Fracking’s Greatest Threat – Fractured Relationships

We all lose when we allow corporations to exploit and divide us

By Michael M. Barrick

Note: This is the third installment in a series about fracking, (hydraulic fracturing for natural gas), controversial because of its impact on public safety and health, as well as the environment.

While gas industry leaders, environmentalists and public health experts debate the health and safety risks to people and the environment caused by the controversial gas drilling method known as fracking, the greatest threat it poses to West Virginia is being overlooked – fractured relationships.

We already see this in the coal industry all over West Virginia. Bumper stickers proclaim our loyalty. We are either “Friends of Coal” or we declare, “I love mountains.” The former group supports mining, the latter stands in opposition to it. Indeed, this conflict has been captured beautifully by West Virginia native Kathy Mattea on her album, “Coal.” Those who have seen her in concert have heard her speak with pride about her family members that worked in the mines, even as she plays songs that lament issues such as black lung disease. In short, when it comes to the value of coal mining, we are a people divided.

The same is true over fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from deep underground through horizontal drilling. While energy industry officials insist the process is safe, many of those living closest to it, insist otherwise, pointing to the noise pollution associated with the construction of well pads; the flaring that produces fierce, bright flames that light up the night sky; pollution to ground and surface water; and, the impact upon the narrow, harrowing roads throughout the region.

As a researcher and practitioner in the public health sector, I am convinced by those being impacted by it. However, as concerned as I am about public health and safety, as well as the environment, what most bothers me more is the disharmony that is already occurring between neighbors because of it. We are letting the debate divide us into camps. It is easy to see. At a Consol Energy public forum held at Jackson’s Mill recently, neighbors stood outside the Assembly Hall arguing with one another. Elsewhere in Lewis County – where fracking is just now gaining a strong foothold – neighbors have quit speaking to one another.

I’d like to say that this is not the West Virginia way. We’re recognized by outsiders as friendly, neighborly people. But we have allowed the energy industry to divide us for a century. And this battle is just beginning.

So, we must pause and ask ourselves: Shall we allow this to happen – again? If so, West Virginia will not be divided into winners and losers. Rather, when we are at each other’s throats – when we have fractured relationships – we all lose.

Only we can prevent that.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2014. Learn more about him here.. This essay will also air on “Inside Appalachia,” a program of West Virginia Public Radio.

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