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December 03, 2016
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A fossil-fuel economy: observations from our past

The issue of drilling for natural gas in the Upper Delaware region is changing life drastically, physically in terms of economy, land, water and air, and relationally in the way people treat each other. Comments in editorials, Delaware River Basin Commission hearings and the like indicate that this industry is causing us to be a divided community. We all seem to want economic and environmental health and a strong community characterized by respect and kindness. What perspective might we gain by considering another nearby fossil fuel industry from a previous generation?

Anthracite coal provided employment for those living in the region and resulted in a large influx of immigrants who came to work in the area. After the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster, coal was no longer a dominant economic force. People had to move elsewhere to find work. The anthracite region had to search for other industries to be sustained economically. Coal companies had earned the profits, but after the industry left, the economically bereft public was handed the bill to clean up the environment. A quick glance at the scarred landscape, culm banks and crumbling breakers, news about cave-ins and underground fires all indicate that the restoration effort is far from over.

With dead and dying trees lining tributaries, officials with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission say the impact of acid mine drainage remains the biggest challenge to efforts to preserve ecosystems. In our Upper Delaware area, after gas companies and landowners earn the profits, will the clean-up cost be socialized as it was for the coal industry? Once traditional farmers become dependent on natural gas for income, and their land, water and air is exposed to toxins, will they, their children and their grandchildren return to farming?

Regardless of how many safeguards we put into place, there will still be unforeseen consequences. People are imperfect. We make mistakes. We compromise when we think no one is looking. Mining natural gas is more complicated and invasive than it was for anthracite coal. What has been in the making for millions of years can be mined out in the course of one generation. What will be the long-term consequences?

Some promising local efforts are underway which beckon your participation. Year-round outdoor recreation and a growing arts community make significant contributions to our local economy. First-generation farmers are moving here, putting down roots and growing our local food shed. Farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture are expanding. Restaurants are increasingly purchasing locally raised food. Solar and wind power are becoming more prominent as means to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

Gas drilling will continue to divide our community. I hope and pray that we can move forward with our differences in a way that we remain intact as a caring community for the benefit of those who inherit the legacy of the decisions we make today. May we remember the golden rule and “do to those downstream as we would have those upstream do to us.”

[A native of Pennsylvania, Mark Terwilliger has lived and attended schools in Chile, Mexico, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. He has taught music in Cali, Colombia and has served churches in Edmeston, NY, Wilkes-Barre, PA and Honesdale, PA. Currently he is serving as pastor of the Beach Lake United Methodist Church in Beach Lake, PA.]