By Ben Feuerherd, FAN Intern
An adage offered by political operative James Carville during the 2008 election claimed that Pennsylvania consists of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – with Alabama in between. Montrose, Pa., tucked in the northeastern corner of the state, is part of that so-called “Alabama.”
The stately, well-kept Susquehanna County courthouse building sits at Montrose’s heart, and old, Victorian-style homes branch off on its tree-lined streets. During the spring and summer, this town of about 2,000 people is quite picturesque, especially during street festivals or the annual Fourth of July parade.
As in many small towns and rural communities, well-paying jobs and thriving businesses are rare. Farm communities and natural lakes dot the countryside. Dimock Township, about eight miles from downtown Montrose, received some of the most intense media attention in area history when it was recently featured on 60 Minutes as an example of rural communities affected by High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking.”
The farms in Dimock Township tend to be large, family-run dairy and corn farms. High-volume cornfields stretch for acres, as well as pastures where cows graze. Cows are milked and slaughtered in what appears to be a very traditional way. Collecting and maintaining hay for the animals is a vitally important task on Dimock Township farms.
What is most disconcerting about this area is the extreme rural poverty present. There are stories of residents growing up in the 1960s and 1970s without indoor plumbing. Today, those well-paying jobs continued to elude most. However, owning property on land that is rich in natural gas could be life changing.
Fracking, the excavation of natural gas from shale, has become a hot-button issue in and around Montrose. Numerous companies have tried to capitalize on the gas-rich area, and new ones continue to move in. There are no rooms to rent in Montrose – mainly because of drillers. And, in a place where a traffic jam is a single car in front of you, large trucks are constantly transporting materials to and from drill sites. It is fair to say that drilling is changing the integrity of the area.
Whether or not fracking will be a positive or negative for the area remains to be seen. More people in a community like Montrose means economic opportunity that otherwise would not have existed; a new Rite Aid drug store opened in the town since the drilling began, perhaps a sign of improving economic conditions. Some residents are paid by the gas companies to lease their land, thus receiving money that is quite beneficial to their immediate well-being. But, despite the money to be made, many residents do have concerns about the drilling.
The biggest fear is an accident, whether it is fracking liquid contaminating one of the scenic lakes, or a traffic accident with a large truck speeding down a country road. A big enough incident could cost area residents literally everything.
Finally, there is doubt about whether or not the drilling companies are being completely honest when paying residents to extract the natural gas on their property. There is hearsay about residents not getting the correct compensation from the gas companies. This issue, as well as preventing accidents, weighs on the local government and other community leaders.
St. Francis demonstrated concern for the poor and vulnerable as well as for creation. The fracking process threatens both the economically disadvantaged and the environment. Horror stories continue to emerge about residents of fracking areas being able to light their tap water on fire or falling ill because of the drilling. Gas companies continue to exploit land that is not their own. The Franciscan ethic of siding with the poor and vulnerable seems to be the antithesis of what these companies are practicing. (Read FAN’s position on fracking.)
A turning point in St. Francis’ journey of conversion was his embrace of a man afflicted with leprosy. An important question that faces those who hope to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis in the modern world is who are the lepers of the 21st Century? People stricken with AIDS or HIV? The poor? The homeless? Perhaps those marginalized by society or taken advantage of by large businesses with selfish interests?
One hopes that doesn’t describe the residents of Montrose, Pa. But as fracking continues to play a major economic and environmental impact on the town and surrounding area, that still remains to be seen.