewer regulations for Pennsylvania’s gas industry. His Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, rejects calls to ban fracking but wants regulators to require the disclosure of all chemicals to be used before any fracking or other gas drilling begins and stricter standards for the safe transport of waste from gas drilling sites.
Shapiro antagonized the gas industry by convening two grand juries to look into the practices of the builder Energy Transfer in its construction of two natural gas liquid pipelines over the last five years. In early August, the company pleaded no contest to 48 criminal charges related to its projects.
In the Senate race, the Trump-backed Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz faces the Democrat John Fetterman, the state’s current lieutenant governor and a former mayor of Braddock, a steel town south of Pittsburgh.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the gas industry’s regional trade group, declined to say whether it expects more investment in gas should Mastriano become governor but is urging a loosening of regulations, as proposed by the candidate. “It is imperative that the next administration work to address chronic permitting delays and regulatory overreach that has held back job development, capital investment, expanded production and utilization, and the continued evolution of natural gas as a valuable energy source and feedstock,” the group’s president, David Callahan, said in a statement.
At a recent rally for Mastriano attended by about 1,000 people at a Pittsburgh hotel, several of his supporters played down concerns about water contamination and argued that natural gas presents a route toward national energy independence as well as a source of local wealth.
“There will always be people out there that say that fracking contaminates water, but we can’t run our world without it,” said Kathy Baron, 50, a resident of Cranberry Township, near Pittsburgh. “I do think it’s overblown. Sometimes I just feel that certain seeds of doubt are planted.” Baron said her family had leased its Washington County land for gas drilling and there were “no repercussions.”
Bob Hamilton, 77, wearing a shirt emblazoned with text from the U.S. Constitution, said he did not share concerns that helping the natural gas industry will increase the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change. He argues that gas is a clean-burning fuel and that emissions from coal can also be reduced with the right technology.
“They can make coal-burning plants pretty clean. It’s not going to be in two days, but it can happen,” said Hamilton, a retired college facilities manager.
Bill Moran, 34, a registered Republican from Altoona in deep-red Blair County, east of Pittsburgh, said he would probably vote for Mastriano because he disliked how the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who is limited by law from running for another term, shut down small businesses after the Covid-19 pandemic began.
But Moran predicts that Mastriano will lose because of votes in the strongly Democratic cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which he said would probably outweigh Republican turnout in less populated areas of rural Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvania is Republican fool’s gold,” he said.
Moran, who works for a company that makes parts for gasoline pumps, also questioned Mastriano’s promise to help the state’s struggling coal industry, which has for several years seen declining orders from the power sector in favor of cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. “It’s probably not a popular opinion in Pennsylvania, but coal is kind of a dead industry,” he said. “This country would be a lot better off going to nuclear.”
If a Republican in Pittsburgh has doubts about whether Mastriano can win the state, Watt, the registered Democrat in Prosperity, seems reconciled to a win by the candidate.
Watt, who has lived in the community for 44 years, described Griswold’s book as “wonderful” because of its detailed research and its tale of two attorneys, John and Kendra Smith, who took on the gas industry on behalf of their client, Stacey Haney, a nurse who lived with her two teenagers in neighboring Amwell Township.
The book describes how their private well was tainted by chemicals from a fracking-waste pond above their house. Haney linked the contamination to illnesses that affected her and her son and daughter, and they eventually moved out to protect their health.
Yet in Watt’s view, the main negative impacts on the community from the gas industry have been damage to local roads by the heavy trucks that service drilling rigs and a decline in value for some properties. “Nobody wants to buy property next to a frack pond,” he said.
He has also been disappointed by the small number of local jobs created by the industry, which brings many of its workers in from out of state, and the failure of the cost of heating to fall over time, as he thought it would when gas started to flow from nearby wells.
But Watt acknowledged that overall, the industry has been good for the community because it has brought money in. “It has added significant wealth,” he said. “When the gas was starting to be produced in this area, you saw guys with brand-new John Deere tractors, barns with new roofs on them or barns that you’d never seen before.”
All the same, promises of gas wealth don’t always work out for landowners in the gas fields of southwest Pennsylvania. Bryan Latkanich, who lives on 33 acres in Fredericktown, some 20 miles east of Prosperity, agreed in 2012 to lease his land to a gas company that then drilled a well at the top of a hill about 400 feet from his house.
