By jeanne starmack
ellwood city, pa.
Not far from each other, alongside the natural wonder called the Slippery Rock Creek Gorge, are a man-made feature and one made by the glaciers.
Driving out from Ellwood City along Breakneck Bridge Road in Perry Township, you’ll see the man-made one first.
A Marcellus Shale gas well site, owned by Shell Western Exploration and Production, sits at the back of a farm field, one of a handful of such sites in Lawrence County. More are expected throughout the county’s mostly rural landscape.
Shell is one of several companies that have been drilling into the Marcellus across the state since 2006. They use a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from the shale thousands of feet below the ground.
Environmentalists and community activists have protested “fracking,” in which horizontal drills can bore through the shale about a mile away from a well site. Then a mixture of water, sand and chemicals blasts cracks in the shale to release the gas. The chemicals in fracking fluid have included some that would be hazardous to the environment and to humans, such as benzene. People living near well sites have complained their well water was polluted by the chemicals or by natural-gas migration. Accidents at well sites have also posed a threat to surface water. A blowout at a Chesapeake Energy well in Bradford County in April 2011 spewed fracking fluid across farmland and into a nearby creek.
A quarter of a mile farther down Breakneck Bridge Road from the Perry Township gas-well site, you’ll see a sign for Cleland Rock. A left turn down a gravel road lined with cornfields and trees, then some careful treading down a set of natural steps formed by the roots of some huge maples takes you to the rock — a flat, 80-square-foot piece of sandstone overlooking a seemingly endless green-leaf canopy that dips sharply down to the center of the 400-foot-deep gorge.
The view is breathtaking, and worth protecting. There is no fracking going on underneath the gorge — fracking is not allowed under any state park land, said Terry Brady, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
At the gas-well site, however, a pad that is permitted for three wells sits 100 feet from state park property, where the sides of the gorge descend to the pristine Slippery Rock Creek.
One of the wells is drilled and fracking is under way, said John Poister, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Work has started on a second well.
What would happen if a well casing failed, or a blowout threatened the watershed or the creek?
Poister said the DEP regularly inspects the wells, even when they are capped, to make sure no failed casings could allow fracking fluid or natural gas to migrate to ground water.
Brady said it would be the DEP’s job to mitigate pollution from an accident such as a blowout.
The DCNR, which manages Pennsylvania’s 129 state parks, gives 100 percent priority to public safety, Brady said.
Each park has an individualized evacuation plan, he said, with “a clear chain of command” to get the word out to campers or others in the park.
“We have an elite ranger force and access to ATVs, and word-of-mouth,” he said. “You do the best you can.”
Poister said state law requires companies to construct wells to prevent blowouts, fires, explosions or “loss of well control.”
Operators are also required to have “Pollution Prevent and Control” plans, which document how they would respond to spills and emergencies.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission also would get involved, Brady said.
The view from Cleland Rock is not the only one worth saving — “All our parks are special,” Brady pointed out.