A Citizen Sense volunteer with a methane monitoring device. Photo by Citizen Sense
Rebecca Roter suffered from nosebleeds and mouth ulcers after a drilling company moved into her county. She's a part of a group of "citizen scientists" in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, who are trying to stop the controversial practice of fracking.
Imagine: You leave the city for a beautiful part of the countryside. You've found a tumble down beauty of a house to renovate and have a baby on the way. The air smells sweet. You, your partner, kid, and adorable dog may not be able to source a flat white in under an hour's drive, but every night you get uninterrupted sunset views from your garden, all with glass of wine in hand. Dreamy.
Until one day, the drills and the compressor stations come over the hill, and you find yourself on the frontline of the fight against fracking—the controversial and sometimes banned form of energy sourcing that uses the high pressure injection of water and chemicals to break up rocks deep under the ground to release gas. This is exactly what happened to a group of women in rural Pennsylvania. One researcher calls them the Real Housewives of Susquehanna County, with the added emphasis on "real."
In 2014, a community group of 30 participants—mainly comprised of women—took part in a months-long research project called Citizen Sense to collect data on pollution levels in their state. Their findings proved that the quality of air was affected by fracking, and has prompted the state to invest an additional $1.6 million into an environmental monitoring scheme.
If we don't sign, we lose our water and everyone else gets our royalties.
Rebecca Roter, 55, moved to Susquehanna County from West Philadelphia. The quality of her water supply dramatically improved with her relocation. "The only way I could dream of taking a sip [out the tap in West Philadelphia] was if it was ice cold," she says laughing. "If it was room temperature, it smelt bad." Roter moved with her then-husband and their daughter, who was born shortly after they restored their house in the county.
She was happy. Then the landmen came: The first officials you meet from the fracking industry and energy companies when they turn up at your door with a release contract. These contracts or leases allow energy companies to drill up to a mile under your land. If they find gas, they give you a royalty. Roter didn't want to sign. "The idea of drilling into the earth and injecting chemicals just seemed inherently risky to me."
"I had a huge blow out with my husband and he basically said to me: "You know what it could be? If we don't sign, we lose our water and everyone else gets our royalties.'" Their marriage was already on the rocks, but Roter was desperate not to break up her daughter's family. She decided that this wasn't the time to be idealistic and signed.
When her daughter went to college, Roter and her husband separated but she stayed on the hill. "It might sound silly, I felt morally obligated to stand witness." Unlike some residents, she could afford to leave the area without selling her house, but felt an "additional moral obligation" to remain.
"I did say, 'If anything happens I hope it happens to me.'"
It wasn't long before it did: Roter becan noticing mouth ulcers and hard skin lesions; her jaw became so swollen she thought she had tooth abscess.
"I had systemic health impacts before I realized that my water was why I was sick... April third, 2014, I turned on my water in my kitchen and it smelled like a chemistry lab. It took my breath away."
Rebecca Roter discussing monitoring air pollution from fracking infrastructure in northeastern Pennsylvania. Screencap via Catherine Pancake for Citizen Sense video, 'Evidence and Governance'
By this point, Roter was looking after her father who had osteoporosis and Alzheimer's. With taps full of undrinkable water, she would carry water on her back from a clean water source for use at home. During this time, she started collecting air quality data. Over seven months Roter collected enough to show "significant elevations" of particles which corresponded with her nosebleeds. These elevations also corresponded with her dog becoming neurologically disturbed and suddenly dying.
From her experience, it's mainly women fighting the fracking in her town. "Men are programed to think that they can fix everything and are not as good at feeling as if they cannot control the outcome, which is something that I accepted. If I couldn't save my world; I wanted to save other people's worlds."
Women are more interested in the environment than men. That's a fact: Increasing research shows that women rank values linked to environmental concerns higher than men, and see environmentalism as key to protecting themselves and their families. In England, it's no surprise that the Green Party is the only political party (minus the Women's Equality Party) to be led by women.
Dr Jennifer Gabrys is the principal investigator of Citizen Sense, the European Research Council funded project that has been working with community members like Roter over the past three years. They seek out and support "citizen scientists" like Roter; everyday people who are using newly available tech and their own resources to collect scientific evidence, often motivated by their fight against colossally powerful institutions like the government and energy companies. Citizen Sense supported them first by collating their concerns and findings, and then by providing seminars, workshops, and even bespoke poulltion sensing kits.
Meryl Solar and Jennifer Gabrys set up the Citizen Sense kit in northeastern Pennsylvania. Photo by Citizen Sense
"Not to underplay what men were doing in the community," says Gabrys, "but that commitment that comes from social organizing was something that the women were particularly good at." That didn't always mean women like Roter were listened to. "Within the project, male voices were inevitably heard more often than women's voices." The Citizen Sense team had to try to not only establish new forms of evidence which might challenge existing structures of expertise, but to "recognise and act upon the gender dynamic of these forms of expertise and not replicate them."
One of Citizen Sense's researchers, Helen Pritchard, says they always had to be vigilant. "Our experience was that male scientists would try and come into the project and take over. So that was something we had to really stand our ground to stop it happening."
Vera Scroggins, 65, is a retired nurse's aide and another participant in Citizen Sense. Scroggins created her own unofficial guided tours of fracking sites in Susquehanna County. Fracking company Cabot Oil and Gas didn't appreciate it and took Scroggins to court. She was subsequently banned from over 300 square miles of the country, though this was subsequently reduced in a review.
Fixing an air quality monitoring device. Photo by Citizen Sense
When emailed for comment, the company directed Broadly to their 2014 statement on the case. "To maintain compliance and promote safe working environments, Cabot recently took action against an individual in Susquehanna County who routinely puts herself and others in harm's way when conducting guided tours, blocking access roads, photographing ongoing development and trespassing on Cabot's development sites and landowners' private property," it reads.
"After numerous attempts to inform this individual her actions were concerning, it became necessary to seek an injunction to prevent any harm from befalling her or others."
Scroggins remains undeterred. She believes the powerlessness communities face from the fracking process is mirrored in women's everyday experiences.
"I went to a meeting last night, our planning commission, and you know it's the same old thing: 'We're powerless,' say the officials. Despite the message there was this resistance within me, from the [get] go: I would say to myself, 'I will claim my power in any way I can,' hopefully without having to get killed or going to jail.
"But if I have to go to jail, I guess I have to."
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