“A Mother on the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health”: Julia Kasdorf’s poetry from the Marcellus Shale

September 24, 2015 | 0 comments

Julia Spicher Kasdorf authors the second guest post for our series on the Penn State Reads book, Russell Gold’s The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World. Kasdorf is an award-winning poet and a Professor of English since 2001. She thinks about the relationships that writers have with the communities and the places they come from and also those places they choose to inhabit. As a Pennsylvanian, a Mennonite and a mother it may come as little surprise that some of her recent work has focused on fracking, community and families. She has published several collections of poetry including Poetry in America,  Eve’s Striptease, and Sleeping Preacher. She has also won numerous awards including the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, the Great Lakes College’s Association Award for New Writing and the Pushcart Prize.

Kasdorf has offered four poems for us to use on The Field Guide. We will post them one at a time over the course of the next few weeks.

“A Mother on the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health”

The industry thinks I’m too dumb to back down; they don’t know
I do this for my Mom and Dad. They were 69 and 71.

He had pulmonary fibrosis, worked with asbestos all his life. She grew up
near the coke ovens back when kids were sent into the mines to pick coal.

So they both had lung problems, but their home, the next hollow over,
sits 350 feet from a compressor station. We sealed the house,

set up an air scrubber, but—four of their neighbors passed last year, too.

*

We bought the coal rights to our 115 acres because we know
the company will come up to your front door, but we let the gas go,

just didn’t see this coming. A gentleman from New Jersey leased our land.
One day we come home to find pink ribbons tied in the field. Then bulldozers.

They put in four shallow wells and a Marcellus well on a 5-acre pad
700 feet from our porch. The workers come by the busload. All those strangers

on our land 24/7, could have been rapists or pedophiles. For about a year
they didn’t have a Port-a-John. I looked out my window one morning

to a guy peeing in the driveway. The dog brought in used toilet paper.
The workers have to be young, strong. Kids in trucks 12 to 16 hours a day,

that should be placarded “hazardous waste.” They live on junk food;
I know because we picked up the wrappers. Then our dog disappeared.

We saw Sara’s tracks in the snow go right up to the well pad.

*

When crayfish died in our spring, we knew the methane had migrated.
Now you can light it on fire. Our neighbor put in a water line; we guessed

their well had gone bad and they’d settled, but they paid for it themselves.
We had water buffalos two years before we paid to run a line in from the road.

When they laid the gas pipeline, those big trucks drove over our water line
and busted it all up. I hollered at the drivers and got dragged into court;

me and our son, four years old then, both got an injunction.
They tried to say I’m an unfit mother, too, but the judge wouldn’t hear it.

I look at pictures of my little one from that time, and he has the same dark circles
under his eyes as the Hallowich kids. He’d get terrible stomach pains, nothing

we could do but hold him. My older boy had the nosebleeds and rashes.
I couldn’t keep him inside all the time. I’ll show you pictures. If you speak up,

you get more security. We had guards here 24/7, armed and unlicensed
in Pennsylvania. They got real interested in my walks down by the crick.

One asked me, What do you do down there in the evening? I said, I walk
and I have pawpaw trees, want to come along? So I got to know

the night guard. He could have used the exercise, so he walked with us.
His mom was sick the same time mine was. We’re still in touch on Facebook.

*

They drilled the gas pipeline on a weekend, didn’t go where the DEP said,
so it blew out in our crick—bentonite and “residual waste” clouding

clean water stocked with trout. That’s when I cried. That crick flows
into the Mon, and people get their drinking water out of that river.

Another side effect of the drilling no one thinks about is all the swearing.
And it’s not just the men.

*

“Alternate waste disposal on site” means they can bury radioactive
drill cuttings in your land. When they drained the frack pits,

they shook the tarp and bulldozed the sludge into the ground, too.
There’s places we mow now, but we don’t feed that hay to our horses.

I can’t dig or plant a post there. Why don’t they tell us
not to grow food or let beef graze back there?

The stock sale registers animals now, so if I sell hay to a neighbor,
he sales his steer, and someone’s sick from the meat, that comes back on me.

*

People collect royalties on this well a mile away. We just care for the place
and pay taxes. The well tenders come about once a week

to the shallow wells and every day to the Marcellus. Two or three
times a week water trucks come in here and draw brine, and every two weeks

they blow it down, so whatever’s on the line goes into the air.
Once the brine tank vented for 45 minutes. My horse’s eyes swelled shut,

and one went blind. They’ve had the nosebleeds. There’s a big gum tree
near the well that loses its leaves in the middle of summer.

*

We saw clouds of silica sand blow off train cars over the little league field,
and someone was holding a newborn there with us in the stands.

When I complained about them parking silica trains by the elementary school,
the gentleman said, “It’s just sand; your kids play in it.”

*

We didn’t have internet before this, but you have to follow the permits
because the industry tells you nothing. You have to go to the courthouse

and pull your file, and when you find out what they did to your land,
you’re just sick. Let them think I’m too dumb to back down. My son

won’t play on any T-ball team with industry logos on their shirts.

[Reprinted from Prairie Schooner, 89.2 (summer, 2015): 127.]

Penn State’s definition of sustainability is “the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well being for current and future generations.” Sustainability is therefore important to families. “A Mother on the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health,” yesterday’s post by Jenny Lisak and the experiences of John Trallo (Chapter 10 of The Boom) address Pennsylvania families. For example, this poem names “the Hallowich kids” whose parents, according to State Impact PA, settled with Range Resources for damages to their health and home, but only on the condition that they sign a gag order. Kasdorf writes,

I look at pictures of my little one from that time, and he has the same dark circles
under his eyes as the Hallowich kids. He’d get terrible stomach pains, nothing

we could do but hold him. My older boy had the nosebleeds and rashes.
I couldn’t keep him inside all the time. I’ll show you pictures.

Lisak wrote, “The permit described an escape plan for workers to run upwind in the event of a unintended release, but what care for my children who lived directly downwind, where were we to run?” Trallo, who moved to Sullivan County to be away from the chemicals of the city and to raise his son, is quoted as saying, “No one asked me to make that sacrifice, and I think I’ve sacrificed enough. It is very easy for those not living here to ask us to make a sacrifice.” In light of our definition of sustainability, what is a reasonable sacrifice for a family to make for energy development? How does Gold’s experience differ from these? Can they be reconciled?

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