Gassed in Pennsylvania: Green Jobs, Black Men, and the Dirty Hope of Fracking

After an intense six-week training program, the only thing that stands between Aaron Alton and a $90,000 fracking job is a commercial driver's license. It's August of 2012. The job, at a natural gas drilling company, is Aaron's ticket out of Harrisburg, PA.

Waiting at the PennDOT, the state's motor-vehicle office, Aaron thinks he's all set until they run his information. They tell him that his driving privileges are suspended. He remembers being pulled over a year ago for tinted windows on a Lincoln Navigator.

Driving with tinted windows is not illegal.

It is, however, the pretext used to pull over lots of drivers in Pennsylvania who happen to be black and Puerto Rican.

That particular stop—his third with the same cop within months—happened on the same day his insurance had lapsed. Driving without insurance is an automatic three-month suspension, which Aaron thought he had already served. But he'd never sent the actual license card to the county while he was off the road.

A suspended regular license means no commercial license, which means no fracking job. Aaron thinks about his current job at the city's notorious alternative school for kids labeled delinquent, where he's overworked and underpaid. He thinks about the teens he counseled there. They are 15-year-olds. Much of their drive is already dissolved. He's seen many of them buried or hauled off to prison.

Standing at the PennDOT counter, Aaron thinks of his own friends in and out of prison and the few free ones who he'd told that he had finally found an escape hatch in fracking. Most of his friends had grown jaded from the many other workforce training programs, the green job charmers, and labor recruiters that too often left them certified and licensed to be nothing but unemployed. Now Aaron would have to face them and tell them that in spite of all his preparation, his fracking job, the one he thought would free him, wasn't happening.

***

I was in third grade when I learned that Harrisburg burned its garbage off into the air. I thought my school was weird because we often had these "drills" where our teachers led us downstairs to the school's creepy basement that seemed inhabited with shadows.

During the drills, we had pencil fights, joked around and busted on each other's mamas until a teacher hushed us. Teachers distracted us from the shadows with games like "I've Got a Secret." We were told the drills were done in case a meltdown happened at the nearby nuclear plant, Three Mile Island.

One day, a friend of mine told me that the garbage plant, the city's waste incinerator, would melt down too. Sometimes we were sent home and our families were ordered to stay inside because the "air was bad." I don't know if it was ever explained to us that the emissions from the garbage plant, right there in the state capital, were toxic.

The incinerator broke frequently and it was so out of compliance with the Clear Air Act that the EPA would eventually shut it down completely. Harrisburg's long-time Mayor, Stephen Reed, said, "The useful life of the plant was 20 to 25 years max."

But before it was even 15 years old, the plant was already eroded.

The city borrowed tens of millions of dollars to pay for constant upgrades and repairs throughout the 1990s, and by the time EPA shuttered it in 2003, the city owed over $100 million on it.

The plant should have stayed closed.

Instead, the mayor took out more bonds and loans to have it re-opened, saying without it, the city would lose jobs. The Reed administration hired a small company called Barlow that said it could make the incinerator run more efficiently and less toxically. Barlow claimed it could retrofit the plant with a new process that used high-pressure air blasts to manage the waste and decrease noxious gas emissions.

In order to take out more debt, the city and the county had to prove that the plant was "self-liquidating," meaning it would pay for itself. They did that by agreeing that all of the cities in Dauphin County would ship their trash to Harrisburg, and the fees the city collected for that service would be the revenue to pay off the debt. If that didn't work, the taxpayers, whether they knew it or not, would foot the bill.

It didn't work.

Barlow over-promised. They'd done a couple of pilot projects, but never a retrofit of this magnitude. Work delays and unaccounted-for expenses drove Barlow into bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the city continued to borrow millions, kicking the can down the road for future generations. As bonds, insurance, and loan payment dates lapsed, the city kept driving the incinerator along like nothing was wrong, and no one lost their license.

What the incinerator ended up burning was a hole in the city's finances, leaving the city $340 million in debt. Half of the city's population is African-American, and another 20 percent is Latino, mostly Puerto Rican. A quarter of them live below poverty level. Overall, Harrisburg now owes over a billion dollars, most of which could be passed on to its 50,000 residents through tax hikes. Every man, woman and child in the city is on the hook for about $30,000, which happens to be twice as much as Harrisburg's average income per household.

