The Shale Rebellion

In Pennsylvania, a band of unlikely activists fights the fracking boom.
Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist who often covers environmental issues. His recent work has appeared in Saturday Evening Post, Parade, OnEarth, and Audubon. Read more at barryyeoman.com.

Six months before she helped organize the protest known as Hands Across Riverdale, the word “fracking” didn’t mean much to Deb Eck. “Not a damn thing,” says the 52-year-old dollar-store manager. A single mother of twins, she was putting in crushing hours to provide a decent life for her daughters, who are now 12. On good days, she arrived home from work in time to help the girls with their schoolwork, tuck them into bed, and spend the rest of the night cooking and cleaning. There was no time to read about the natural-gas boom unfolding in her backyard.

One consolation for Eck’s hard work was the tranquility of her home. Riverdale Mobile Home Park’s 32 trailers sat on a leafy bank of the Susquehanna River in Piatt Township, Pennsylvania, in the state’s mountainous center, three hours from any major city. “The kids would play with the ducks in the field and had all kinds of friends,” she says. “I never had to worry about them going outside.” Nor did she worry about rent: The $200 Eck paid for her lot was well within her monthly budget.

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In February 2012, she learned that her landlord had sold the property to a joint venture called Aqua-PVR Water Services, which planned to build a water-withdrawal facility for local gas-drilling operations. Piatt Township sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a 95,000-square-mile rock formation stretching from New York to West Virginia. The shale contains an estimated $500 billion worth of recoverable natural gas in Pennsylvania alone and has attracted a rush of energy companies into the region. The fuel is accessed by drilling thousands of feet down and then horizontally across a layer of sedimentary rock. Chemical-laced water is pumped underground to “fracture” the rock, creating fissures that free up the gas. The extraction process, including the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, is colloquially known as “fracking.”

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Building the new plant meant evicting Riverdale’s residents. Eck and her neighbors were offered $2,500 apiece—well below the cost of moving a trailer—if they agreed to leave two months before their June 1 deadline. That figure would taper down to zero if they delayed. Eck’s main worry was where she and her daughters were going to live. But then she went online and learned about the toxic chemicals used in fracking, which have been linked to water contamination. She read about how gas development destroys the integrity of forests, wreaking havoc with resident wildlife. “The more I found out, the worse it got,” she says. “They’re going to turn this peaceful, quiet community into an industrial area, suck water out of the Susquehanna, and ruin the habitat for how many different animals. It just made you sick to your stomach.”

As Eck kept reading, she learned about the political power of the natural-gas industry. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to fight this,” she concluded. But then one of her neighbors told her that he had been talking with some environmental activists who wanted to help Riverdale’s residents. “Help us do what?” she asked.

“They want to stop this because of the fracking,” she recalls him saying.

Hearing that, Eck felt a bit encouraged. “We’ve got to all stick together, though,” she told him. “If we stick together, we can fight this. Maybe we’ll beat them.”

Most of Riverdale’s residents, desperate for cash, took the buyout. Some abandoned their trailers altogether or salvaged them for scrap. But seven households, including Eck’s, decided to defy the eviction notice. News of their plans traveled through environmental, church, student, and other progressive networks. As eviction day approached, anti-fracking activists descended on the park.

Among the first was Leah Schade. The minister of a Lutheran church in the next county, Schade had founded the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition, a network of clergy committed to safeguarding God’s creation. She had been offering pastoral support to Riverdale residents facing eviction, including an elderly couple—the wife had breast cancer—who couldn’t move their trailer and faced losing their life savings. Schade had tried using her moral authority to approach the new landowners, she says, only to be told, “Your job is to help these people move.” (Aqua-PVR’s parent company, Aqua America, did not return calls seeking comment.)

About two dozen people had arrived by May 31, the night before the bulldozing was slated to begin: college kids, senior citizens, local and regional environmentalists, veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Schade helped organize an ecumenical prayer service. Participants lit 32 candles, one for each displaced family. They blessed four wooden bowls of river water. They read religious texts and held hands in a circle. When it was over, they launched into civil-disobedience training.

Schade stayed nearby with a friend that night. Returning the next morning, she could hardly believe what the residents and visitors had done. “Overnight, they had taken all of the broken pieces of the discarded trailers, and old furniture and huge boards, and they built barriers across both roads and made signs,” she says. Tents had popped up; volunteers were making coffee; others were cleaning and patrolling the grounds. A full-scale occupation “was not something we had all planned,” she says. “I had expected to see simply a line of residents and activists with their arms linked, standing across the entrance to the park. Maybe a few signs and people chanting protests.” Surveying the riverside encampment, Schade turned to an acquaintance. “This is resurrection,” she said. “This is new life in the midst of death.”

Day after day, the protesters held off the bulldozers. Those who needed to leave for work, including Eck, did so. Others kept the encampment running: buying food, organizing security teams, caring for the children. The Occupy veterans built rocket stoves and composting toilets. “It was like a big family,” Eck says. “Lots of cooking. Lots of laughing. Even though we had lost so many members of our community, having the activists there made us feel like we weren’t alone. It actually made us think that maybe we stood a chance.”

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Late one night, a protester and philosophy professor named Wendy Lynne Lee was patrolling the grounds when a truck pulled up. The driver was a Riverdale evictee who worked for a company that serviced the natural-gas industry. Because fracking paid his bills, he had not been sympathetic to the activists, some of whom he viewed as hippies. But he’d come to realize that he was in the same predicament as his neighbors, potentially facing homelessness because his trailer was too fragile to move. As Lee and the driver talked, he worried aloud about how he would provide for his family. Then he drove away. The next morning, when Lee emerged from her tent, she found him back at Riverdale, dismantling his roof to help fortify the encampment’s barricades. “That was his home,” she says, still incredulous. “He gave it to us to keep out the demolition crews for a few more days.” By that afternoon, the roof panels were covered with children’s handprints and painted words describing the residents: Mother. School-bus driver. WWII Vet. Postal Worker. Americans.

Thirteen days in, a private security team arrived, followed by the state police. Eck, who didn’t want to see the protesters arrested, asked them to stand down, which they did. “We knew it was going to fail,” says Schade. “But that’s not the point. The point is that the children there saw people who were resisting the powers and saw a vision of what is possible.”

More important, the standoff served as an emboldening moment for Pennsylvania’s Shale Rebellion, the loose-knit resistance that over the past three years has fought a desperate battle to stop the Marcellus drilling frenzy. Hands Across Riverdale drew blogosphere and news-media attention to a region where fracking opponents had felt isolated and unheard. It broadened the movement, attracting economic-justice activists who saw how natural-gas extraction can harm people living at the margins. Although the water company won, the protest offered a cathartic moment of direct action after so many government meetings and letter-writing campaigns. Even today, the phrase “Remember Riverdale” serves as a motivational call for Pennsylvania’s anti-fracking activists. “For a lot of us,” Lee says, “these were 13 days that changed everything.”