Latkanich, 51, a retired counselor for prison inmates, said he was promised $255,000 a year for the use of his land, a sum that he expected to rise over time into the millions after the company told him there was far more gas beneath his property than it had first believed. But those sums did not materialize, he said, and he now calculates that he has received only $134,000 over 10 years from the well, which closed in the fall of 2021 as a result of his public complaints about health consequences.
Soon after drilling began, drinking water from his private well went bad, he said, which coincided with problems including diarrhea and hair loss in his own case and skin rashes suffered by his son Ryan, who was 3 years old at the time and is now 12. Latkanich blames the illnesses on contamination of his well water, which he recently found contains eight kinds of PFAS. The man-made “forever chemicals,” developed for their heat-resistant properties, are among the components of drilling fluid.
Earlier, in 2013, his water was tested by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which found impurities. It ordered the gas company, then owned by EQT, to install a water “buffalo,” a large portable tank, outside his house. But he said the tank was removed in November of that year after the state determined that his well water was by that time safe to drink.
Although the well pad on his property is no longer active, Latkanich still collects water for drinking and cooking in five-gallon jugs at a spring about a 20-minute drive away. He argues that his property has been permanently damaged by the gas well and that it would now be impossible to sell because of its history of water contamination.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he said. “I don’t do it for my health. I do it to let people know that your water table is going to be ruined, your air is going to be ruined, your health is going to be ruined.”
Yet Latkanich, a registered Republican, said he would probably vote for Mastriano despite the candidate’s pro-industry stance because he likes his defense of gun rights. But regardless of how he votes, he has little confidence that any candidate will help him.
“I’m still out there on my own,” he said. “You think politicians give a [expletive] about me? They want me dead. They hope I blow away in the wind.”
Back in Prosperity, Dillon Richey, 24, said his family leased land to the gas industry in 2009 when he was 11 years old. He recalled being aware of bright lights, a noisy drilling rig and damage to local roads but otherwise had no complaints. He said his family did not experience water contamination.
“When the gas wells came through, they were offering a good bit of money, which benefited a lot of families, mine included,” Richey said in an interview in the town’s general store. “We didn’t make out like people who have hundreds of acres, but we still got a check.”
Richey, a dump truck driver who lives over the store, said the recent evidence of water contamination might persuade a few people to vote for a candidate who promises more restrictions on the gas industry. But most, he said, will continue to support the industry and its political patrons.
“Knowing this area, they will go with whoever brings the business back,” he said.
On the town’s main street, Marcy Lindley sat on the porch of the apartment she rents in the post office building. A nurse practitioner, she was born in Prosperity and left about 25 years ago to travel and raise her daughters. She is the 49-year-old daughter of Marilyn and John Lindley, and recently moved back to help her aging parents and decide whether she can eventually take over the farm.
A few miles down the road from where a “F*** Biden” sign is nailed to a tree, Lindley said she has found it difficult to re-enter small-town society, especially because the conservative politics of many residents differ from her own liberal views, but that she is gradually adjusting.
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She says she does not trust corporations that acquire land in rural areas and is troubled by cases like the one detailed in “Amity and Prosperity.” Yet she recognizes that the gas industry has helped her family and has therefore come to accept its presence as a mixed blessing for rural communities like her own.
“Owners of land have been able to benefit financially,” Lindley said. “Farmers have been able to make improvements on their land. So it’s hard to say it’s all either bad or good.”
Local attitudes toward the gas industry have not shifted much if at all, she said, despite the evidence presented in Griswold’s book. Some people doubt its accuracy, while others argue that the events described happened a decade or more ago and that the industry has since fixed its problems.
Some accuse Haney, the book’s central character, of being a “gold digger,” Lindley said. Others don’t want to ask too many questions about drilling because they fear they will miss out on any future lease or royalty payments from Range and EQT, companies that also support a variety of local causes, she adds.
“Some people’s views are that the only people that have any problem with this industry are those not getting paid,” Lindley said. “Every homeowner under which a fracking line runs gets paid. And in this town, that’s about everyone.”