4. Road Trips

Two of the geologists from Temple who helped analyze the rock and clay I've been working with joined me on the return visit to the outcropping. They were doing some work on the Marcellus, but had yet to visit a site, so we teamed up, borrowed a van, and hit the road. It was about a 3 hour drive each way. We'd previously met just briefly. I didn't know what their interest was with Marcellus. There's a strange tension I've encountered a number of times during the course of this project. Fracking is such a highly charged topic. You're either pro or anti, and regardless of what side you're on, conversation with the other side is bound to be ugly.

When an argument revolves around such diametrically opposed positions, my first impulse is to believe that the debate lacks honesty. When this project began, my interest was with the environment and the serious concerns people had about the safety of fracking. The work I've done so far has confirmed these concerns, though my understanding of why fracking is dangerous has changed through recent discussions I've had with scientists.  These discussions began during this trip.

The outcropping was in North Cumberland County, and to get to it we had to travel through Columbia and other counties that had just experienced severe flooding. Roads were covered with dry, dusty mud.  There were areas that were devastated. This picture was taken along a road that parallels a stream in Bloomsberg - one of several houses that were obliterated by the elevated water levels caused by the storm.

A terrible disaster - under-reported in the news.

I had to confess to Nick and Steve, the guys accompanying me on the trip, that they were the first geologists I'd ever met. My first impression of geologists: they're super smart. They see things that are invisible to almost everyone else. They're eager to talk about their work, and generous in translating it into a language that I could understand. They had interesting questions about clay and ceramics that I was too much of a novice to adequately answer. When I talked about the process of going from clay to bisque to ceramic, they seemed to understand it in relation to geology. Nick talked about what molecules were probably doing at different points along the way.  It was a treat to have so much time to talk to them - an education in and of itself.

Inevitably, fracking came up in the conversation. They offered a well-reasoned perspective on the issues. To boil a long conversation down to a nutshell, this was their perspective:
- natural gas extracted from fracking offers the cheapest form of energy available to us.
-there are layers of impenetrable rock above the Marcellus. The water table is well above these impenetrable areas. The weak link, where there is potential for leakage, is in the construction of the wells and the storage of the fluid that comes back up from the ground.
-if there were proper federal regulations in place, it would insure the safety of the well construction and material handling, and it would be a safer and cleaner process than coal or other sources we currently use.

I trusted these guys, and listened.  They brought issues to the table that I hadn't been aware of. It made me think and realize that I had more work to do in understanding what was really going on.


We arrived!!! This was the first time I actually saw the outcropping from a distance - it was huge!

There's an area at the site where people pull over regularly. Nick and Steve went off in one direction to study the patient. I stuck with them for a short while to get a sense of what they were looking for and seeing.  It made me notice things I hadn't seen on my first trip, like this interesting moment with something that looked almost like an embedded tree root growing out of metal:

All rock of course, but amazing in the range of qualities it displayed.

Then there was this area, looking like lava:

This stone showed where water was able to flow through the rock - through the dark webbed lines. The lighter gray/blue areas are were the rock remained laminated to the layer that had previously covered it.

Time to work.  I took a bunch of buckets and a shovel and headed toward the muddy area I'd harvested from before.
It had changed a lot in 6 weeks. Probably spent some time under the river when the storms passed through. 

By 4pm I had scraped up 8 buckets of mud and was getting ready to load the van. A farmer walking down the road came up to me. Apparently this was private land. There was no way of knowing - no "No Trespassing" signs, it looked like people pulled over on the road there regularly. 

This was another one of those moments, charged by the uncertainty of not knowing which side of the argument we each supported. Did he think we were from a gas company? Or maybe some anti-frackers up to no good.  I showed him the cups I'd made and tried to explain what we were doing, but there was no talking to this guy. He was angry. He made me dump out the 8 buckets of mud and said "grab your friends, git out, and don't come back again."

Ugh. It was hard to leave empty handed. The guy definitely put a scare in me, and I wasn't going to try to go back. I needed to find another source, another outcrop. On the drive back, I asked Nick and Steve if they could identify Marcellus by sight it we were to pass it on the road. It seemed so distinctive to me, but they replied unequivocally:  no. There are other black shales that look similar. The Marcellus formation is generally identified by its higher levels of radiation. In other words, there was no way I would be able to find an outcropping without being directed towards one by an expert.  

The testing I'd done for food safety would have to be re-done with material from a new site. All I could do was hope the next outcropping would be able to produce such nice clay.

It took a while, but again, thanks to the kindness of a sympathetic geologist, I found another outcropping. Four outcroppings actually.  I set off on a road trip to visit them all, but on day one there was such success, I decided to leave the others for later.

The site was a quarry on private property - a farm.
 I was interested in connecting more with people through the project, and it seemed wise this time to get permission, so I went to the owner's home nearby.
A woman answered, and I did my best to explain this project and asked if I could dig up some of their mud. Thankfully, she was lovely, and seemed accustomed to a whole host of people coming by to see the quarry - from scientists and students to former Governor Ridge. As a quilter, she seemed to like the project based on her connection through crafts.  

Off to the quarry:

The rock face was different than the last site in a number of ways. There were many vertical splits, though the layering of the rock was horizontal.

Lots of plant life growing through the splits
The color ranged from a deep blue-black to red, orange and yellow.

There were areas like this that looked like a gritty sandstone-ish rock

The ground was full of things to see:

Some rocks had a lot of of rusty iron in relation to the shale. This one also had crystal formations.

An oily substance floated on the water nearby. Its source couldn't have been from the road - the site was too removed from it.
I thought about the scene in Gasland, where Josh Fox found a polluted stream, where he was able to light the water on fire. I didn't try, but wondered if this stuff had come from the rock itself.
I found this rock
It had this:

It definitely looked like the oily substance was coming from the rock.
I learned later, after "The Big Shale Teach In" at Temple University that there could be other causes for this.
More on that in the next chapter...