Raven Rocks and Fracking

Originally posted on ic.org

Written by Susan Jennings

Energy is threaded throughout the history of Raven Rocks, a community in southeastern Ohio near the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Nineteen friends, including Rich Sidwell and John Morgan, founded Raven Rocks in 1970 to protect 850 acres of Appalachian forest and ravines from strip mining. The purchase and reclamation of the land demonstrated the same mindfulness and tenacity that are now thrusting members of the community into a national debate about fossil fuel depletion and fracking. 

Raven Rocks is 15 miles from Barnesville, a town of 4,200 people, 20 percent of whom are below the poverty line. Barnesville is an historic coal town with poor soils and few industries. It’s also home to Olney Friends School. Founded in 1837, the school aims to “provoke questions of conscience, and nurture skills for living in community.” So when a group of former students, faculty, and their spouses learned that the Raven Rocks property might be sold for strip mining, they formed a corporation to buy the land. At that time, 80 percent of the county land had been leased or sold to stripping operations. But Raven Rocks, with its stunning outcroppings, ravines, and forest, held a special place for the group and generations of area residents. A sacred site to Native Americans, the ravines in later times attracted walkers, picnicking families, and Olney students on camping or study trips. 

The previous owner of the Raven Rocks property had planted some 45,000 Christmas trees a few years before deciding to sell the property. The Olney group borrowed money and started to reclaim the land and tend the Christmas trees to pay for it. Early on, they lived elsewhere, working on evenings and weekends as their lives allowed. Over the years many of the group began to reclaim and build houses on the property, start businesses and families, and make acquaintance with the broader community. Today eight-plus people live on and care for the 1250 acre Raven Rocks Property, most of which is in a conservation easement. 

Although their purchase of Raven Rocks protected it from strip mining, the community did not own all the mineral rights. The Pittsburgh #8 coal seam was sold off by previous landowners early in the 20th century, and bought early in the 21st by Murray Energy Corporation. By then, “longwall mining” had been introduced in Ohio. Longwall is a form of underground mining where large blocks of coal a few miles long and several hundred yards wide are completely removed. And, as in removing a layer from the middle of a cake, so the overburden of soil and rock from land that’s been mined can subside or cave into the breach, causing damage to natural and manmade structures at the surface. 

Sidwell says: “We wouldn’t take Murray to court and tell them they couldn’t mine the seam, but we asked them what would happen if you subside the cliffs at Raven Rocks, and they said ‘we don’t know.’ Over a period of months we visited with senior officials from the coal company and the senior officials visited the owner. The owner grew up and courted his wife at Raven Rocks and the net result of all the meetings was that he made this huge publicity thing saying ‘we’re not going to mine under Raven Rocks, we’re giving up millions of dollars of coal to save it.’

“John Morgan printed a large photo of Raven Rocks, thanking the owner and company for the consideration. It got good publicity, and we’ve always had good relations with all of the people from the mine, even though we knew coal wasn’t the future.”

Sidwell continues: “We know we’re part of the problem because we have coal-generated electricity. We’re working to do things a different way. We weren’t saying they were evil for being in the coal business. It was cordial and we still have good relations with the business.”

This willingness to see energy issues systemically sets the Raven Rocks community apart from the start. Cited by newspapers as “a renewable energy technology, environmental education, and ecological preservation laboratory,” the community has been experimenting with renewable energies, sustainable building techniques, and land restoration. They live in earth-sheltered or retrofitted homes, give preference to walking and bicycle riding over the automobile, and continue to nurture the land through organic gardening and reforestation. 

Raven Rocks and Barnesville lie over the Marcellus and Utica shales, organic-rich shale deposited almost 400 million years ago. Lauded for its contribution to America’s “energy independence,” shale gas is now being tapped in several states through hydraulic fracturing, a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped underground to crack shale, and free oil and gas trapped within it.

While several countries, communities, and states have banned fracking, others are welcoming it for the unexpected money and jobs shale gas seems to be inviting into previously impoverished areas. Sidwell says: “Shale gas is new but the companies involved moved swiftly and leased about 80-90 percent of the county. Under cloud cover, the town just roars at night.”

New roads, fracking pads, pipelines, and trucks carrying water and waste now crisscross the area. Like other communities affected by the boom, Barnesville faces a number of potential issues, including earthquakes, stress on roads and other infrastructure, and a drain on water resources. Fracking shale gas wells in Ohio consume an average of six million gallons of water per well.

