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.

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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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