JOHNSTOWN - As state politicians and titans from the Marcellus Shale industry gathered in Philadelphia for a two-day industry conference, a considerably smaller group met in a park along the banks of the Conemaugh and Little Conemaugh rivers in Johnstown.
Despite the lack of fanfare, those gathered shared their experiences with the Marcellus industry and discussed the "Dollars and Cents Costs of Drilling," warning of the potential fallout across the commonwealth.
"Drilling waste water, often laced with toxic and radioactive materials, has contaminated drinking water from here in Pennsylvania all the way through New Mexico," said Mary Kate Ranii, PennEnvironment Western Pennsylvania field associate. "Additional damage includes spills of frack fluid chemicals, methane in residential wells, nearby families getting sick after shale gas extraction begins, air pollution, landscapes turned into industrial zones and even earthquakes."
David Yoxtheimer, extension associate at the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, said industry standards contradict the group's findings, noting gas companies have invested heavily in the state and are responsible for fixing water quality issues surrounding well sites in addition to frequently testing water supplies before drilling.
Any water quality issues in public streams fall under the Department of Environmental Protection's jurisdiction. If a violation occurs, he said, DEP ensures the gas companies are responsible for restoring the quality of water to pre-drilling standards.
PennEnvironment's Dollars and Cents report, released on Thursday, highlights what the group has determined to be the negative economic impact of the drilling industry in Pennsylvania.
Speakers compared potential fallout of the natural gas industry as larger in scale than the downfall of the coal industry in Pennsylvania. Environmental degradation and the welfare of Pennsylvania's residents were key components of the report, Ranii said.
"Fracking environmental damage is bad enough, but it turns out that this dirty drilling imposes heavy dollars and cents costs as well," Ranii said.
Carl Whipkey of Ligonier signed a lease to allow drilling on his property. But shortly after drilling commenced, Whipkey said he began to exhibit signs of vertigo and sickness.
Other side effects of the nearby gas rig included disgusting smells and constant noise, he said.
"There was a roar like I thought I was on a B-17 bomber back in World War II," Whipkey said, describing a particular incident at the well site. "It was that bad."
Kurt Limbach spoke of the pollution to a stream near his home in Bolivar, which was once stocked with trout. Marcellus drilling upstream from his home has left a noticeable impact on the water quality, he said.
Limbach said Act 13 - signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in February - allows the industry to side-step past previous environmental regulations.
"We need our state to protect our resources," Limbach said. "Any other industry would have proper environmental controls."
Yoxtheimer, however, noted that Act 13 imposed stringent setback distances from watersheds and increased industry standards on well construction.
"The [gas] well must be 500 feet away from a dwelling or a private well," Yoxtheimer said, adding that the previous distance was 300 feet. "By polluting a stream, you're in violation of the Clean Streams Law. There's definitely penalties to be paid."
Any water used during the hydraulic fracking process must be treated and brought up to drinking water standards before it can be discharged back into the environment, he added.
For residents living in the shadow of gas wells, the industry's impact on the environment and lives of residents outweigh the short-term gains touted by the industry, PennEnvironment members said.
The Rev. William Thwing, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Moxham, said his congregation and other area churches have banded together to call for a moratorium on drilling.
"In Luke's gospel, Jesus says, 'You don't go out and build a tower unless you first count all the costs,'" Thwing said. "And there are many costs which the drilling industry and our present government have not included in the Marcellus Shale plan in Pennsylvania."
The announcement of PennEnvironment's report came on the same day the gas industry and key political figures from across the state met in Philadelphia for the start of the Shale Gas Insight conference.
The two-day conference includes exhibitors and Marcellus industry executives, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter are among the political figures expected to speak at the conference.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.