The new meaning of fracturing

Have we read enough about hydraulic fracturing? For most of my life, “fracturing” was a word only used in reference to anatomy, as in “compound fracturing” sidelining an athlete. The dictionary still offers definitions for it by using words such as “break,” “tear,” and even “violate.” However, as most northeast Ohioans and western Pennsylvanians know, fracturing is the process by which natural gas is being extracted from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

A year ago, the battle lines were drawn, and proponents and opponents engaged in town hall meetings, debates, confrontations at drilling sites, and contentious civic assemblies throughout our area.

We heard accounts of the “good” that would come of this treasure beneath our feet in terms of economic riches, job growth, business and industry resurrections, and the return of the political importance of our region. To conflict with those, we heard the “bad” tales of toxic water, the destruction of natural resources, the scams of speculators, and even earthquakes.

Most of the headlines have gone away. It is just not “front page” news anymore, apparently.

By now, the group on the one side has been painted as “crazy tree-huggers” and their activities are hardly worth a news item or sound bite. Conversely, the group on the other side has, in essence, “steamrolled” the majority of us into complacency. It’s a done deal. It’s as much a part of us now as the steel industry was in the middle of the last century.

We have become so inured that we are blissfully unaware of the unusually bumpy roads (oh no, it is the usual pothole problem we have every spring), the shaking of our homes (oh no, that is just the early sale of more powerful fireworks), and the number of Texas license plates on pickup trucks (oh no, that is the new Ohio design license tags).

Seemingly, we are as unaware of these current elements as our predecessors were of the clouds of dust that hung over the Mahoning Valley in the 1940s through the 1970s, and the dinghy gray color that marred both our white exterior walls and the white laundry hung outside to dry. These were, of course, minor compared to the condition of the lungs of those who worked in and near the mills and factories.

Our neighbors in western Pennsylvania are in the midst of the “forced pooling” controversy about whether landowners can prevent a drilling company from fracturing without their permission. Confusion over a 1960s state law is at the center of this and an attempt to make the law more transparent has become, itself, more confusing.

My questions are many: what do we actually know about hydraulic fracturing being done in our region currently? Is it all going smoothly? Are all of the aforementioned “good things” manifesting themselves? Are the “bad things” just limited to the adjudication of the case involving a maverick driller? Is our collective health changing?

My guess is that we are now at the mercy of corporate “power brokers,” who have at their fingertips various actuarial tables drawn up in secrecy by the accounting departments of the big oil and natural gas firms. These are filed under the “Risk/Reward” headings in the vaults of corporations larger than we can imagine.

For example, if the well water in a locale becomes unusable, what is the actual cost to provide safe water to those folks?

This is nothing new. Corporations from airlines to automobiles operate in much the same manner.

Ultimately, I would like detailed, unbiased reports about the state of affairs in the drilling industry and its impact on our lives.

Williams is a Hubbard resident. Email him at