Ohio on verge of old-style oil rush with fracking poised to press ahead
The drilling debate is dividing the community, politicians and experts, writes CARL O’BRIENin Youngstown
IN BETTER days, Youngstown was the “city of homes”. A blue-collar worker could get a decent job in one of the many steel mills and quickly aspire to own a home. In the 1950s, it had one of the highest home-ownership rate of any city in the United States.
“Flames leap into the sky, throwing the outlines of the city into relief. They are a familiar nightly symbol of the city’s activity. Youngstown is one of the great steel centres of the world,” reads a promotional leaflet from the era. “Men come here with their families. They prosper.”
Today, thousands of those same homes sit dead-eyed, with boarded-up windows, peeling paintwork and collapsed roofs. They’re a haunting reminder of the collapse of the steel industry 30 years ago, which sent this city into a spiral of decline, depopulation and unemployment.
In all, the city lost more than half of its population. Now, city authorities want to tear down the estimated 5,000-plus officially condemned or vacant homes and shrink the metropolitan area to a more manageable size.
It’s an ambitious and costly exercise, but cash-strapped authorities haven’t been able to afford to embark on the project.
Until now. The city sits on gas-rich shale deposits. Last week, authorities formally decided to lease rights to 180 acres of public land in and around the city to oil companies which plan to drill and frack for natural gas or oil.
It’s a potential windfall of millions of dollars, but critics and environmentalists say fracking – or pumping water and chemicals into the ground to release oil and gas – is too risky and carries risks such as polluted drinking water and earthquakes.
It’s a highly polarised argument that is dividing the community, politicians and experts in Ohio. And, in many ways, it’s a prism through which to view the wider national dilemma facing the US in this election year.
Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree that energy independence is crucial. But they differ sharply on how to go about it. While the president wants to invest more in alternative energy sources, his Republican challenger blames rising fuel costs on obstacles Mr Obama is placing in the way of oil, gas and coal exploration.
Jamie Frederick (34) bought her home just outside Youngstown about three years ago as a chance to get away from it all. “It was described in the real estate brochure as quiet country living,” says Frederick, who works as a clerk in a hardware store. “It was a dream home and a place to raise a family.” She didn’t realise her neighbour had leased the land to a natural gas company which had fracked the shale beneath her home.
Soon after moving in, she started to get sick – headaches, nausea and other illnesses which resulted in the removal of her gall bladder – but didn’t know what was causing it.
“I was being advised to drink more water, that maybe I was dehydrated . . . but I was being poisoned and didn’t know it. My gall bladder completely stopped working,” she says.