Pennsylvania

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Chevron pizza controversy puts southwest Pa. coal town in the spotlight

Bobtown is having its 15 minutes of fame. The small town in southwest Pennsylvania has been on the lips of late-night comedians, Twitter wits and anti-fracking activists. First, in February, a Chevron natural gas well near Bobtown exploded, killing a young worker. Then, the company responded by giving community residents free coupons to Bobtown Pizza.

This struck Chevron’s critics as outrageous. More than 12,000 people from the Netherlands to San Francisco have signed a petition demanding Chevron apologize for insulting the people of Bobtown.

Residents appreciate Chevron’s gesture

But residents like Joann and Edward Herrington have had a different response to the company’s gesture. The couple, both in their early 70s, live down the hill from the well pad where the fire broke out on Feb 11. The roar of the blaze woke them up that night and for several weeks, trucks pounded up and down the narrow road past their home.

Three days after the fire, a representative from Chevron approached Edward Herrington while he was outside shoveling snow and handed him a gift certificate for a free meal from Bobtown Pizza. The following week, Herrington’s son from Ohio called to tell him he’d seen a photo of a certificate just like it in the newspaper.

“People were making fun of it,” Herrington says. “But that wasn’t the principal of it.”

For days after the fire, Bobtown Pizza provided meals – even breakfast – to first responders and Chevron’s staff. Joann Herrington says she thought the company was simply saying “thank you” to the shop and to local residents.

“I just thought they was showing their appreciation of us standing by them with all the trucking, with all the traffic, with all the noise,” she says. “They just wanted to treat us nice for maybe not complaining. We didn’t complain.”

Chevron says that’s exactly why they bought the coupons.

However, critics see it as one of many companies in Pennsylvania’s history that have swooped in to take natural resources with little regard for communities. They don’t see why it should get a pass in this case, but in Bobtown, the relationship between the industry and the community is more complicated and stretches back decades.

Down the road from the Herrington’s house is an active coal mine. In February, the flames and smoke from the Chevron well pad could be seen rising from a ridge just above this mine.

A century before modern natural gas drilling came to Greene County, coal was king. In the early 1900s, Bobtown became a thriving coal patch in Greene County – about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, on the border of West Virginia. Most of the men worked in the Shannopin mine run by Jones & Laughlin Steel. The company owned most of the land in town and built houses for the workers and their families – many of them immigrants from Eastern Europe.

A close-knit company town

Most of the people you meet in Bobtown are retired coal miners or related to one – like Bonnie Gansor, who runs the local hair salon.

On a recent afternoon, she’s cutting Cathy Chabanik’s hair. Both of their fathers and Chabanik’s husband were coal miners. She remembers the sound of the whistle that would blow to call the firemen when there was an accident in the mines.

“It could have been a fire, it could have been an auto accident or it could have been the mine,” Chabanik says. “And more than likely, it was the coal mine.”

The mine closed in 1993. Now, many of the workers’ houses sit abandoned – as does the old company store. Some families like the Chabanik’s have moved away, while others travel to West Virginia to work.

But those who’ve stayed in Bobtown still savor the rituals of a close-knit company town – a place where people sit on their porches and talk and there’s still a fish fry at the fire hall every Friday. Food is also part of the rites of grief in Bobtown. Someone dies, and neighbors bring dinner to the family.

“I think maybe that’s why everybody was so surprised at the reaction to the pizza thing because we’re just used to that. If something happens, you give people food,”  Bonnie Gansor says. ”I never looked at it as a negative thing.”

Gansor says Chevron even offered to pay for a DJ who was supposed to provide entertainment at a cancelled party at the Bobtown Polish Club the weekend after the fire – but the DJ wouldn’t take the money.

“They didn’t have to do that,” she says.

Media attention distracts from workers’ death

But not everyone in Bobtown sees it that way. Julieann Wozniak is angry at Chevron for giving out pizza coupons when the company could have done something more permanent for the entire community, like helping to reopen the company store or building a park.

“Like we’d be satisfied with pizza coupons for god’s sakes, after the major disruption they caused for two days and we breathed all that toxic air for over a week,” she says.

The Department of Environmental Protection says residents were not exposed to unsafe levels of emissions from the well fire.

But Julianne Wozniak’s distrust of big energy companies like Chevron runs in her blood. Her grandfather helped organize the mine workers’ union in this part of Greene County. She says he let them meet in the corner store and bar he ran on the outskirts of Bobtown.

While she supports the petition against Chevron, Wozniak believes the media’s reaction distracts from the fact that a young worker died in the explosion.

“I think an equal attention should be paid to worker’s safety,” she says. “That was what union organizing was about back in my grandfather’s day, assuring that workers didn’t die at a prodigious rate in the mines. Here we have this new industry and it’s just same old-same old.”

The Greene County coroner is still trying to identify the remains of 27-year-old Ian McKee. McKee leaves behind a fiancée who is pregnant with his child. Samuel Davis, a lawyer for the family, says it could take weeks before the county can issue a death certificate.

“There is no closure,” Davis says.

Meanwhile, the spotlight continues to shine on Bobtown. Last week, producers from “The Daily Show with John Stewart” descended on Bobtown Pizza where Chevron bought the 100 gift certificates. Co-owner Bill Sowden says so far, only 12 residents have come in to claim their free meals.

His business partner, Brian Scritchfield doesn’t get what all the fuss has been about.

“We think it’s funny, just such a big deal out of us just doing what we do…serve pizza.”

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