America's Fracking Gold Rush Portends the Greatest Environmental Disaster of a Generation

Ask someone like Jon Entine, a science writer for Ethical Corporation, to describe the sort of person who claims hydraulic fracturing presents a pollution nightmare in waiting and you quickly find yourself pummeled with talk-radio invective: "ideological blowhard," "leftist loony," and "upper-middle-class lefties."

But none applies to Fred Mayer.

When a reporter arrives at his 200-year-old farmhouse on a cloudy June day, one of the first things Mayer asks is, "Do you know who Glenn Beck is? You should really listen to him. Now, that man knows what he's talking about."

Sharon Wilson, anti-fracking advocate,  near Justin, TX.
Danny Fulgencio
Sharon Wilson, anti-fracking advocate, near Justin, TX.
The old site of the Riverdale Trailer Park in Jersey Shore, PA.
Mark Hewko
The old site of the Riverdale Trailer Park in Jersey Shore, PA.

The 62-year-old Vietnam vet's yard in Newark Valley, New York, is full of patriotic flags. His rotund body is covered in tattoos, with images of barbed wire wrapped around his thick arms and an Iron Cross on his left fist.

The first time he heard of fracking was in 2008. It's a natural-gas drilling process in which millions of gallons of water — mixed with sand and more than 596 toxic chemicals — are pumped into shale formations 8,000 feet below ground, the pressure fracturing them to release the natural gas they hold inside.

Decades ago, Shell Oil attempted to drill on Mayer's property in hopes of retrieving the river of black crude that resides just under the rock formation. "They never were able to do it," he says. "They couldn't get through the rock, so they gave up."

Shell eventually sold its lease to Fortuna Energy. Mayer thought nothing of it until 2008, when his neighbors began receiving leasing offers from gas companies that had a new way of drilling that could get through the thick layers of shale just fine. Only this time they were in search of natural gas, often heralded as the greenest fossil fuel.

Mayer gave Fortuna a call, only to find that his father had leased their property for just $4 an acre. Because Dad had passed away, Mayer told Fortuna that the agreement was null and void. Fortuna countered with a new offer: $600 an acre. Mayer soon received a check for $58,200, with a promise of more to come.

But it wasn't long before Mayer received another surprise — this one less pleasant. One morning he turned on his kitchen sink. Instead of water, the tap hissed with gas. Mayer grabbed his lighter and held it to the faucet. It burst into flames.

Though Fortuna had yet to drill on his property, the company was already at work six miles to the west. Mayer called the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to file a complaint in January 2009. His case was assigned to an investigator, though no one came out to investigate.

"[Our] staff concluded that the gas in Mr. Mayer's well was naturally occurring and that no investigation was warranted for several reasons," says Emily DeSantis, an agency spokeswoman. Not only was Mayer's residence more than a mile away from the nearest drilling, DeSantis says, but also "naturally occurring methane is commonplace throughout the state."

Mayer knew better, of course. His water hadn't become flammable until Fortuna began drilling nearby. More than three years later, he can make every faucet in his house dance with flames. He can't drink from his own tap. Sometimes the gas pressure builds up so much that it blasts coffee cups from his hands while he does the dishes.

Still, he was less upset by the contamination than he was about not making money from it. About the time Mayer signed his lease, then-Gov. David Paterson watched as drilling devastated neighboring Pennsylvania, where thousands of contamination complaints have been filed. In one incident near Pittsburgh, toxic wastewater ended up in the Monogahela River, leaving 850,000 residents without drinkable water. So Paterson banned fracking in New York.

As Mayer sees it, his water is already contaminated, and he could use his 17 percent cut of Fortuna's drilling profits. According to Public Policy Polling, about half of southern New Yorkers agree, hoping current Gov. Andrew Cuomo will lift the ban so they can begin reaping the riches promised by companies such as Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, Cabot, and Schlumberger.

It doesn't seem to matter that, over the past decade, fracking has left behind a widening trail of health and environmental disasters — or that research indicates the influx of money and jobs promised by these companies falls far short of their claims. New York landowners still whisper stories of overnight millionaires just over the border.

That's because people are desperate to flee the pressure of another disaster, the one created by the housing crash. The difference is that fracking could imperil more than pocketbooks. There's no shortage of scientists and public health officials who warn that large-scale contamination might leave millions of people without usable water.

Yet the natural gas industry has spent $747 million lobbying state and federal officials over the past decade, allowing it to continue drilling in 34 states. Few Americans are any richer. But many have horror stories to tell.

Sharon Wilson is often dismissed as an anti-fracking loony. Range Resources, one of the largest fracking firms in the nation, has even accused her of manufacturing false evidence in a conspiracy to defame the company.

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For all in favor of fracking: Why don't you move your family to these areas and see what your grandchildren and great grandchildren have to say with their birth defects and cancer. Y'all must be ostriches with you heads in that so called "sand". You want to talk about green energy, let's talk about what God DID give us, like solar power, wind power, etc. None of which pollute the land or it's people. We are a killer race and the one's we are killing are ourselves. I'm sure I'll get a bunch of flack for these comments, but in the end, y'all will have to answer to God for what you have done to his gift to us. 


This all sounds real BAD AND SAD but we need sources of energy.


Environmental agencies organizations do their best to obstruct every oil drilling venture that is planned and have stopped many over the years and continue to do so.


Maybe fracking wouldn't have become so popular if these well intentioned zealots had foreseen the unintended consequences of their efforts to stop liquid oil production all over America.


It looks as though fracking companies foresaw potential environmental attacks and had laws passed ahead of time to protect (armor plate) their investors and investments from environmental extremists attacks.


Until a few politicians have their water faucets light up in flames there probably won't be much corrective action taken.


Absolutely. The idea that pumping endless gallons of high water pressure mixed with literally hundreds of chemicals underground in attempts to tear apart the earth and release pockets of gasses can't in any way be harmful. It's nature's way and god's will. Who needs a stable underground anyway?


Sorry, but old man Mayer is nuttier than a shithouse rat.



The attack on fracking is an attack by the woefully uniformed; driven by ignorance and emotion and completely lacking in any evidence.


 @erikdenning Except it isn't hundreds of chemicals they pump into the ground. It's river water and sand. Occasionally they use glass beads instead of sand. These reason this guys has NG in his water is due to a bad casing and cement job. It's understandable for you to be worried but if people knew a little more about geophysics they would know that 95% of these made up scenarios are impossible. Drilling engineers wish their fracks did what these loony people say they do.