The borough of Marianna in Washington County, PA, has a total area of two square miles and a population of just under 500 residents. A drive through Marianna showcases pockets of residential areas — modest ranchers and simple brick homes mixed with wood-framed farmhouses — tucked between spans of trees and open fields. Recently, Marianna entered the spotlight when a shale gas producer came to town.
Wesley Silva, a current pastor at First Baptist Church of Smock and former Council President of Marianna Borough, discussed his experience with EQT’s “Gahagan” well pad in Marianna.
Like most other oil and gas producers around the country, EQT’s representatives showed up in Marianna well before the development of the Gahagan pad began.
“It was like a quiet storm. They weren’t anywhere and then they were everywhere,” Silva said. “They were at the library, at community meetings, at the Outdoorsmen Association, talking to hunters and fishers, talking to everyone. They promoted themselves anywhere they could.”
Silva recalled hearing the representatives telling borough residents that they could make Marianna a better place to live. The reps handed out branded backpacks and merchandise, sat in on community meetings, and involved themselves in local parades. Branded banners hung across the street and under light posts. The town was decorated entirely in the EQT logo.
“They never said anything about how it could be dangerous. I started doing research and started looking at what had happened in other towns,” Silva said. “As a councilman, it was my responsibility to protect the residents. And we were attacked.”
Silva and other council members attempted to mitigate the risks associated with the Gahagan pad by passing new zoning restrictions that would stop or, at the very least, delay the development of the site.
Marianna is just one of thousands of communities that have hosted shale gas facilities including wells, processing plants, compressor stations, storage facilities, and pipelines. Documented accidents associated with these facilities include poisoned drinking water, polluted air, animal deaths, and explosions that have damaged nearby homes and caused at least 10 deaths.
“When we went to pass zoning, [the gas representatives] came out in full force. They bombarded and disrupted our meetings and when it went to the township, they went there and disrupted their meetings.”
Some residents were also involved. Those in support of the Gahagan site took to social media. In a Facebook group, offensive comments were made about the council members who opposed — or even questioned — the development plans.
This response isn’t out of the ordinary. In communities across the nation impacted by shale gas development, many residents fear speaking out in opposition. Shale gas development is presented to communities as an opportunity for local and individual economic growth and job creation. In reality, shale gas development often falls short on its financial promises and, instead, leaves communities with negative environmental impacts.
Further, research shows that those living near oil and gas facilities — both active and inactive — are more likely to experience asthma and other respiratory issues, heightened fetal health risks, heart-related hospitalizations, and stress-induced health impacts. While toxic pollutants from oil and gas wells have been detected up to six miles (31,680 feet) from the wells, current regulations allow facilities to be as close as 300-500 feet from schools, childcare centers, homes, and other occupied dwellings. In Marianna Borough, fracking facilities pose a direct threat to all residents.
Silva described the changes in tone and behavior of the representatives after council members began asking more questions. The representatives, who had previously made themselves very visible around town and in community meetings, now refused to answer questions from the community.
“We asked them to come to a town meeting and tell us what they would be doing and what it would do for our town, and they refused. They threatened us with litigation and told us we were no match. They told us they had the money and the resources to move forward, and we couldn’t match that," Silva said. "Before anyone knew what was going on, they were developing."
Despite a push for zoning restrictions by Marianna Borough, the surrounding West Bethlehem Township gave the gas producer the green light to begin developing the Gahagan pad. Once development began, heavy truck traffic damaged local roads and threatened the structural integrity of a small bridge to the extent that a main road through Marianna was closed for nearly a year. Local traffic was rerouted, which caused road condition issues in the neighboring township. Conditions from heavy truck traffic, thought to be related to the nearby shale gas compressor station, became dire enough that mail trucks could no longer deliver to residents along that route.
In addition to deteriorating road conditions, residents of Marianna began expressing frustration with light and noise pollution from the site.
Shale gas wells and compressor stations produce noise at levels that may increase the risk of adverse effects on human health, including sleep disturbance and cardiovascular disease. Further, constant noise pollution from fracking sites can cause nearby residents to more frequently experience anger, anxiety, and distraction, which can impact relationships, work, and more. Chronic noise exposure is also linked to elevated blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, birth complications, and cognitive impairment in children.
“People couldn’t sleep at night because of the light and the noise and the vibrations from the drilling. Residents showed me photos and videos of the insides of their houses looking like daylight at night, of their houses vibrating from the activity at the pad,” Silva said.
“Some of the people who were on the bandwagon before things started happening, they came to me and asked what we could do to stop it now. I told them it was too late.”
Silva, a father, also talked about the impacts of the Gahagan well upon his own family.
“The kids wanted to go outside and play one day a while ago, and I wasn’t sure. There was a smell in the air, terrible, like rotten eggs and ammonia. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it was like this fog rolled up the hill and just walked past the house, almost like a mist. The air was so thick. It lasted about 45 minutes to an hour. I called some people and I told them, ‘do not let your kids outside. Don’t let them out.’”
What Silva described was likely a peak in emissions from the Gahagan site. Emissions from oil and gas facilities are released irregularly, not at a consistent rate. The periods in which emissions are higher are referred to as spikes or peaks. During these times, individuals may experience more severe health impacts, such as coughing spells or asthma attacks.
As of 2021, just a few years after its development, the site in Marianna is no longer active but still poses a health risk. Abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States account for the tenth-largest source of methane emissions. Methane is a significant contributor to climate change, responsible for 25 percent of the human-produced warming we are experiencing today.
For those who live near oil and gas sites, like Wesley Silva and his family, the threats do not end when the industry workers move out of town.
“They left behind their equipment and there is a new site now, not too far away. I can see it from my house. I can hear the vibrations.”
For more information on oil and gas development and how it may impact your health, visit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP) or contact EHP at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org or (724) 260-5504. If you have experienced a concerning event, possibly related to nearby oil and gas activity, you can report your experience here.