Ten students from the University of San Francisco are in West Virginia this week, spending their spring break getting a first-hand look at the coal and gas industries.
This immersion trip is taking place through Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute. It began in Wheeling with an orientation then the group traveled to the Morgantown, W.Va. and Washington, Pa., area to visit the Center for Coalfield Justice and spend time with the Friends of Decker’s Creek collecting water samples.
Becoming Frack Finders
In Shepherdstown, W.Va., the students became ‘frack finders.’ Working with David Manthos from the non-profit organization SkyTruth, they used computer software and satellite imagery to document observations about ponds at hydraulic fracturing sites in Pennsylvania.
“We’re using the same aerial imagery that you can find in Google maps that you can see in Google Earth, as well as data from the state of Pennsylvania saying where drilling locations are,” Manthos said.
The students sit in a conference room at the Presbyterian Church in downtown Shepherdstown with their laptops and tablets. They’re studying aerial images of hydraulic fracturing sites, mostly square or rectangular patches of bare brown earth that stand out from the green vegetation surrounding them.
“We show you a place on the map, we show you the aerial images of it, and say ‘what do you see here?’” Manthos said. “So these students here are coming here to help us out and look through all this imagery from the state of Pennsylvania and locate all these wastewater ponds.”
USF Student Riley Chadwell said the SkyTruth technology allows frack finders to zoom in on the images. They answer questions about what they see including whether there’s a pond or not.
“The first couple is kind of hard, I have to admit its kind of confusing at first,” Chadwell said. “But after a while you get the hang of it and you can start to kind of decipher ok that looks like a frack pond, or that doesn’t look like one. So it’s really cool technology.”
Chadwell said frack ponds can be identified by whether the trees around them are cleared, whether there’s been digging or buildings on the site and by the shape of the pond.
“Typically they’re very industrialized shapes like a rectangle or a square, not so natural,” he said.
“I think it’s a good title to have, being a frack finder,” USF student Julia Moreale said.
She likes the fact that anyone no matter where they live can contribute to the project.
“I love the fact that you can go anywhere and use this web site and use this technology,” Moreale said.
“That we have and share it and educate others using these characteristics we’ve been given to identify these fracking sites and facilitate the process of identifying which sites are fracking sites, which sites are active, which sites are impactful and increasing the data and actually doing your part,” she said.
Hydraulic Fracturing: A Shared Concern
The USF students say Californians, like people in the Marcellus Shale region of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, are debating the wisdom of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas from the earth. Last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill regulating the industry and opponents would like to see the practice banned.
USF student Pepe Gil points out environmental issues affect everyone, one way or another, no matter where you live.
“We’re all kind of connected as an ecosystem in a sense if one species suffers we all kind of experience some effect as well because fracking, hydraulic fracturing, or other nonconventional resource extraction occurs all over the world, not just here,” Gil said.
“Us being here today with SkyTruth is only one part of our journey, one part of our immersion here in Appalachia and I think this all kind of contributes like I said to the increased awareness, increased solidarity for an issue that maybe some of didn’t really know too much about before,” Gil said.
Gil said the knowledge students will apply the knowledge they gain on this spring break immersion trip to causes they support in their home communities.
Manthos said the data collected by these students, and other frack finders, will be used by Johns Hopkins University.
“The purpose of that is to inform a public study on if the evaporation from those ponds contributes to problems, respiratory distress and to neonatal problems,” Manthos said. “So once we have a map of where the ponds are you can start to do an analysis with public health data. Is there a correlation; are there problems with living near one of these sites?”
Learning About Coal
The students will spend the rest of the week focused on another energy source: coal. They’ll travel to southern West Virginia where they’ll see the mountain top removal taking place at Kayford Mountain and visit with representatives of the state coal association.
Lauren Totah is a USF staff member who’s leading this journey. She says one goal is giving the students a better sense of how complex social justice issues can be.
“My job is not to tell the students what to think. My job is to show students all sides of an issue and have them become critical thinkers,” Totah said. “I want them to ask questions and I want them to form opinions for themselves about what they’re seeing and really just critically think about these issues and how complex they are and to foster that discussion.”