***

The fumes from decades of burning trash were part of a larger legacy, where the nation's incinerators, power plants, and other facilities spewed trillions of tons of greenhouse gases. Climate change is why we're now getting baked, flooded, and stormed over.

In 2008, the Obama Administration determined that one of the best ways to fight climate change was to phase out greenhouse gas-spewing industries and phase in clean energy. America's old facilities had been emitting heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane for too long, while other aged buildings were wasting off excessive heat and energy. Obama's plan was to have them closed or retrofitted so they'd be more energy efficient and less polluting.

This approach was very much what Harrisburg was trying to do with its incinerator.

Obama gave considerable attention to developing natural gas, which he called a "bridge fuel." This bridge was not entirely dirty, but it wasn't all that clean either. The discovery of rock shale gas deposits under our feet, and a new procedure called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," could free up volumes of natural gas and wean us off dirty energy sources like coal and oil.

Many environmentalists advised against natural gas, citing potential risks like toxic chemicals leaking into our water supplies and the presence of deadly methane in the gases. But it was an energy source that many Democrats and Republicans agreed on, and, most importantly, fracking offered jobs.

Meanwhile, many believed that green jobs, created by bolstering wind and solar energy companies, were a solution to the unemployment crisis, with the jobless rate running over 50 percent among black and Latino young adults in small cities like Harrisburg and major cities like Chicago.

Green jobs projects, though, were mostly pilot programs in random cities—nothing long-term or widespread like the jobs offered by the fossil fuel industries. In Pennsylvania, coal, the dirtiest of all fuels, was still king. As king, the coal companies it did its mightiest to keep green jobs in the pilot phase. Together with oil and gas companies, the coal industry did a PR blitz, even trying to convince Americans that they could burn "clean coal." They also filled Republican candidates coffers with millions of dollars to fight clean energy policies. Their goal was to obstruct and delay renewable energy, and block wind and solar from any license to operate.

Environmentalists and most Democrats lined up with the green energy companies, while anti-regulation capitalists and Republicans lined up with the fossil-fuel empires.

While they duked it out, natural gas slowly seeped to the top. And my friend, Aaron Alton, needed a better job and a way out.

Around 2009, Aaron was out in Harrisburg with his cousin Deon and a close homey, Mack, celebrating a new gig he was about to start the following day with Pepsi. It was a somewhat promising position, one that nudged him far above the hourly-waged jobs he had been familiar with. They stopped at a bar Uptown for drinks when Aaron got into it with some dude intent on playing SuperThug. Punches were thrown. Some connected. Broken Corona bottles were everywhere.

They rushed out of the spot before the cops came. Taking inventory of their bruises, lost cell phones, and jewelry, Mack saw a blanket of blood covering Aaron's chest. Aaron was leaking badly from his neck. Perhaps due to shock, he barely felt it.

Deon sped him to the hospital where doctors said the laceration had stopped just a quarter-inch from his jugular. Six hours, one surgery and 22 stitches later, Aaron lay in the hospital bed thinking, I don't want to live this life anymore. He was unable to take the Pepsi gig, stuck in Harrisburg and left wondering if everything pays for itself.

***

In December 2011, I got a tweet from Aaron's account: "Chuck's sister Tarina was killed."

Tarina was our best friend's little sister—our little sister. Reports said her estranged husband shot and stabbed her multiple times. I went back to Harrisburg for the funeral. As usual, the funeral served as a reunion for old friends to talk about who was in jail, who'd been shot, who else died, and who was pregnant again.

Aaron talked about something else, though. He was so hyped about these healthy-waged jobs he heard were coming to Pennsylvania. All he needed was the ability to relocate upstate and a commercial drivers license. When he told me that the industry was interested in was natural gas-drilling and fracking, I initially blanched. As an environmental reporter, I was hyper-aware of the dangers implicit in that work. But intimately knowing the story of Aaron and Harrisburg, I tucked that awareness away, smiled at him, gave him dap, and told him, "That's whassup. Get that money."

