This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Photos and Text by iLCP Fellow Karen Kasmauski
Cat Lodge, a cancer survivor, moved from Pittsburg to Pennsylvania’s Washington County so that she could raise her six children in a healthy safe environment. Living with her family in a rural homestead at the end of a long gravel road, she could not have imagined speaking at community events or asking people not to sign fracking leases offered by oil and gas companies. Nor would she have imagined confronting people in her own church, where a majority of the congregation voted to lease the church’s mineral rights. Cat left the church feeling betrayed; a breakup so intense her eyes tear up as she describes her decision.
Jane Worthington supports her family working two jobs. At night she cares for people in a nursing home. During the day she recruits oil and gas companies to rent blocks of rooms for their workers in a local hotel. She became an activist when her adopted daughter Alexis, was diagnosed with Benzene poisoning. Jane became alarmed when Alexis’s body started to bloat, her fingers resembling stuffed sausages. Wracked by pain she moaned herself to sleep. She was exhausted, with an insatiable craving for water, as her body attempted to flush Benzene from her system.
Jane began monitoring the number of oil and gas trucks going through her community and by her daughter’s school. She found the courage to speak up at community meetings and challenge the oil and gas executives to alter truck routes away from schools. But mostly she wanted the near by wells shut down.
Throughout this part of western Pennsylvania, growing numbers of people like Jane and Cat are finding the courage to stand up to what they see as dangerous oil and gas practices, fearing the impacts on their communities.
Here, the fight against poorly monitored growth of oil and gas wells is personal. Everyone photographed on “the Human Cost of Energy Production” expedition had their own story to tell—powerful tales of citizens finding the strength to stand up to fracking companies.
The people living in and around Washington County are not rich. They are decent hard-working citizens who believe that laws should be obeyed. Some have lived on the same land for generations. Sam and Dan Duran, twin brothers in their 30’s, are the fourth generation of Durans to farm their property. Both built their homes within view of the home their father built, and where their mother still lives. Both hope to retire on their family land.
But their uncle sold a large portion of the property to a gas processing company. The bitterness of the two brothers toward that uncle is palpable. Sam has had to sell the cattle that once grazed on the hilltops near his front porch. The land is now cleared for construction of processing plants.
Vickie, Sam and Dan’s mother, fears, the family will break up and go in different directions once the plant is built. All her adult children live within shouting distance of her home, but she knows her sons’ wives are concerned about the toxins that could be released from the plant as well as the trucks that will be traveling through their small farming community. In recent years Vickie lost her husband, her daughter and her best friend. She doesn’t want to think about her family moving away from Washington County.
The Durans, anxious to tell their story, hope it will move others to protest against fracking. Though not activists, fighting for their families and homes align them with the many environmental groups opposing the practice.
Karen Bockman keeps devices in her home to monitor air quality. From her backyard she sees the new Cibus Imperial Compression Station. Karen’s husband, like her, grew up in this community. He received a double lung transplant this year, the consequence of a childhood disease. Fearing for his health if the plant damages local air quality, Karen joined forces with the Environmental Integrity Project to carefully monitor emissions.
The Project, also known as the EIP, uses existing laws to helps people like Karen and the Durans protect themselves, giving legal assistance to those who feel unfairly treated by the gas and oil industry. As a legal organization, EIP also seeks to encourage lawmakers to enforce existing environmental regulations and consider the health consequences of fracking-related development.
EIP partnered with the International League of Conservation Photographers, or ILCP, to visualize what fracking means to communities, presenting the “human cost of energy.” That cost may include increased rates of cancer and asthma, as well as more measurable damage to water and air.
Fracking can also extract a more subtle toll, fraying the social fibers that connect many rural communities where relations with neighbors are paramount. Cat Lodge learned that she couldn’t stay in a church that didn’t think long-term about the consequences of selling their mineral rights. Vickie Duran recently joined an online dating site; her husband died of prostate cancer. On her phone she shows me a photo of a farmer in a neighboring community. They have been exchanging emails all day. “He’s cute?” she asks me. “This could be my way out of this mess,” she says with a smile that suggests she’s just kidding.
Learn more about the work of the Environmental Integrity Project at their new website.
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