A Polish village says 'no' to fracking

When Chevron tried to start exploratory drilling, local farmers moved quickly to stop them.

Peter Andrews/Reuters/File
Workers watch drilling at a shale gas fracking facility near Uscimow, Poland. In the US, fracking has helped to create a boom in natural gas supplies.

As greater Europe argues the potential profits and possible environmental harms of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the debate is being played out in a far more immediate confrontation in the east Polish village of Zurawlow. Here, a group of farmers and residents are occupying a plot of land to prevent Chevron, which is backed by the state, from exploring for shale gas.

The people of Zurawlow once supported the proposal to drill in the "Grabowiec concession," a gas-rich region running beneath southeast Poland, in the hope that it would create much-needed jobs in the region. But that changed when two families' well water turned black after Chevron's seismic tests in 2010. People researched fracking online and found evidence that contradicted what they had been told.

"We were at a village meeting with the head of Chevron Poland. He told us the chemicals they will inject into the ground will be salt and lemon juice. That's when I realized they treated us like we were ignorant," says Wieslaw Gryn, whose 600-hectare (1,400-acre) farm is one of the most productive in Poland.

In response, the farmers organized grass-roots resistance to the mining efforts. In March 2012, they successfully blocked Chevron from drilling an exploratory well on a plot within the Grabowiec concession known as G7, by invoking an environmental law that prohibits any kind of fieldwork that would threaten birds' habitats during breeding season, which lasts several months. The Grabowiec concession lies within one of the European Union's protected ecological areas.

Although Chevron initially announced it would pull out of the Grabowiec concession, it returned early June 3 and began to install a fence on the G7 plot. A score of local villagers sped to the scene to stop Chevron's contractors from working. They blocked the lot with tractors and started a round-the-clock vigil with the help of some 200 supporters, including a local priest.

'We have been monitoring them'

The protesters claim Chevron has no legal right to set up the fence because the concession is only valid for seismic testing until Dec. 6, 2013. They maintain that neither the local nor the federal government ever granted authorization for drill testing. They also have legal documents stating that Chevron withdrew the application to drill in the concession.

"We have been monitoring them for a year and a half, and always catch them with some missing documents, breaking the law," says Barbara Siegienczuk, a print-shop owner and one of the leaders of the protest. "Now, we have checked all the documents, and they are up against the wall. It turns out they have no concession."

Chevron says it has all the necessary documents to proceed with drilling on the G7 site, yet protesters wonder why it hasn't begun working if that were the case.

Grazyna Bukowska, spokeswoman for Chevron Poland, brushes the question aside.

"We truly believe the views expressed by a small group of protesters do not reflect the views of the rest of the country that supports shale gas mining," she says.

An information blackout

But Andrzej Sikorski, a local journalist who lived in Maryland and covered fracking in Pennsylvania, says people only support shale gas because there is an information blackout in Poland. He claims the news media only focus on the potential profits of fracking while the experience of Zurawlow receives very little media attention.

"The communities here are split between pro- and anti-gas. But when they see the damage fracking does to this beautiful country, they will become united. But then it will be too late," he says.

On June 26, Prime Minister Donald Tusk signed a bill that facilitates shale gas exploration by overriding the requisite environmental impact report. The law came into force two weeks later, and Chevron is expected to work on the G7 plot soon.

The protesting farmers say they are fighting for the protection of their land and will not budge from the site.

"I understand the consequences [of fracking]; therefore, I do not support the government's decision," says Father Zygmunt Zugewski, who stops by the site often to offer spiritual support. "The balance of nature can be destroyed."

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