In addition to the fracking wells, Barnesville and other Ohio communities are also contending with an influx of injection waste wells. Much of the fracking waste generated in neighboring states is being trucked to Ohio for disposal because of the state’s lack of regulation. In the winter of 2014, Lea Harper, founder of the Freshwater Accountability Project Ohio, challenged the legality of Ohio’s permits, including the permitting of a waste site next to Barnesville. She sought a local resident to serve as a legal plaintiff in a suit against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. John Morgan from Raven Rocks volunteered. 

A researcher and writer used to drawn-out processes both by disposition and also through the Raven Rocks community experience, Morgan started to investigate both the fracking and the waste wells. Over the past two years he’s researched the environmental and legal issues, attended hearings, written letters to the editor, called politicians, and been instrumental in the formation of CBAR, Concerned Barnesville Area Residents, along with Jill Hunkler, who says of Morgan: “More than anybody I know, he’s walking the talk—meaning he’s not only fighting the fights and making a stance against the disposal of waste, but he’s also living very frugally off the land, growing his own food. He doesn’t go anywhere unless there’s a good reason.” Sidwell says that no one in Barnesville really knew John before the fracking controversy. But in the past few years he’s been featured in newspaper, radio, and television articles about Barnesville and fracking.

Harper’s lawsuit failed. The court ruled that Morgan and the others had no standing because they couldn’t prove that residents had been harmed or were in imminent danger of being harmed. Morgan says: “The Supreme Court has made it harder and harder for citizens to achieve ‘standing’ in environmental cases.”

Morgan questions the efficacy of the legal approach in environmental cases where the legal process is increasingly stacked in favor of industry. There may also be a tendency for people to stop being active politically once there is a lawsuit in play, assuming that the courts will settle the matter. Instead, he says, citizen activism is a crucial component of change agency. CBAR, for example, was able to stop the proposed waste facility near Barnesville by placing ads in the local paper and conducting a petition drive that convinced the company to withdraw their application rather than risk the Belmont County Port Authority voting the project down. 

CBAR continues to try to mediate the community fracking conversation. Sidwell notes that the group keeps kicking themselves and their local officials asking “Why didn’t we do this two years ago when leasing happened? We can’t go back, but we’re looking at what we can do to protect the resources and the health of community and citizens now, and what we can share with others.”

Sidwell is in a position to do a lot. Over the years since the formation of Raven Rocks, he’s held several positions at Olney, the last one as Head of School. In that position, and in his current position as chair of the Captina Conservancy land trust, he and other members of the Raven Rocks community have been able to save thousands of acres from being fracked. It’s a key model for Barnesville residents. 

Hunkler, a cofounder of CBAR and one of the few community holdouts to fracking leases, says that Morgan presented evidence of water contamination risks from fracking to the Olney Friends School and to Ohio Yearly Meeting, which owned several hundred acres of land. None of the parcels were leased.

She notes that the community of Raven Rocks has been a shining light: “Raven Rocks knew all along that they wouldn’t lease. They’ve turned down millions of dollars and have not leased.”

Sidwell says of drilling that “everybody has leased and everyone is surprised that we’ve passed up the money. They can’t comprehend. If you had a chance to win the lottery why wouldn’t you? Of course now that it’s starting to happen a number of people are unhappy.”

But the Raven Rocks’ community experience has mediated how the group deals with the fracking companies as well as their neighbors who have leased.

“One of the questions that has come up in CBAR is how can we be effective, and I brought up the negotiations we had with the coal companies as an example of a way to work with the companies and the politicians.”

There are several open questions. Barnesville is currently being sued by a fracking company over the fact that the town sold water rights to two different companies and may not have enough for either. And Hunkler and other holdouts are getting hemmed in and may lose their land without leasing it. But there are bright spots, including the community that has been built through the process. CBAR is now looking at the development of a Community Rights Bill that lifts environmental and community rights over corporate rights—a model that’s been adopted in several Ohio communities.

Through all the work happening in Barnesville, Raven Rocks’ residents are playing a pivotal role. Sidwell says: “Early on people would ask us if we were an intentional community and we said yes and no. Eventually we said that we were a community of purpose; we got together to do things that we cared about."

Laird Schaub, Executive Secretary of FIC, says that “intentional communities are important to the wider culture not just as alternatives to a mainstream lifestyle that is materialistic and unsustainable, but because they are pioneering the day-to-day skills needed to create and sustain cooperative culture, the learnings from which can be exported to neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces—any place where people hunger to move away from the alienation and disconnection of hierarchy and adversarial dynamics.” At a time when we have surpassed the limits to growth, and discussions about community resources are becoming increasingly fractious, communities like Raven Rocks are likely to continue to serve leadership roles.