WHYY’s Chris Satullo and NewsWorks.org recently hosted an evening with Susan Phillips and Scott Detrow, the two multimedia reporters behind StateImpact Pennsylvania, a joint effort journalism project between National Public Radio, public radio stations WHYY in Philly and WITF in Harrisburg, to report local news that has national consequences. StateImpact primarily covers the burgeoning natural shale gas industry. Phillips and Detrow are charged with reporting in-depth the stories most news outlets don’t have the staff or budget to cover.
For instance, Phillips and Detrow discussed an ongoing series at StateImpact PA called “Perilous Pathways,” which described the dangers posed to current drilling from unmarked wells of earlier eras that were not properly sealed when abandoned. Some of these wells go back a century, and Pennsylvania has no record of where they are. The danger is when a new well is drilled that accidentally runs into an abandoned well. Mayhem can ensue, as was the case in Tioga county, when Shell inadvertently drilled too close to an old well resulting in a 30-50 foot geyser of methane-laced water (Shell officially says 30 feet; it took a few days for them to admit there was a geyser at all, despite visual evidence).
Phillips talked about some of the more personal stories she has been able to cover, about families living without fresh water, homesteads abandoned. Both reporters continually stressed the complexity of the shale gas beat, that there can be a difference in the experience financially and environmentally even for neighbors. One family may end up with fouled water, while next door, the water is fine. One family may make decent money from leasing their land to drillers, while next door it hardly seems worth the loss of scenery.
Detrow and Phillips talked about the difficulty of getting the facts of a story, between a traditionally tight-lipped industry and an unhelpful Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Phillips said that she was not allowed by DEP to speak directly to state well inspectors.
One of the coolest things StateImpact PA has put together is a “map app” based on Pennsylvania DEP information about exactly where natural shale gas drilling is happening in the state. This is the first time such comprehensive information has been available to Pennsylvania residents. Check out StateImpact PA and subscribe if you want to keep up with the quick pace of natural gas development, it’s boons, it’s perils and it’s pitfalls.