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Personal Narrative: Siri Lawson (Part Two)

Click here for Part One of this two-part series.

In 2009, Siri and Wayne Lawson moved into their current and forever home in Warren County, Pennsylvania. Eleven years later, they’ve yet to fully unpack their belongings.

Before moving into their current home, the Lawsons endured decades of negative health impacts while living in multiple homes in Pennsylvania and New York. Oil and gas activity purportedly contaminated their air and water, and Siri and Wayne suffered multiple severe health conditions including asthma, heart failure, and more.

In their current home, they hoped to recover physically and mentally and to finally feel safe.

“Everything we saw was a threat. We’d see them bulldozing something nearby and think, Oh, God, are they going to put a well there?”

Unfortunately, the Lawsons’ worst fears came true. About two years after moving into their current Warren County home, Siri was standing at her kitchen sink when she noticed a strange truck coming down the road. The truck was dumping liquid on the road along its route. She called her husband immediately.

Brine on an unpaved road near the Lawsons’ home

“I felt horror, fear, anger. I phoned my husband and had instant tears.”

The Lawsons quickly learned that what the truck was dumping on the road was brine. Brine is a form of wastewater associated with oil and gas activity. It consists of water released from underground, injection water, oil, and salt. The high concentration of salt in brine can hinder crop production. Brine also contains naturally occurring radioactive substances, as well as chemicals used during the process of drilling for shale gas wells. In some places, brine is used on unpaved roads, like those around Siri and Wayne’s home, in an attempt to control dust.

A study conducted by Penn State University researchers shows that the spreading of brine on Pennsylvania roads between 2008 and 2014 released four times more radium into the environment than oil and gas wastewater facilities, and 200 times more radium than spill events. The study pointed to concerns about these radioactive substances flooding roads and leaching into ground and surface waters, and it determined that, though road dust can be a threat to health, brine spreading is a far greater threat.

Truck damage and brine on an unpaved road near the Lawsons’ home

Siri and Wayne started noticing trucks spreading brine daily, and then twice daily at 2 and 4 a.m. Siri once again picked up her camera, and she, Wayne, and some of their neighbors began documenting the brine spreading on their roads. At times, brine flooded their roads, running off into ditches, then into streams and ponds where children often played.

Meanwhile, Siri’s health conditions intensified. She reported frequently struggling with swollen eyes, ears, and tongue and said she suffered frequent sinus irritation and burning and itching skin. Unable to move again, the Lawsons once again sought legal help.

Residual brine pooling on the side of an unpaved road near the Lawsons’ home

Represented by Fairshake Environmental Legal Services, Siri and Wayne requested their township cease and desist from spreading brine on township roads. The process included submitting an appeal to the Environmental Hearing Board, which hears appeals from actions of the PA Department of Environmental Protection, in July 2017, as well as hiring environmental and health experts, including NY-based hydrogeologist Paul Rubin, to present reports on the health threats posed by brine spreading.

The Lawsons never made it to court.

Before their case could be heard, the DEP filed a motion to dismiss the Lawsons’ case, admitting the DEP lacked the authority to issue approval plans to Hydro Transport, the hauler responsible for spreading brine in the Lawsons’ township. The Lawsons’ challenge resulted in a statewide policy on brine spreading in Pennsylvania.

To this day, this policy continues to be tested in biannual PA legislative sessions. While their roads, home, and health are currently protected from brine spreading, Siri is concerned that protection is only temporary. She and her husband continue to fight to keep brine off of their local roads by sharing their story publicly and speaking up when and where they can.

Brine spreading is a threat in other areas throughout the nation, as well. A Texan resident recently shared that she lost crops and cattle after a Chevron-owned well began spewing brine onto her farm. Additionally, environmental groups around Ohio are demanding investigations into the spreading of brine into local drinking water basins and ecosystems.

For the Lawsons, their fight continues. After decades of hospital bills, lawyer fees, and moving expenses, their financial burden is a heavy one; their health burden is even heavier.

When EHP spoke with Siri in early 2021, she was recovering from her seventh surgery on her nasal cavities. Siri has suffered repeated damage to her respiratory system, including to the cilia, or the microscopic hair-like projections responsible for moving mucus and debris out of the sinuses and lungs. A 2014 study published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows that exposure to emissions from shale gas sites may be related to respiratory conditions like Siri’s.

Wayne has also experienced significant health issues, including skin cancers and heart conditions. Just days after recovering from a heart attack, Wayne had a second attack. Wayne said that his cardiologist suggested that his condition was associated with pollution exposure. A 2020 study published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that heart failure patients who live in communities affected by fracking are at increased risk for hospitalization. A more recent, 2021 study echoed this, reporting that areas with fracking activity were associated with an increase of 1.4% to 2.8% in heart attack hospitalizations.

The Lawsons also continue to experience health impacts related to stress and, for Siri, depression.

“We feel like all our potential for life has been taken from us. We don’t feel joy in anything. We feel anger in a hurry, but no joy, and no pleasure. I’ve said to him many times that I wish I could feel something. Both he and I consciously work to not feel anything too deeply. We try to keep all our thoughts, our emotions, our memories on an even keel. We’re both accomplished people, but don’t feel any self accomplishment. We shut our eyes and keep going forward. We’re still going forward. We’re still plowing through life. We don’t see things that are pretty. Maybe it’s a self-protection mechanism. We always feel like the other shoe is going to drop.”

Numerous studies point to the environmental impacts of living near oil and gas facilities, but mental and physical health tolls should also be considered when evaluating the pros and cons of shale gas development. A study by the University of Washington noted there was an increase in mental health conditions in areas with higher levels of particulates in the air.

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