Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is Wider Unity on the Shale Issue Possible?

A Stronger Steelworkers’ Voice Is Needed

in the Marcellus Anti-Fracking Movement

A Stronger Steelworkers’ Voice Is Needed
in the Marcellus Shale Anti-Fracking Movement

By Carl Davidson

Beaver County Blue

There’s a specter haunting Western PA. It’s the prospect of a working class divided by a fear of water pollution destroying the property values of small homeowners on one side, and on the other side, by the promise of new wealth from the exploitation of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits.

A similar fear divides West Virginians over ‘mountaintop removal’ mining. Little towns are split between those who want food on the table and those fearful of poisoning their children.

Steelworkers can certainly see the problem in our own terms. It takes a lot of steel pipe to drill down two to four miles, then drill out a horizontally for another mile in a dozen directions. The tube mills are getting the orders and steelworkers are back to work. On the other hand, steelworkers know the dangers of poisoning the ground and the rivers better than most.

Everything goes somewhere. When the drillers lace 6,000,000 gallons of water with a ton of poisonous chemical brine, pump it underground to break up shale and release the natural gas, a lot of the water comes back up with the gas. A lot also stays underground. The poisonous brine that comes back up is caught in plastic-lined ponds that often leak. Some is reused, some spilled, some carted away in tankers. Some of the tankers leak or dump the brine along the way. A lot is partially treated by a few water treatment plants. Then it goes into the local rivers heavy with salt. Already the Ohio downstream has growing percentages of toxic brine. To repeat, everything goes somewhere.

Is there a way to protect our jobs in steel and our way of life? I think so. Ban drilling within a specified distance from the Ambridge reservoir and the watershed of Service Creek that feeds it. This is a valuable and irreplaceable source of potable water for 30,000 customers. Similar sources of good water around the state also need protected.

We need a beefed-up DEP/EPA to enforce new and enhanced safety regulations. A third step would be hiring local union labor at all the drilling sites. Local workers have a stake in clean water, and a union worker is more likely to blow a whistle on illegal or dangerous practices.

Naturally, all these cost something. That’s why the crucial first step is a hefty extraction tax. Pennsylvania’s current failure here is an outrage that makes us a laughing stock even among other states where fracking is underway. I would make the tax high enough to make two pots—one to pay for the expenses above, the other for a Green and Clean Energy Fund to finance the transition to renewables. Gas is a bit cleaner than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel that takes carbon from beneath the earth and puts it in the air. It’s not good for us in the longer run, and we need to start now funding the transition from one to the other.

All these measures are consistent with USW policy, its Blue-Green Alliance and the steelworkers' overall strategy for a green industrial revolution. A progressive view from the unions needs a louder voice in a broad coalition around the Marcellus shale issue.

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