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Gas shale brings promise of jobs, concerns about water

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP, PA. — To appreciate the promise and betrayal of the nation's natural gas rush, look no further than this rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania where the 957 residents barely outnumber the dairy cows.

Like dozens of farming communities in the state, the countryside here is dotted with drill pads, derricks, compressor stations, truck convoys, earth movers, open-air reservoirs and pipelines that snake along fence lines and carry natural gas to refineries.

A similar transformation could await North Carolina, where an estimated 1,400-square-mile underground natural gas deposit is believed to lie less than a mile under rural Lee County and surrounding regions. Locally, a shale formation stretches from Butner and Creedmoor through Falls Lake and Durham to Sanford and Carthage.

Though only a fraction of the size of the multi-state Marcellus Shale up north, this state's 200 million-year-old shale gas deposit could also turn crossroads into boomtowns and subsistence farmers into millionaires.

But the gas rush in Pennsylvania has brought deep divisions.

The construction, excavations and storage tanks in cornfields and pastures are evidence of ecological destruction to some, economic revival to others. Underlying the acrimony are lawsuits between homeowners and gas companies, local government efforts to restrict drilling, contentious town hall meetings, and persistent complaints of water contamination.

Elected officials from North Carolina recently visited Pennsylvania to learn about its experience with gas exploration in anticipation of welcoming the industry.

A big draw is the 200,000-plus jobs - roustabouts, pumpers, drillers, truckers, pipe layers and others - Pennsylvania has gained from the Marcellus Shale gas bonanza, according to state labor data.

But North Carolina could also experience the bitter aftertaste of the shale gas bonanza: reports of funky water, mysterious illnesses, state investigations, moratoriums, hefty fines. As in Pennsylvania, rural homesteads could play host to lucrative wellheads and storage tanks, while less-lucky neighbors are forced to switch to potable water that's trucked in to refill 550-gallon tanks called "water buffaloes" after the family well goes bad and has to be sealed.

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