A Profile in Fracking: How One Tiny Hamlet Could Be Devastated by Gas

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In Hancock (pop. 1,000 and shrinking), many are desperate to turn land into money, but some are worried about the possible consequences

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Hancock, New York, is a cobwebby Catskills town separated from rural northeast Pennsylvania by the Delaware River, a three-hour drive upstate from Manhattan in heavy rain and light traffic. The county lines along the way smudge together, distinct only as black dots on the page of an almanac; a living plein air painting, lousy with elms and maples and fly honeysuckle and cows and cabins.

Hancock is home to four bait-and-tackle shops, three beauty salons, six churches, ever more vacant and dilapidated-looking homes, one video rental thrift store hyphenate, and one funeral parlor. The stateliest establishment in this otherwise decidedly unstately community is the Hancock House Hotel; here you will find Honest Eddie's Tap Room, a dimly lighted wood-paneled bar named for the major league baseball player John Edward "Honest Eddie" Murphy, who was born in Hancock in 1891. The food menu at Honest Eddie's includes items like "They're Smothered!" (thick-cut fries blanketed in a melty cheese sauce) and "The Deep-fried Pickle" (which is exactly what it sounds like). There is also an off-menu rice pudding, which they serve in a tall bevelled glass sundae cup and garnish with a dollop of whipped cream. The pudding has no spice.

Once the source of jobs for 750, Bard-Parker closed its Hancock operation in 2003, hoping to increase profits by outsourcing labor to Puerto Rico.

Inside the bar are four flat-screen televisions, usually tuned to various sports programs, and an ad hoc lotto hub comprising a Mega Millions branded ticket contraption and a fifth flat-screen monitor that refreshes the New York State Lottery Quick Draw numbers across a band of ticker tape in four-minute intervals. Resting on the bar's wood counter, beside a tower of tissuey cocktail napkins, is a double-chamber pencil pot holding a wad of lottery playcards in one compartment and a fistful of miniature #2 pencils, painted navy and embossed with white lettering that reads QUICK DRAW QUICK DRAW QUICK DRAW, in the other.

People here are statistically whiter, older, straighter, less criminally violent, more politically conservative, less educated, and 60 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal accident, than the average New Yorker. They also are significantly poorer. The now vacant warehouse of the Bard-Parker surgical supply manufacturing plant stands, untouched, in the Hamlet of Hancock (population 1,000 and shrinking), the nucleus of the town. Once the source of jobs for some 750 local men and women, Bard-Parker closed its Hancock operation in 2003, hoping to increase profits by outsourcing labor to Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. The following summer, the Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat Factory -- which used Hancock timber to craft bats for most every major league legend -- closed its doors after an 85-year run. The median household income for the Town of Hancock is a thin $34,000 annually -- deriving in part from seasonal hunting and camping booms. But the land on which the town sits contains a literal fortune.

Here, some 9,000 feet below traversable ground, lies a particularly profitable piece of the Marcellus Shale, a 400-million year old formation of marine sedimentary rock rich with reserves of untapped natural gas. Shale gas reserves are extracted by means of a multi-step process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Chemical fracking fluid is pumped into a targeted borehole drilled deep into the ground; sand is then introduced into the fluid to maintain the integrity of the fracture. The pressure and depth at which this is executed produces a subterranean climate porous and permeable enough for shale gas to be recovered profitably: this is a "frack job."

For a cash-strapped community like Hancock, fracking would seem a high-yield stimulus plan millennia in the making: there is, of course, the economic appeal of home-sourced natural gas, but there are also land royalties to be reaped by residents and money to be made from all the supplies and sandwiches sold in town to the fracking crew itself. Not to mention jobs.

Incentivized by the payout offered by Exxon-owned XTO Energy, many local landowners have already signed leases to their mineral rights -- a collective contribution of over 25 percent of its land makes Hancock a town with some of the heaviest leasing activity in the state. A vocal minority, however, feels less enthusiastic about the prospect.

When I drove up to visit the town one Tuesday morning, a confetti of signs and flyers advertising a collective anti-fracking sentiment -- "No Fracking Way!" -- covered the doors and lawns of Hancock like so many electoral campaign placards. Their resistance is justified: After a fracture has been drilled and drained, as much as two-thirds of the fracking fluid -- which contains high levels of organic carcinogens and radioactive waste -- can be found in the groundwater left behind. Residents of American towns whose land has already been fracked report that methane-tainted tap water runs from their faucets and bursts into flames. But with the potential for jobs creation and the huge financial gains that stand to be made, Hancock's community leaders see fracking as a necessary evil -- flammable water or no.

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At a July 2010 meeting of the Town Board, Jennifer Clark, who runs a natural winery in Hancock with her husband, urged the town's supervisor, Samuel Rowe, to withdraw his support for a pair of Delaware County Board resolutions to move forward with hydraulic fracturing. Clark's concern is that she and her husband will be unable to sell wine after gas drilling pollutes the groundwater and soil in the region. At the same meeting, Ann Kozak passed out fliers for a screening of the environmental documentary Gas Land, an anti-fracking polemic which would be playing the following week at Hancock's Capitol Theater with the filmmaker, Josh Fox, in attendance. In response, Supervisor Rowe cautioned, "all you hear and read is not true." Kozak replied: "That's why an independent look at the process is needed."

Led by commissioner Joe Martens (who was appointed just this March), New York's Department of Environmental Conservation is now at work on a revised set of regulations for in-state drilling. The DEC is expected to have its new rules finalized by early 2012, at which time new drilling permits will be issued and the fracking process will begin. In an interview with ProPublica, Martens explained that because the DEC's drilling regulations will apply state-wide, towns looking to prohibit fracking within their municipal lines will have to file independent lawsuits with the drilling companies themselves.

It's difficult to predict whether Hancock's soil and water will, in fact, be poisoned once the drilling begins. Various assessments of the environmental impact of fracking have been conducted, at both state and national levels. The second-hand damage is much easier to forecast.

The roads and highways that run through town will experience a significant surge in traffic, with large trucks and heavy machinery traveling to and from the drill sites, and all the accompanying noise pollution. The bucolic natural landscape, which has long drawn lucrative hunting and camping tourism at peak season, will be cut up and and cordoned off for pipes and drills and gas collection.

It's a paradox: The town needs money to survive, but the money being offered comes at the expense of the town itself. It would seem, then, however ironic, that capitalism is killing the company town.

Images: Creative Commons.

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Molly Oswaks is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Thought Catalog, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and The Believer, among others.

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