MONROE TWP. – About 20 people held signs protesting current practices of the natural gas drilling industry as they stood along state Route 309 near the site of the latest local gas-related incident.
People holding signs with slogans such as "Honk for clean air" and "Human need, not corporate greed" drew attention from motorists driving by the protest, which was silhouetted by the PVR Partners natural gas dehydrator station a few hundred yards behind them.
"Any day would be appropriate" to protest, said organizer Rebecca Roter of Susquehanna County. "But … today is a national call to action that Occupy Pipeline called for to try to have communities who are impacted by all stages of shale extraction … stand shoulder-to-shoulder and stand witness to what's happening."
The gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation lies under about two-thirds of Pennsylvania, from the southwest portion up through the northern tier counties. Protesters believe many state legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett and his administration cater to the gas industry while they downplay health and environmental threats.
"I feel … there's been a corporate takeover of the state body. Look at the recent development with the Department of Health (Secretary Eli) Avila, who is an MD, being ousted and replaced with a man who has an MBA. … The director of our state parks system was forced out because of a difference in philosophy" over drilling and mining in state parks, Roter said.
As for the location of the protest, the dehydrator station presented the latest gas-drilling scare for area residents. The station is used to remove water vapor from PVR's 30-mile-long Wyoming Pipeline that runs from northwestern Wyoming County to a metering station off Hildebrandt Road in Dallas Township, where it connects with the TransCo Pipeline.
On Sept. 30, Roger Samuels, who lives near the dehydrator station, located in Wyoming County near the Dallas Township, Luzerne County, border, described a "terrifying" sound like "two huge jet engines at full throttle" roaring from the station.
Samuels had said two columns of steam could be seen rising from the station and that he noticed an odor, a metallic taste in his mouth and burning in his throat.
Stephen R. Milbourne, director of investor relations for PVR, said that because of a loose wire to a sensor, software could not ascertain if the station could operate safely, so it automatically shut down the station as a failsafe. That automatic shutdown caused the loud noise, he said.
"They're working on noise mitigation equipment. It takes time to engineer, order and install it," he said.
As for the odor and taste Samuels said he experienced, Milbourne said he had "no way to know" what Samuels experienced and did not know if the release of gas or chemicals could be expected with an automatic shutdown.
Protesters said too little is known about potential health risks associated with various aspects of gas drilling and not enough protections in place.
Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez, a kidney specialist from Dallas, said protesters are trying "to mitigate the exploitative nature of this industry. All these demonstrations are meant to make the public aware of how bad it can become. I can't understand how an area that got ravaged by (the coal industry) will let this happen again."
Rodriguez said gas drilling isn't inherently bad. "But (drillers and regulators) could do better … and they know they can do better. The problem is that it will be more expensive."
Rodriguez sued several state officials in federal court in July, claiming that the so-called "medical gag rule" of the state's newly amended law governing gas drilling could prohibit him from communicating crucial information to other physicians involved in treating patients exposed to chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing component of gas drilling.
"My worry is that all these things … have an impact on our health and the health of our children. And it's not just an immediate impact. My biggest worry is the long-term impact, just like it happened with coal. We started getting a lot more cancers coming in, the coal miners with the COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) that killed thousands of people," he said.
Rodriguez said maximum allowable emission levels of various toxins and pollutants associated with gas drilling that the federal government established decades ago "may not be adequate anymore."
He said industry tries to keep emissions just under the thresholds to make drilling as profitable as possible. "Their thought is that (emission levels are) only a very small amount compared to how much is going to flow through there; they think the risk is miniscule. For me, the risk to one person is way too much."