A fight over fracking at a Pennsylvania steel mill is forcing a reckoning among Democrats

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BRADDOCK, Pa. — About a year ago, Chardaé Jones finally had enough money to pay off some student loans and move out of her parents’ house into a third-floor apartment across the street from a steel mill that helped build America.

Jones grew up in Braddock, a town of 2,114 people about 11 miles southeast of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, and last year became mayor. She was used to the pollution. What she found more troubling was U.S. Steel’s plan, in the works now for more than two years, to lease 10 acres to a New Mexico-based oil and gas company to extract natural gas a mile beneath the surface using a controversial drilling technique known as fracking.

As word spread, others grew suspicious of what the proposal might mean for public health. Some of them got elected to local and state office. And in January, a neighboring town revoked the gas company’s permit to build part of a well site on its land.

More than a decade into a natural gas boom that has driven down energy costs for consumers and literally reshaped the landscape with thousands of wells and pipelines carrying gas across the state, this pocket of southwestern Pennsylvania is facing a reckoning over the issue. It comes as one of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has proposed a federal ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique for unlocking natural gas from rock formations like the Marcellus Shale with high pressure injections of water, chemicals, and sand.

“The truth is messy,” he said, speaking in his living room where steam rising from the mill was visible through the window. “The biggest collision of those two [positions] in American politics is right here in Pennsylvania. It’s happening across the street there. And it’s happening anywhere else where you have a fringe of our party claiming you can walk away from all of this, and then at the same time lamenting, ‘where did all the jobs go?’ Where did all the union jobs go?’ Or you wonder, ‘why are they voting for that crazy man in the red hat?’ Because he’s not trying to run my job out of existence.”

“We can’t even have a conversation about the health impacts without you being accused of hating jobs,” said State Rep. Summer Lee, whose district includes Braddock. “That’s disingenuous. … While these towns, while these people, while these workers who are in the midst of it may not be able to afford to think more long term, your politician is supposed to.”

And the fight in Braddock is laced with tensions over racial and social justice, as some in the minority communities surrounding the proposed well say they have missed out on Big Industry’s supposed economic benefits even as they have endured its health hazards.

U.S. Steel says the well would enhance the long-term competitiveness of its Pittsburgh-area facilities. The driller, Merrion Oil and Gas, says it would comply with state environmental regulations and hire local contractors to ensure “the safe and proper execution of the project while taking all steps necessary to be good environmental stewards.”

Around the time of the shooting, Reyes also learned about the fracking proposal at U.S. Steel’s facility. The unconventional well site would span parts of three municipalities: North Versailles, East Pittsburgh, and North Braddock.

Reyes connected with other grassroots activists. By the time the group North Braddock Residents for Our Future caught wind of the new proposal, the towns of North Versailles and East Pittsburgh — persuaded by a new revenue opportunity — had already voted to approve permits for Merrion Oil and Gas. Merrion still needed permits from the state.

Residents expressed concern that the proposed well was near a densely populated area and a flood-prone river. New Mexico-based Merrion had never drilled an unconventional well, and had never drilled any kind of well in Pennsylvania.

The fight isn’t over. Lee is facing a primary challenge from a North Braddock councilman who supports the fracking proposal and says he’s running “to support Gov. Tom Wolf’s progressive agenda.”

A spokesperson for U.S. Steel said that beyond reaffirming the company’s commitment to the region, it “would not be appropriate for us to respond further to speculation about natural gas exploration plans that have not been approved or finalized.”

Yet there are signs of hope for collaboration. Just the other day, Mayor Jones of Braddock, the one who wrote the poem about the steel mill, met with a steelworker at a taco place on Braddock Avenue. Steelworkers Local 1219, which represents hundreds of workers at the Edgar Thomson mill, is creating an environmental committee and wants to inform the community about what’s going on at the mill, he told her. (The union’s president didn’t return messages seeking comment.)

“I understand why some of the steelworkers get upset, or get antsy, when people say things like fracking is bad,” Jones said. “A lot of the steelworkers have been there so long. …That is their career. You don’t want anyone to jeopardize your career.”

This content was originally published here.

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