A company called Shale Net Talent Match had a grant from the US Department of Labor to train and place workers with the hundreds of drilling companies flocking to Pennsylvania for our generation's gold rush: gaseous hydrocarbons. Many of the jobs available were for truck drivers, transporting millions of gallons of water and millions of pounds of sand back and forth to well sites. The wells are drilled down to rock formations deep below the earth's surface; the sand and water are mixed with unnamed chemicals and then blasted through the underground rock sheets to release a blend of gases that are captured above ground. Imagine of the vapors released from the rocks as a crack user inhales through a crack pipe. Now imagine those vapors being used for energy. That's fracking.

Landing a job in the fracking industry became Aaron's mission. The jobs typically paid between $70,000 and $120,000 to start. He then hoped to leave Harrisburg, probably for Houston where he had family and heard there were even more drilling jobs.

Aaron looked for commercial driving classes. They were expensive, running between $5,000 and $7,000. But Shale Net was offering grants to cover these costs. The jobs would pay for themselves. He applied for the grant, and the first classes were scheduled for May 2012.

At the juvenile delinquent facility where he worked, Aaron's nerves were flaring up. The kids were growing more aggressive. There were meltdowns, emotional and physical. Then there was a riot that temporarily shut the facility down. Aaron was one of the counselors blamed for not having more control over the kids and was demoted.

With the May classes on the horizon, he didn't let the demotion break his spirit. But then the May classes were pushed back to June. June classes were pushed back again to July. Aaron looked in the mirror every morning and worried that this gig might not happen. A huge scar across his jawbone and neck was a painful reminder of unfulfilled promises he'd made to himself.

Finally, in July 2012, Aaron started that four-week course in CDL training, eight hours a day, five days a week. He woke up early every morning to get to class by 7 a.m. He went to work at the juvenile center immediately after classes ended. The earliest he got home every night was 10 p.m.

***

After a week of general workforce training, and a week of worker safety training, all that was left was getting the actual license. He expected Shale Net would place him with a company. The natural gas industry in Pennsylvania was literally bubbling. The Obama Administration committed to subsidizing it with billions since it was the closest thing they could come to clean energy without pissing off the Republicans.

By August, Aaron's driving training had wrapped and a six-figure salary was within reach. His girlfriend told him she was pregnant. Aaron was in talks with cousins and uncles in North Carolina and Texas who were telling him that with the commercial license, he could move there, drive trucks, make more than a living wage, and raise a family.

By this point, Aaron understood the climate change crisis. But it didn't matter. In places like Harrisburg, people were suffocating, and in the fracking industry—no matter how dirty or dangerous it was—Aaron saw hope.

He went to the PennDOT office with a certificate in hand, showing he had completed the trainings and that all costs were paid. The Shale Net representative told him companies were lined up and he would be hired immediately.

That's when he found out his drivers license was suspended.

***

Aaron's last hope was reaching out to a college administrator who worked at the community college associated with the Shale Net training course. Aaron understood that the relationship with the administrator was a connection most similarly situated black men in Harrisburg didn't have.

Surprisingly, the administrator was able to work it out with the transportation deparment, and Shale Net convinced a company to hold a position for him. Aaron now works for a company called Frac Tech Services International as an equipment operator. He started January 2 of this year. Instead of transporting water and sand as he would have done in the job he originally wanted, Aaron is handling the machinery that does the actual fracking. The job isn't an immediate way out of Harrisburg, but it's a step, the biggest step Aaron has taken in his life.

I checked Aaron's Facebook page last week and saw that he posted a picture of his open hand. It looked aged, weary and hardened. Creases slashed across his palms like deep windshield cracks. Aaron's fingers were smudged, charcoaled and ashed. In his comments, he wrote, "I been working hard so I deserve a hand massage, right?"

Aaron Alton has only been fracking for a month now. We will eventually pay for that, whether we know it or not.

Brentin Mock is a Pittsburgh-born, Harrisburg-raised independent journalist currently living in New Orleans. He's covered environmental justice and civil rights issues for the last six years. His forthcoming series on the Supreme Court's review of the Voting Rights Act can be read later this month at Colorlines.com, where he reports for Voting Rights Watch.

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Image by Jim Cooke