Road Trip to Dimock PA in Fossil Fuels

Roughly 30 miles south of Binghamton, NY is Dimock, PA. I wanted to visit Dimock for some time, because I wanted to see up close the impacts of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Dimock is particularly infamous for a couple of tragic accidents caused by faulting casing in gas wells causing poisonous hydrocarbons to leak out into the surrounding area. Dimock is also the home of Cabot Oil and Gas, one of the most controversial drilling companies in Pennsylvania due to their awful track record with certain wells.

NY 29 to Montrose.

I’d didn’t stop and take any pictures, but I’m including some images from Google Maps, and you’ll just have to imagine the rest from my words.

Dimock is an easy drive to get to from New York State – just take NY Route 7 south from Binghamton (you can access it from I-81 Exit 1 South of Binghamton), and NY Route 7 becomes PA Route 29 as you cross the state border. PA 29 is a very narrow and slow road, going through many hamlets, and the road is in serious need of repairs – although it was in awful shape the last time I drove it in 2008, prior to the big gas boom. Normal commercial and agricultural traffic has long made this road need of a rebuild and widening heading to the Capitol of Susquehanna County. The additional drilling related traffic hasn’t helped this road, as it ages long beyond, it’s time for widening and replacement.

PA 29 is the main road from Binghamton to Montrose. It has for a long time been congested with traffic heading to and from the capital of Susquehanna County. For most part the traffic is to be expected on a rural arterial – lots of folks in pickup trucks, beat up cars, milk trucks, grain trucks, pickups towing horse and cattle trailers. There are also traffic related to gas drilling, such as fresh water haul trucks used for fracking, and residual waste trucks hauling away condensate from gas well. I saw a pickup truck with a goose-neck trailer with drilling bits on it. For the most part traffic was free flowing.

There are small cattle farms in valley below PA 29, and some of the mountains above the road show quarrying activity for Blue Stone and possibly also coal. Nothing too obvious from the roads, but in one or two places, it’s obvious there is some mountains being mined for their products.

Busy Montrose on Saturday.

Eventually you real reach the borough of Montrose. This small city was very busy, but that’s to be expected of the only city in the region on a Saturday. People go to city to pick up groceries, shop, and fill up at the gas station. Walmart – on the outskirts of the city – was particularly crazy there.

There was a mix of truck traffic from different sources – some agricultural, some oil and gas related, some other for other businesses like grocery stores. Busy, but certainly not grid lock. Montrose is a pretty gritty little city, much like other cites in Twin Tier region, with lot of folks in big jacked up pickup trucks with gun racks. It’s certainly not an urban area by any extent of the imagination. Traffic in Montrose reminded me much of busy nature of Wellsboro PA or Watkins Glen NY.

South of Montrose.

South of Montrose is where the country starts to open up along NY 29. There is some rural houses on large lots on NY 29, but it’s mostly farm country. Traffic is very light south of Montrose. There are many farms on hilltops and across the landscape. Just past Dimock Post Office, and a few houses, there is Cabot Oil and Gas offices. Cabot Oil and Gas’ Dimock Headquarters is a one-story ranch-style building, that appears to be formally a rural doctors office or other small business office. It’s not a new building. The parking lot has been expanded with gravel – it’s obvious that once the gas wells are completed in this area, Cabot probably will be closing out this regional office.

This is where you first start to see first gas wells, one right beyond the Cabot Oil and Gas Office, and one on a farm field to the left of the road. This gas well is completed, although there are two condensate tanks on the roughly 4-acres pad. The pad is large, when viewed up close from the road, but there are no equipment on the pad except for the tanks. There is no reason why they could not remove the pad now, except for the access road to condensate tanks for occasional pumping. Farming activity is going up and around the well pad, with alfalfa currently planted around the pad, for the dairy farm on which it is located. Well pads are located on farms that are roughly 250 acres in size on steeply rolling country, so their impact both on farms and landscape is minimal. Spacing requirements limit well pads to one per 160 acres – but realistically terrain and gas fields expand things out further then that.

For the next three miles, as you go up and down several hills, there is no well pads thats can be seen, until one pops up in the distance on right. This well doesn’t produce any condensate or was abandoned, so there are no tanks or equipment above around. From there, it’s kind of hilly, with a lot of forested brush lands, in areas not economical to farm, mostly used for residents in fall to harvest wood for heating, and hunting in fall.

Lemon to Nicholson.

When I got down to an unmarked hamlet known as Lemon, I took a left onto State Route 1006, and started winding around farm country. Climbing out of valley, up towards Seely Hill, there where many well manicured farms, that obviously where well capitalized, professionally run operations without a lot of junk in their yards. None of farms where particularly large, as this area lacks the soils to sustain CAFO-sized farms, but with beautiful old farm houses painted white, and barns painted red. Cows where grazing around, corns, alfalfa, hay, and soybeans where planted following the landscape. Atop some of the hills, you could see for miles.

Not everything was picture perfect. It was a working landscape, and some farms where more messy then other. Passed a junkyard, and some trailers and houses. Almost everybody had burn barrels or pits for trash. Many had targets and stuffed deer statues in their backyards used for plinking. There where some abandoned houses, and grown up fields. It was very much a rural landscape – a bit a beautiful, wild and free landscape. There was rural poverty. It is a scene not unfamiliar to a New Yorker, something not far from one’s imagination, although due to the more southernly latitude allows farming on many hilltops unlike NY State.

You would climb one steep hill, and descend another, and you might see an gas well. After a while of winding on some back road, I saw a gas well under construction. Drilling rigs are big and tall, and there is a lot of trucks holding water, flowback water, chemicals, and drilling bits. I noticed quite a bit of particulate laden steam / smoke from one of compressor rigs – a potential problem – although it seems government regulation to reduce pollution from oil and gas industry will further clean the air. Such minor and localized pollution wasn’t everywhere.

Many places didn’t have any gas drilling activity underway. The further south or west you got from Dimock, and further you got from the gas field around Dimock, and the fewer wells you would see, until you see no more wells dotting the landscape. After a while, there was no more drilling activity going on.

Eventually I ended up in Nicholson, and took US 11 back to New York. The archways of the Lackawanna Railroad Viaduct are quite remarkable as the soar high above this town. US 11 is a delightful road, following a narrow valley along the deep valley of the Martin Creek, until one eventually reaches Great Bend on Susquehanna River and I-81 back to NY State.

Conclusions I Draw from My Trip.

Dimock is one small hamlet across Pennsylvania. It is a pocket of some of the most intense natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Gas drilling is not without impacts, but it is not the industrialization or utter destruction of rural life. Farms continue after gas drilling, and modest rural housing continues to exist. Small towns continue to be small towns, even if there is a benefit of greater employment and higher standard of living in these small towns.

Dimock is still primarily about farming and rural life – it is not suburban – but enjoys the boost that gas drilling gives to the town. Gas drilling does not urbanize rural areas or turn them into industrial wastelands, but instead provides

… do take this trip on your own. It’s not that long of a drive from Albany, and it’s a very interesting and beautiful drive for sure.

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