Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. She has worked as a reporter for WHYY since 2004. Susan's coverage of the 2008 Presidential election resulted in a story on the front page of the New York Times. In 2010 she traveled to Haiti to cover the earthquake. That same year she produced an award-winning series on Pennsylvania's natural gas rush called "The Shale Game." She received a 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. In 2013/14 she spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. She has also been a Metcalf Fellow, an MBL Logan Science Journalism Fellow and reported from Marrakech on the 2016 climate talks as an International Reporting Project Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.
Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA
Mark Ruffalo speaks at a rally in Dimock, Pa.
Things have gotten pretty tense in Dimock these days. On a rainy day this week, more than one hundred people traveled from New York to support those residents along Carter Road who want Cabot Oil and Gas to continue fresh water deliveries.
Up until two weeks ago, Cabot had been supplying water to families who, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, had experienced high methane levels in their water wells due to mistakes the company made while drilling for natural gas. But DEP recently ruled Cabot had fulfilled its obligations, and could stop delivering water on December 1. The water contamination has become a national issue, and made Dimock a flashpoint in the battle over hydraulic fracturing.
The press conference took place under a tent, and provided ample opportunities to gather interviews with residents and their supporters who oppose natural gas drilling, such as a minister delivering a blessing, a feathered Chief with the Onandoga Nation, and celebrities like actor Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo spoke passionately to the crowd, and posed like a pro when he caught himself within the sights of my camera.
After the press conference ended, I asked Ruffalo to answer a few questions. He eagerly jumped out of the tanker truck filled with water to talk to me. At first I threw him a softball — why is this important to you? Then I asked him to answer the most obvious criticism sure to be launched by pro-drillers, that an outsider, carpetbagger, Hollywood Liberal, comes to save the day. True, he lives in New York above the Marcellus Shale, but it’s easy for him to refuse a landman’s offer, he doesn’t need the bonus payments and royalties. But a lot of impoverished people in this area do.
I knew Ruffalo would play the Incredible Hulk in the upcoming Avengers movie. But I didn’t know the role would consume him so much that he would grow green muscles before my very eyes. That his eyes would pop.
“I’d say you don’t bring your daughter to the red light district just because times are tough,” replied Ruffalo. “You don’t build yourself a meth lab in your garage just because times are tough. This is poisoning people’s water, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
Ruffalo said he’s willing to catch flak for his activism. But he said there’s simply not enough scientific research to determine the long term impacts of gas drilling to public health and the environment. Then I asked him about the lack of alternative energy sources to meet our current needs. The shirt started to rip.
“That’s not true,” said Ruffalo, before I could finish the question. “If you look at Professor Mark Jacobson’s work, who’s the leading civic engineer from Stanford, he has shown us that by 2030 we can be completely off carbon based fuel in this nation.”
Jacobson wrote this cover piece in the November 2009 issue of Scientific American.
Ruffalo continued to speak, seemingly without taking a breath and moving closer to my microphone.
“What do we really pay for gas and oil? What does it really cost us? When you back out the subsidies, when you back out the wars, when you back out the remediation, when you back out the health effects? What does it really cost us for energy? And how can we say that those hidden costs don’t equal what we can do with solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro?”
Then he began a pitch to public radio listeners worthy of some of the most successful pledge drives.
“If we look at climate change, and we’re serious about climate change … and if NPR and your listeners say they believe in climate change then it’s time that they start putting their money where their mouth is and start following the rest of the world and start making that transition. It’s the height of irresponsibility for people who really know, who aren’t climate deniers to sit back and not move forward with renewable energy in the face of the biggest threat to mankind and our water.”
By the end of the interview I think I had taken a couple steps backward on the muddy ground.
But I knew not everyone in the town agreed with Ruffalo. One of the residents suing Cabot told me he had trash strewn on his lawn, and people had taken an ax to his water bottles when he left them stored outside his house. Earlier calls to Dimock Township Supervisors went unreturned. And trying to knock on doors in rainy darkness down long driveways seemed dicey. So, I drove to Dimock’s blinking light, in the center of town. There, I found a post office and an eye glass store. The postal worker was locking up. The eye glass store was dark. The postal worker was eager to speak to me, with the caveat that none of her comments reflect the opinion of the U.S. Postal Service. Morgan Kelly grew up in the area, and is a big NPR fan, so she opened up as trucks carrying water and drilling supplies roared past us.
“It’s brought a lot of prosperity to the area, it’s also totally changed our area,” said Kelly. “I like living in the middle of nowhere, we don’t live in the middle of nowhere anymore. This is becoming very industrialized, very fast.”
Kelly seemed uncertain about whether drilling has polluted the town’s water. But she said she was starting a brewery, so it did worry her.
I asked where I could find die-hard drilling supporters. And she pointed me to a local bar up the road. PJ’s is a typical country roadhouse with a large parking lot in the front full of pick-up trucks. I walked up to a man at the bar and asked if he would talk to me about drilling, I told him I wanted someone who supported drilling. He began to tell me how it’s helped him financially. But soon, an angry looking woman approached from behind the bar and told me to leave. “No, no, no,” she said. “None of that in here.” I asked the man to step outside. “You can’t do that on my property,” she said. The man tried to intercede, telling the bartender that I was looking for someone who favored drilling. But she wouldn’t have any of it. So, back into the rain I went.
My next stop was a restaurant bar. This time, I asked the owner first. “No, No, No,” she said. Then I tried a pizza place. The owners weren’t in. Then I stopped at an Inn across the road. The woman I spoke to at first seemed optimistic. “I’ll get the bartender,” she said, “he’s made a lot of money off leasing.” I tried to intervene, wanting to talk to the bartender first myself, instead of having a translator, which could be a death knell. It was. “Anybody here want to talk to a lady about how they like gas drilling?” Deadly. Laughter erupted from the bar. The look from the bartender? Get out. Clearly, Dimock residents are tired of all the attention. By this time, it was pretty late. Too late to make the four hour drive in the rain back to Philadelphia. I was feeling like a drive-by journalist. I appealed to the young woman. “Can you at least give me a room to sleep in?” I asked.
“I have a room at the hotel,” she said. “The hotel?” This was the Inn, but the owners had built a hotel down the road to accommodate the large number of drillers coming into the area from Texas and Oklahoma. There had just been a cancellation in a place that’s normally booked for months. “You can only stay one night,” she said. Fine, I said, I’m leaving early in the morning.