Fracking Is Dragging the Amish Into the Ugly Modern World

Think of a society that rejects modern technology, and you're probably thinking Amish. The loosely-knit group of traditionalist Christians remains a reliable fixture of our cultural fascination precisely because they eschew the devices and innovations that are foundational to most American lives: cars, TVs, and computers are shunned in almost all Amish communities. But fracking isn't. 

There's a prominent misconception that there's some ironclad law amongst the Amish that proclaims that they must have no contact with technology at all. On the contrary; each community decides what technologies are allowable and which aren't. Many Amish communities have tractors and solar panels, for instance. Others don't. As Wikipedia puts it, "the Amish anti-individualist orientation is the motive for rejecting labor-saving technologies that might make one less dependent on community. Modern innovations like electricity might spark a competition for status goods, or photographs might cultivate personal vanity."

More than technology in general, the Amish reject consumerism and the host of behaviors it abets. As such, you'd think that they'd steer well clear of the energy company stooges sent out across the Midwest to get landowners to lease their property to fracking operations. But everyone's got to eat, and the recession has been as hard on the Amish as anyone, if not harder--with declining demand for expensive hand-made goods and a shrinking tourism economy, many Amish have been left hard up for cash. 

And since there's no such rule outlawing engagement with particular technologies, much less the practice of letting oil companies lease your land, many Amish have accepted offers from the oil companies--the most recent of which are reportedly in the ballpark of $3,500 per acre for a 5-year lease. Previously, many were for much less. Either way, many Amish communities signed up, and many regret it now. Writing for OnEarth magazine, Elizabeth Rotye outlines a typical example of what happens when the lives of the Amish intersect with the oil industry. She focuses on the story of Andy Miller (a pseudonym), an Amish community leader in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania: 

Miller sold his mineral rights to a company called Atlas, which was bought by Chevron in 2011. “The money helped,” he says, “but I wished I knew more of what to expect.” Now, thanks to people like Carrie Hahn, Miller understands that producing gas in this manner is no simple matter. Over a period of months, workers carve a multi-acre drilling platform out of forest or field, then cram it with mixing tanks, storage tanks, compressors, gas pipes, flaring towers, diesel generators, office trailers, and porta-potties. Nearby, they dig plastic-lined ponds of several acres to hold either freshwater or “produced” water that flows up and out of the wells. During development of the site, trucks carrying water, chemicals, sand, and other equipment come and go -- up to 1,000 of them a day.

“We don’t want huge gas companies coming here because of the heavy pollution, the traffic, and so much money,” Miller says. “When money rules, a lot of bad things happen to a community.”

Now, the Amish are stuck attempting to lead lives free of modern convenience with a booming techno-industrial complex in their backyard. The Amish in Minnesota face the same obstacle, according to a report in Mintpress: "They’ve seen communities transformed, not through the mining of the sand, but through the construction that’s come along with it. Railroads, including the Farm2Rail, have proven disruptive to the Amish way of life, causing more than 3,000 members of the Amish community to rally on the side of environmentalists attempting to halt the sand mining."

The groups are concerned that fracking will damage the environment--but many are equally concerned that they were cheated by the energy companies, who knew they had less access to information about fracking than those with access to the evening news. As Rotye notes, "some Amish feel animosity toward energy companies only because they settled for $3 an acre, instead of $3,000." Indeed, the opportunity for exploitation was ripe, and many confused Amish signed their land away for mere dollars per acre. Furthermore, leases have resulted in tensions between neighbors--many feel that there's no use holding out if the lot next door is going to be lit up like an oily Christmas tree regardless.

Often, their biggest worry is not that fracking will pollute too much or contribute to climate change, but that it will ruin their communities and contaminate their water supplies, which they rely on for drinking and farming alike. Some, like MIller's community, are working with farmers and activists to try to win back some of the rights they unwittingly gave up. 

Fracking is just the most recent trend that's dragging the Amish into conflict with modernity, of course. Lean times have led more and more Amish to take jobs working with modern machinery in construction or manufacturing jobs. And despite the hardship those who've given their land over to fracking have faced, other Amish groups continue to do the same--just, sometimes more strategically. The Daily reports that last year, 

in Ohio’s Holmes County, home to the nation’s largest Amish population, landowners banded together to get the best deal from the energy companies courting them. In Larry Weaver’s community, support for developing the natural resources is nearly universal.

“There are a few that don’t care for it, who are against it,” he said. All those working together to strike a deal have learned from the experiences of towns farther east, said Weaver, who runs a construction company. They negotiated a lease of more than 20 pages that included provisions friendly to them, including protections for water supplies. This month, the group voted to accept a written offer.

The dangers are myriad, of course, no matter how much tact is brought to the negotiating table. Besides contaminating well water, fracking degrades land, releases air pollution, and takes a major toll on local infrastructure. The Amish may end up paying more for road repairs, water control, and health care costs than the short-term boom money has sent their way. But, as folks who've signed away their private property to frackers around the nation have learned, what's done is done. Legal battles to invalidate leases can be truly epic struggles; they'd border on inconceivable for the Amish.

Whether they're ready for it or not, it looks like fracking is going to be a part of these communities--the most modern mode of fossil fuel extraction enmeshed with societies that value their bucking of modernity--for a long time to come.

Topics: fracking, Oil

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