Photos reveal effects of Marcellus shale drilling

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:02 p.m.

Featuring the work of six documentary photographers, the “Marcellus Shale Documentary Project” exhibit on display at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland peels back the layers of a complex industry that is much talked about in our region.

Organized by photographer Brian Cohen and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts director Laura Domencic, it features more than 50 photographs that, seen together, flesh out the environmental, social and economic impact of natural-gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

Each of the six photographers — Cohen, Noah Addis, Nina Berman, Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Martha Rial — took a different approach to the topic in different parts of the state.

For example, a photograph showing the backyards of homes next to an oil refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County, offers a close-up view of an industry that is literally at many people's doorsteps.

Addis, who is based in Columbus, Ohio, but took this photograph near Philadelphia, says the refinery has since been shut down, “but there is a huge industrial infrastructure left behind.”

“Energy is often a boom-and-bust business, so it makes me wonder about the huge infrastructure being built up around drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale region,” Addis says. “The rigs are the most obvious symbol of the drilling boom, but they're temporary. The wells themselves, however, as well as the miles of pipelines, pumping and compressor stations and other facilities will remain long after the initial drilling boom is over. I wonder what will happen to that huge infrastructure once the wells have stopped producing gas?”

Addis says there has been talk of reusing the Marcus Hook refinery as a liquefied natural-gas export facility that could be used to ship Marcellus gas overseas.

“It's just interesting because one of the big selling points of drilling in the Marcellus Shale was that it would help the U.S. become more energy independent,” he says. “But really, energy is a global marketplace and, of course, the gas will eventually be sold where it can make the most profit.”

As for his part, Cohen's landscape photographs, made principally in Westmoreland, Somerset and Butler counties, consider the Pennsylvania landscape in the context of the advent of gas drilling. Looking much like picture postcards, they are punctuated with drilling sites that look clean and decent enough but include label copy that belies their otherwise bucolic views.

For example, one reads: “The Millers leased their land for gas drilling and have made enough from the deal to enable them to keep their Meadow Creek Farm running. They report no ill effects from the drilling at the time of writing; however, relations with their neighbors have deteriorated significantly. The lease was recently purchased by Chevron. 05/30/2012.”

Goldsmith's shot of a gas-drilling well in Hopewell Township, Washington County, registers closer to home, showing smaller “gentlemen's farms” surrounding a drilling rig. Neighbors nearby have complained of dust, noise and “seismic activity” as a result of the drilling.

Another shot by Goldsmith shows a teary-eyed John “Denny” Fair inside his small home, taken after workers hauled away two water tanks that supplied three homes from his backyard. The label copy reads: “When Fair reconnected his water well, it pumped out orange-brown water that he and the neighbors don't want to use. Fair said the water turned brown and ‘stinky' shortly after fracking started.”

Personal perspectives like this abound in this exhibit. For example, in another shot by Berman, a Bradford County couple, Jodie Simons and Jason Lamphere, are seen giving their horses bottled water to drink. Having no clean well water, the couple “claim their water was contaminated by nearby gas-drilling activities causing their daughter to be sick and their animals to die,” according to the accompanying label.

Other works, like Johnson's “Lobbyist and activist — on the sidelines at a protest in Harrisburg, PA” showcase a more-active role citizens have been taking in protesting against fracking in general.

Addis says that he, like all the photographers, was “very excited to be asked to participate” in the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project.

“It's a very important issue, and I think there is a lack of real information about what is actually going on,” he says. “In Philadelphia, where I lived at the time, we heard a lot of shouting from activists on both sides of the story, but I've seen very little honest, nuanced coverage.

“I personally approached this project without any kind of agenda, I just wanted to take a straightforward look to see how the landscape has been changed by the drilling boom and how people have been affected.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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