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  • Environmental Health Project

Personal Narrative: Siri Lawson (Part One)

View Part Two here.

Siri Lawson and her husband Wayne currently live in Warren County, Pennsylvania. The county is home to 71 active oil and gas producers and, since 1981, has hosted more than 17,000 wells. The Lawsons have lived here for 11 years and have yet to fully unpack their belongings.

This is the fourth home they’ve shared throughout their marriage, previously owning two other homes in Pennsylvania and one in New York. The reasons for their moves? For 40 years, the Lawsons have been trying to escape the health impacts they’ve experienced first-hand while living near oil and gas activity.

In their first home in Pennsylvania, in the 1980s, Siri and Wayne discovered that an oil refinery was using a tank farm hundreds of feet below their property to dispose of hazardous waste. In a 2017 study, exposure to oil industry waste was found to be associated with multiple types of cancer, as well as respiratory, congenital, urological, and musculoskeletal conditions.

While in this home, Siri began struggling with respiratory problems. She was hospitalized in 1983 for heart failure due to a severe asthma attack and visited the emergency room 14 more times in 1984. Siri and her husband began the process of suing the refinery.

During that time, Siri and Wayne reached out to specialists who visited the Lawsons’ home to examine their air and water qualities.

Representatives from Dames and Moore suiting up before entering the Lawson home

The refinery was found guilty of dumping waste but not of causing damages and did not compensate the Lawsons for the property and health damages they had endured. In fear of facing increasing health impacts, Siri and Wayne decided to move to New York where, eventually, the oil and gas industry followed.

Nearly a decade after the Lawsons settled into their new home in New York, they were notified that a gas producer would be developing a conventional gas field surrounding their property.

A conventional well near the Lawsons’ home, “dusting” drill cuttings

Typically, during the process of drilling new wells, drill cuttings — waste consisting of soil, rock fragments, and pulverized material — come to the surface and become airborne.

Drill cuttings on the hood of the Lawsons’ vehicle

Still struggling with her respiratory conditions, Siri and Wayne once again packed their belongings and moved.

This time, they chose a location as remote as they could find and afford. Back in Pennsylvania, they purchased a home on dozens of acres of land, with hundreds of acres of forest beyond. The Lawsons were in their home only two years when they were notified by the PA DEP that one of the state’s largest shale producers would be developing a gas well less than a mile away.

“You feel betrayed by government, by these industries that come in here. You feel betrayed by your neighbors.”

Shortly after the well was fracked, it leaked chemicals onto the Lawsons’ property, including into their water well, fields, and ponds.

“The animals scattered. Squirrels, deer, birds. Everything scattered off our land.”

Contaminated water from the Lawsons’ well

Siri began documenting her experiences daily with notes, photos, and videos. She captured the pond on their property reportedly bubbling with methane. She and a neighbor showed the severity of the situation by placing garbage bags over small puddles on her driveway, which quickly filled with methane, were lit, and exploded.

While leaking methane, the main component of shale gas, is a problem associated with climate change, it isn’t the primary culprit in localized health impacts. Rather, co-occurring chemicals like VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and particulate matter (such as soot) can increase the risk of experiencing various health issues like rashes, headaches, and fatigue. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can damage the heart, liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

Methane bubbles on the surface of the Lawsons’ pond in summer