On Feb. 11, a natural gas well owned by Chevron in southwestern Pennsylvania caught fire and exploded, injuring one worker and leaving another dead. It shook the nearby rural community of Bobtown and released methane into the atmosphere, and while the corporation assures the levels are not high enough to present a danger, many remain skeptical.
But the real insult Chevron added to the injury was what the company offered to the people of Bobtown as compensation for their trouble: certificates for a free pizza and two-liter soft drink.
The Chevron-owned fracking well, which had been deemed ready to begin production, instead shot flames into the air with a powerful boom, starting a fire that burned intensely for four days afterward before it was extinguished. This isn't the first time Bobtown and its surrounding area have been plagued by Chevron's nearby fracking operations, but this is certainly the worst incident that has affected the small town so far. Residents had previously reported foul odors, drinking water polluted with fracking-related chemicals, sick pets and livestock, and physical conditions including headaches, nausea, and skin rashes.
This time, the corporation decided to handle matters in a most condescending manner, dispensing a total of 100 gift certificates, along with an apology letter, from Chevron's "community outreach team." The supposedly compensatory gesture, presented just after the death of one of the company's own workers, did not please residents. They were more interested in knowing about the negative health and environmental effects of the natural gas operations than getting a free pizza and a soft drink.
"It felt like a huge slap in the face," said one resident who wished to remain anonymous. He received one of the gift certificates on Feb. 16 and said it was the first and last time he heard from Chevron regarding the incident. "I do not feel that they've addressed anything. I haven't even called their hotline yet because I'm just too upset. A pizza coupon? I mean, come on!"
In a statement to CNN, Chevron claimed it was offering "a token of appreciation" to the residents affected by the explosion. That the corporation actually seems to believe this to be acceptable compensation in the first place is an example of the abyssal disconnect between profit-driven energy companies and working class people.
Pennsylvania has a recent troubled history with the disastrous effects of fracking, even as right-wing Gov. Tom Corbett seeks to make the state "the Texas of the natural gas boom." In 2013, the DEP received 398 complaints alleging that gas or oil drilling had polluted or otherwise affected water. And Bobtown is not the only town whose residents have complained that nearby fracking activity has made them feel sick.
The gas well has now been successfully capped. The cause of the fire and explosion remains unknown, and work is being done to investigate. But those who question the toxicity levels of the methane it released are not entirely off base. According to Scott Perry, deputy secretary for oil and gas management with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a nearby gas monitor detected enough methane in the air to deem the area around the explosion "a potential hot zone." He added, "It's still within safe ranges, but we need to employ an abundance of caution here."