Youngstown: where the promise and curse of shale gas collide

Natural gas could be a game changer for one impoverished Ohio city. But there are serious environmental and social risks associated with extracting it, reports Dimiter Kenarov

There was a saying in Youngstown that the day you didn’t have to sweep soot off your porch was the day that spelled trouble. That was more than thirty-five years ago, when the city, nestled in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, was one of the great steel manufacturers in the United States – “the Ruhr Valley of America” – with dozens of foundries, their smokestacks belching black plumes into a black sky.

Then the soot gradually disappeared, but so did the jobs, as automation and cheap imports drove the industry away. The steel mills shut down, one by one, like the organs of a dying patient. By the end, more than 50,000 people lost their employment and the city’s population shrank by nearly 65 percent, to just over 60,000. 

Today, brownfields and empty factories litter the landscape and ghostly, boarded-up houses haunt the neighborhoods. Tattered American flags flutter from skeletal poles. Junkies roam the streets listlessly. If the Rust Belt had a buckle, it would be right here.  

But the world is changing, and so is Youngstown. The shale gas boom in the Marcellus formation of neighboring Pennsylvania has lifted up hopes in the city– while raising fears of new industrial-scale pollution.

A slick 650-million dollar plant with 350 employees, V&M Star, making steel tubes for the gas industry, opened in October 2012 to great fanfare, where once stood the Brier Hill Works of Youngstown Sheet & Tube. A few smaller steel shops have also made a comeback, while restaurants and motels are getting busier, according to interviews with owners. 

“The shale gas could be a game changer, but I think in truth it’s a very strong diversifier of our regional economy,” says Eric Planey, vice president of the International Business Attraction, Youngstown’s chamber of commerce. “It’s almost like a steroid for the economy.”

Industrial revival

Drilling for shale gas, too, has recently made its entrance into the Mahoning Valley, as the local Utica Shale has proven rich in profitable “wet gas,” saturated with natural gas liquids like propane, butane and ethane. So far, there are just a few shale gas wells in the county area – 196 have been drilled in Ohio and 477 have been permitted – but many more are in the planning stages. Like smokestacks turned upside down, the boreholes seem to promise a new industrial revival for Youngstown.

In truth, for the past several years the city has been attempting to reinvent itself as a high-tech hub for software startups, but success has so far been limited. General Motors remains the largest employer in the area and blue-collar jobs are the most popular.

“Shale gas could really turn our economy around and produce jobs in the future,” Charles Sammarone, the mayor of Youngstown, says.

The city council recently approved an ordinance to allow the lease of the mineral rights of 180 acres of city-owned land. The potential revenue, the mayor hopes, could fund the demolition of abandoned houses and buildings, and give Youngstown a facelift. A 2010 survey by the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative showed that there are 3,246 vacant structures within the city limits, or about 44.8 structures per 1,000 residents, a figure 20 times the national average. 

At the same time, unemployment has been kept relatively low at 7.9 percent, the national average, but only because so many people have been leaving the area.

“We want to clean up our neighborhoods, so we can keep people from moving out,” Sammarone says.

Patching and cleaning up Youngstown with shale gas, though, may prove its own ironic pitfall. Shale gas harvesting requires an invasive technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, whereby millions of gallons of frack fluid – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic – are injected in the ground under high pressure to crack the impermeable rock and release the trapped hydrocarbons. 

Heavy metals

Much of that mixture then comes back as “produced water” or “brine,” laced underground with high concentrations of salts, a variety of heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactivity, making it very difficult for treatment or disposal. 

“All oil and gas production brings certain risks of contamination to ground and surface water, [but] through appropriate oversight, training, maintenance, and enforcement of regulations, spills can be greatly minimized,” says Jeffrey Dick, director of Youngstown’s Natural Gas and Water Research Institute.

However, cases of groundwater contamination and gas migration into aquifers due to faulty casings, as well as blowouts and spills have been quite common and well documented in Pennsylvania, right across the state border. Between January 2008 and August 2011, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recorded 2,988 violations related to shale gas extraction, 1,144 of which involved environmental threats or substantial environmental damage.

Last year, Chesapeake Energy - the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States - was $900,000, (the biggest environmental fine in Pennsylvania’s history), for allowing gas to contaminate private water wells in Bradford County. In 2009, another company, Cabot Oil & Gas received a fine of over $500,000 for similar violations in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Industry statistics indicate that six percent of cement casings in new wells fail and leak both gas and liquid contaminants in the environment, while that percentage climbs precipitously to 50 percent after the first 30 years of exploitation.

