July 5, 2016
By Rianna Lee
I will always have a fondness in my heart for my hometown. I technically grew up in the suburbs, but my extended family lives about an hour west of the city in a small town called Avella, which is where I lived for about two years before moving closer to the city. The town is beautiful – at least it used to be. Rolling hills, tall trees and endless green, grazing cows and horses in almost every pasture, a huge lake and park down the road from my grandma’s house… it was my favorite place in the world growing up.
When I returned years later, everything was different. A tall, bright oil rig stood in the distance near the lake I used to love. Access roads for trucks were paved over the trails where my aunt and I would ride horses. The air wasn’t so crisp and clean anymore, and everything felt off. I later learned that the land was being used for fracking, but my family told me it was anything but bad. These huge oil companies were bringing good paying jobs and a lot of money to the town – and that alone, I suppose, was enough to make everything okay.
Until I learned that good jobs and money were coming at a huge price to several families in Avella.
I recently read an article, published by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), about the dangers of fracking and the failures of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to address complaints regarding the air and water quality as a result of fracking. The article featured a couple named Jesse and Shirley Eakin, whose family has resided in Avella for 59 years. Jesse and Shirley never had any issues with their air or water until com people started drilling for oil in the park behind their house. After months of unexplained sickness and rashes, the DEP told Shirley and her family not to drink the water because it was not safe. Despite this evidence of harm, they claimed that the industry was not at fault for what happened to their water so the Eakins would not be provided with a water buffalo or potable drinking water.
What the article released by CPI fails to mention is who exactly is helping these families by donating supplies and working with them to get the much-needed attention of the DEP. One grassroots organization in particular took it upon themselves to step in and help the Eakins and nine other families who do not have access to safe, clean drinking water – long before CPI wrote their important presence in the community out of the story. This organization is called Friends of the Harmed.
Friends of the Harmed, informally known as “Fracking’s Good Samaritans,” has been on the frontlines of the battle against the fracking industry, the DEP, and has been supplying clean, safe water and air in Avella and Rea Township for four years. Friends of the Harmed is a small, nonprofit group of volunteers who come in to assess a homeowner’s fracking complaint. The group develops a customized plan outlining the next steps the homeowners should take. The group, which is a project of the Thomas Merton Center, has donated over $22,000 to buy indoor air filters for toxic air pollution, water buffalo replacement systems to provide potable water, bottled water, and independent water and air quality testing to assess which chemicals are present.
Dana Dolney, one of the cofounders of Friends of the Harmed, stepped in when she got a second chance at life after beating cancer. “I had nothing to lose,” she said. “When I saw that no one, who was paid, whose job it was to care, did a damn thing to help people harmed by fracking, we stepped in.” The people she is referring to are agencies like the DEP, who have done a great injustice to the community by mishandling air and water quality complaints due to fracking. In fact, investigative news nonprofit, Public Herald, and more than 50 organizations and individuals are calling for a federal criminal investigation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) “for failing to act on drinking water contamination related to shale hydrocarbon development, a.k.a. fracking, and placing public health at risk.”
Friends of the Harmed recently compiled a letter to the President, signed by more than 100 families who have been affected by fracking in the Marcellus Shale region. The letter asks President Obama to meet with the families who have been harmed by the oil and gas industries and abandoned by the local, state, and federal agencies charged to protect them. The letter has received national attention since it was released on June 30, including a retweet from actor and activist Mark Ruffalo.
Friends of the Harmed has compiled two publications that include personal testimonials of affected individuals. Shalefield Stories, Vol. 2 is available for a small donation to Friends of the Harmed. All public donations go into a direct aid fund to provide relief to impacted families in the gas fields of the Marcellus in the form of replacement water, air filters and independent testing. For more information, visit shalefieldstories.org.
Rianna is a summer intern for the Thomas Merton Center and a senior at Duquesne University, studying international relations and sociology. She is interested in law and public policy surrounding gender and women’s rights.