Photojournalist documents fracking’s effects on farmers

The reason Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist Martha Rial is interested in the Marcellus Shale drilling project is simple: “It’s my home,” she said.

Growing up in Murrysville, Pa., Rial loved spending time in parks and on Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

“I’ve always been an outdoors person,” she said. “The environment has always been very important to me.”

Rial explored environmental changes caused by fracking in western Pennsylvania when she worked with the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project. A collaborative effort of six photographers, the Project premiered at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in October 2012. The photographs are a visual documentary of fracking’s various effects on Pennsylvanians.

Rial concentrated specifically on fracking’s effects in Greene County, which was Pennsylvania’s poorest county in 2002.

“I’ve always been interested in underreported communities,” Rial sad. “They fall through the cracks and never come up in the news, unless the news is really, really awful.”

But Rial’s photography of Greene County reveals important, universal challenges farmers are facing as a result of natural gas fracking.

Natural gas is not the only desirable resource in Greene County. Like many other counties in Pa., it is also a valuable source of timber and coal.

“People want their resources,” Rial said. “They’ve been dealing with this for a long time.”

Although many Pennsylvanian counties are heavy in natural resources, Greene County’s small population makes its situation unique.

“[Greene County] is sparsely populated, compared to other counties in Pennsylvania,” Rial said. “A lot of people are there because they love the land, they love the rural lifestyle. Some of the land has been in people’s families for years.”

Other people in the area did not inherit land, but rather decided on their own to move to the quiet, rural area.

One example is goat farmer Jeanne Williams, one of Rial’s main subjects in the MSDP. According to Emily DeMarco’s Public Source article accompanying Rial’s photos, Williams and her husband bought their farmland in 1995. Less than ten years later, in 2011, they were approached by a representative from EQT Corp., an energy company.

The representative, referred to as the Landman by EQT, informed Williams that because old pipeline infrastructure exists beneath her farm, the company could legally claim the land and construct new pipeline.

The pipeline took two months to install and was then covered by a layer of mud, which prohibited Williams’s 116 goats from grazing in the field.

“The temporary inconvenience wasn’t so temporary,” Rial said. “It’s a low, ongoing stress.”

She said it took between six and nine months for Williams’s farm to return to normal.

Rial’s photographs emphasize Williams’s interactions with her goats, which she raises for meat.
According to the Public Source article, she also sells vegetables, homemade cinnamon buns and other goods at local farmer’s markets.

Editor of Public Source Sharon Walsh, who published Rial’s work with the MSDP, said Rial’s photographs highlight the typically subtle way fracking infiltrates people’s lives.

Walsh said Rial’s photographs clearly demonstrate how fracking has changed Williams’s life.

“It’s the story of this person, who in the background has a relationship with a gas drilling company,” Walsh said. “She’s really concerned with the farming, the goats…but [the pipeline] has become part of her life.”

She said that rather than emphasizing the drilling, Rial’s photographs capture Williams’s daily routine, which now features drilling in the background.

“If you look at the photographs…the actual part about what’s going on in her land because of fracking is really very subtle,” said Walsh. “You see her working with the goats…in some of the pictures you don’t see anything about drilling.”

Environmental Studies major Anna Zedar, ’14 agreed that Rial’s photography is powerful in its subtlety.
“When I first looked at the photos, I couldn’t see any evidence of drilling,” Zedar said. “What I first noticed were the goats.”

Walsh said Rial’s photographs do a good job of presenting an individual situation in its entirety and for viewers to judge.

“Drilling is part of people’s lives, and I think that’s what Martha shows so beautifully,” Walsh said. “It’s the story in all its complexity…you can make up your mind for yourself whether [fracking] is good or bad.”

Walsh said that among the many publications on fracking, Rial’s photographs inform viewers in a particularly compelling way.

“There have been lots and lots of articles written about fracking – both national and local publications – and when the (MSDP) came along, I thought what was interesting about that, is it showed a very specific individual, or group of individuals, and their contact with drilling,” Walsh said.

Walsh added that Rial clearly viewed Williams’s goat farm as a story to be told, not just an artistic subject.

“Some photographers see photography as art, and I think Martha and many photographers from [the MSDP] really see it as storytelling,” Walsh said. “That’s important to this kind of a project. It is both art and documentary.”

Walsh said documentaries are important for the accurate recreation of history.

“When you look back, we have great documentaries and photography of Pittsburgh during the days when it was a steel town, and what the environment was like then,” she said. “It’s wonderful to have that kind of documentary evidence of how various types of industry affect the environment.”

Zedar agreed, saying that Rial’s photography reminded her of the famous photos taken of the massive amounts of smog in Donora, Pa. in 1928.

“Pennsylvania had issues with coal, too. We’re kind of repeating history,” said Zedar.

Walsh said Rial and the other MSDP photographers help to create such documentational evidence of environmental changes.

“If someone doesn’t set out to keep that record, then ten years from now, when we’re looking back, how will we know what the changes have been?” Walsh said. “This is a historic time in the life of Pennsylvania because of what is going on with drilling.”

Of the future of Pennsylvanians who live near drill sites, Rial said much is uncertain. She said people are likely to see more changes as natural gas prices rise and drilling increases.

When big energy companies decide to drill, citizens nearby will naturally be affected.

“If they haven’t been affected by the challenges, they will be,” Rial said of Pennsylvanians living near drilling sites. “Whether it’s pipeline development, or a neighbor who has a well pad…there are many different effects, some subtle and some not so much.”

She said that although fracking yields some harmful effects, it creates other positive ones.

“The redeeming part [of the drilling project] is, people are more engaged now,” Rial said. “People are…being active, making sure they’re educated on the issue, and they’re holding local politicians and gas companies to be more accountable. They’re insisting on it.”

Rial said that energy consumption is an issue directly tied with fracking.

“A lot remains to be seen, too, what the long-term effects are [of fracking],” Rial said. “Our country needs to have a conversation on energy.”

She said energy consumption is an important issue, especially in the United States. This issue is relevant to the current fracking discussions happening at Allegheny.

“We need to be aware of how much energy we consume as individuals,” Rial said.

She suggested that to eliminate some energy costs, Allegheny could implement a bus service to Pittsburgh. Rial said she has found many colleges and universities in rural Pennsylvania do not provide a bus service, to Pittsburgh or to any other major city.

“Something students can do is, if anything, further the conversation on reducing consumption,” Rial said. “You probably have a slew of kids who leave campus every Friday to go somewhere…[a bus service] would be a great thing, instead of sending off 50 cars.”

Rial said that if given the opportunity, she would like to continue documenting the Marcellus Shale drilling project.

“I’m hoping I can keep working on it, because I feel like I just scratched the surface,” Rial said.