“The gas industry could revitalize the town, but you can’t also look the other way. The rivers have been polluted, the land has been polluted by the steel industry, and they left us pretty much in a shambles,” says Robert Hagan, an Ohio state representative and a Youngstown native, who had worked as a locomotive engineer for decades, ferrying steel products across the region. “You have to think very clearly about what could happen with the shale gas and oil industry… so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” 

Although there is no substantial drilling in the area yet, with just over a dozen wells in various stages of development, Youngstown has already felt the shockwaves, literally. With no previous history of major seismicity, the city experienced 12 earthquakes in 2011, the strongest one a 4.0 on the Richter scale. 

A preliminary report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) linked the tremors to a deep injection well, Northstar 1, used for the disposal of brine from Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry. Located right across the new V&M Star pipe plant, on the opposite bank of the Mahoning River, the well was a reminder of the other, much dirtier end-product of fossil-fuel extraction. 

Banning wells

“Everybody is saying how great the new jobs are but they’re being willfully ignorant about the whole big picture,” says Raymond Beiersdorfer, a professor of geology at Youngstown State University, who used to work in oil exploration. “You can’t have a sustainable environment when you’re developing shale gas in such a polluting manner. There are problems all through the whole chain of the process.” 

Northstar 1 was eventually shut down and ODNR implemented stricter rules for waste disposal in all the 192 deep injection wells in Ohio, but the potential for seismic events or serious leaks nonetheless remains, warn experts. For that reason, the nearby town of Niles recently banned injection wells on its territory. 

“The earthquakes shook people up and made them realize the risks of the gas industry,” says John Williams, 55, a Niles native, both of whose grandfathers worked in the steel mills. 

At the end of 2011, Williams and a few other local residents organized a grassroots movement against injection wells and fracking, ‘Frackfree Mahoning Valley’, which has since grown in popularity, staging a number of rallies and information sessions. And although some Youngstown residents see anti-fracking organizations as an obstacle to economic recovery, the area’s long entrenched  tradition of unionism and populist activism have generally cast environmental protests in a positive light. 

But Williams has gone even further. When the company Consol Energy was recently allowed to drill a shale gas well in the protection area of Meander Creek Reservoir; the place that supplies drinking water to all the residents of Youngstown and adjoining residential areas, he started his own private monitoring initiative, PEEPS (People’s Essential Environmental Protection Service). 

Almost daily, Williams measures samples with professional water-testing equipment from a nearby creek that empties directly into the reservoir.

So far, he has not noticed any problems, but he is keeping his guard up.

“It’s a way that people can defend their property, their water and air. Government agencies are not protecting us the way we think they should, but the technology exists so we can protect ourselves,” he says. 

“Chances are there won’t be an accident. But if there is one at Meander Creek Reservoir, it would be a lot more than just jobs that people would have to worry about.”

Groundwater pollution

But shale gas from the Utica and the Marcellus is just one side of the today’s fossil-fuel boom around the Youngstown area. Although much smaller in scale and overall impact, a number of gas wells are being drilled in a shallower rock formation called Clinton sandstones. And reports of groundwater pollution are already coming in.

Jaime Frederick, 34, of Coitsville, Ohio, just east of Youngstown, has ten gas wells within half a mile of her house. Three years ago, just as she moved in, she started experiencing a number of mysterious liver, kidney and intestinal problems. After five surgeries and the removal of her gallbladder, she tested her water and found that it was polluted with high levels of barium, strontium and toluene – chemicals associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing. 

It was only when she stopped drinking her water that her medical condition improved. Today, Frederick has a massive filtration system in her house, as well as gas detectors on every floor.

“How can they say it’s OK you’re getting sick because somebody is getting a job? To me that’s not OK. It’s going to make this area a place where people wouldn’t want to live anymore. And it’s already been that for so long. Companies are turning residential land into an industrial warzone,” she says.

Yet, despite the dangers of gas drilling, many residents of Youngstown continue to feel this is a good chance for the city to come back to life and maybe revive its old manufacturing glory. The question is how much “soot” the new industry would produce and how much of it residents are willing to bear for better jobs.

“It’s a fact of life. It’s going to happen. We may cry or complain, but the economic impact is too big to be stopped,” says Jack Kravitz, the owner of the oldest deli in Youngstown, whose business has increased by 20 percent in the past year.

Both opponents and proponents of shale gas development, however, agree the state has to institute a stricter regulatory regime to ensure environmental safety and people’s health. There are also calls for much higher taxes on the industry – the current proposal of Ohio’s governor John Kasich envisions just 1.5 percent tax on annual gross sales in the first year and 4 percent annually after that – so the whole region could better benefit from its own resources.

“People are cautiously optimistic,” says Phil Kidd, a community organizer and owner of Youngstown Nation, a popular gift shop in the downtown area. “There’s a desire to see this happen, because we desperately need the economic development, but we are also concerned about the environmental aspects of it because once this resource is extracted these companies are gone. If Youngstown, Ohio, can’t learn from its past, I don’t know what community can.”

Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media

Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey

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