JERSEY SHORE, Pa. -- On hot days, twins Amanda and Chevelle Eck splashed in the Susquehanna River behind their trailer in the Riverdale Mobile Home Park.
Anytime their mother, Deb, worked late at her discount-store job, neighbors would meet the girls at the school bus stop and treat them to popsicles.
In less than five months, that community has disappeared as residents were evicted from the park, forcing some to surrender their mobile homes.
“Basically, part of my family has been ripped away,” Eck said in early June. “And I’m not giving up my home, too.... I bought that thing with sweat and I earned every damn penny I’ve put into that place. I just don’t happen to own the ground it sits on.”
Deb Eck and her 10-year-old twins left Riverdale on July 7, towing their trailer to another mobile-home park.
In late February, Aqua America and Penn Virginia Resource Partners became the owners of the 12 acres Riverdale sits on. The partnership will use the parcel in a $50 million plan to build a water-pumping station and 36-mile pipeline with the capacity to carry millions of gallons of water daily from the Susquehanna to natural gas wells.
This small park of 32 trailers, home to an oft-ignored and marginalized population, has become yet another flash point in the national debate over the impact of natural gas drilling and the industry’s methods.
Some say it is the first example of outright evictions because of Marcellus Shale operations in the drilling hotbed of Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.
No one asked
The Riverdale trailer park provided affordable homes to a cluster of working-poor families and the elderly of Jersey Shore, a borough of 4,300 people between Lock Haven and Williamsport.
Most residents owned their mobile homes and paid $200 a month to lease the land.
They learned of the project that would eviscerate their community when a story ran in the local newspaper in February.
The majority had neither the desire nor the means to leave. No one bothered to ask them, they said.
The Lycoming County Planning Commission approved site plans to build a pump station on the Riverdale land on Feb. 16.
The park land owners, Richard and Joanne Leonard, sold it to the partnership for $550,000 on Feb. 23, according to Lycoming County assessment records. The land was last valued by the county assessment office at $439,890.
The trailer-park’s manager recently waved off a reporter asking for comment.
Shortly after the land sale, residents received eviction notices.
Aqua America initially offered residents a $2,500 incentive if they moved by April 1. The deal dropped to $1,500 if they packed up by May 1.
Donna Alston, Aqua America’s spokeswoman, said company officials changed their tactics when they realized the Riverdale tenants were not given adequate notice.
“As things became clear to us, because at first it wasn’t clear people would face hardship, we extended the period of time to move and we did not collect rent or water and sewer fees,” she said.
The company hired a realtor to assist in the relocations and offered $2,500 to all who moved by June 1, the construction start date.
“None of that was required,” Alston said. “The things we did were out of concern, out of compassion and out of understanding.”
Riverdale residents said rents were higher at other mobile-home parks, and quotes they obtained showed it cost $5,000 to $10,000 to move a trailer.
But fears about money, arrest and even homelessness picked off residents one by one until nine adults and four children remained after the June 1 deadline. Some of them were unable to move, while others simply refused.
The ones who left dispersed to other trailer courts, senior housing or extra rooms in the homes of family and friends. The lucky ones were able to move their trailers; many were forced to abandon their homes. At least one family wiped out their retirement savings to make the move.
Many trailers dated back to the 1970s and could not be moved without crumbling. Some were too heavy or would not be accepted elsewhere.
Eck, 50, had trouble finding a court that would take her 76-foot long trailer with metal casing. “It’s not aesthetically pleasing, I suppose,” she said. The few trailer parks that would accept her home weren’t acceptable to her.
“I did a search on the Megan’s Law website and I’m not moving there with my girls,” she said, “It’s not safe.” The website she referred to makes addresses of registered sex offenders available to the public. Eck said she also had to consider school districts for her daughters.
Several residents came back to gut their deserted homes for scrap. They stripped siding down to the fiberglass and removed appliances, carpeting and windows. The home of an elderly couple collapsed in the process. Debris littered the park.
Eric and April Daniels bought their trailer three years ago for $5,000. They spent $7,000 to transform it into a well-insulated home with new appliances and fixtures to raise Eric’s 14-year-old daughter, Alexa, and the couple’s 4-year-old, Jeanna.
It took four days to tear the trailer apart.
They signed over the trailer’s title to the company for $2,500. It would have cost $7,300 to move the trailer. Now, they pay $325 more per month to rent a trailer in another court. They’ve since canceled family life insurance that cost $193 a month and they’re behind on other payments.
Eric Daniels, 43, had counted himself lucky a year and a half ago when he got a $17-an-hour job driving a truck that hauls water to natural gas wells. His view is shifting now that his home is gone and the pipeline threatens his job. More than 2,000 water truck trips had already been eliminated by the pipeline by late April, the company reported.
“This is not the way you do business,” he said. “Now I feel like an absolute refugee.”
A eulogy and a revival
A local pastor led a vigil at Riverdale on May 31.
It was the community’s eulogy. But it was also a revival, albeit temporary, because the calls to save the mobile-home park had ballooned into a protest that united its blue-collar residents with people more accustomed to defying the establishment.
Activists came from various states where drilling is taking place, and Riverdale became an intersection of causes.
“This is where environment meets social justice,” said Wendy Lynne Lee, a Bloomsburg University philosophy professor who joined other activists at a 12-day Riverdale encampment that was part of a broader “Occupy Well Street” movement.
They barricaded the park’s access roads with signs carrying messages such as, “They sold us down the river,” which prompted many Route 220 motorists and truckers to blow their horns in agreement.
The goal was to help the residents defend the space.
The bulldozers, scheduled to come on June 1, were a no-show.
The residents and the activists shared meals, cleaned up the park and chatted by campfires.
Private security guards, bolstered by 20 state police officers, showed up June 12 to shoo away the activists. There were no arrests or violence.
Lee said the situation would add fuel to the anti-fracking movement in Pennsylvania. “The end here is a beginning.”
It was also a beginning for construction of the pump station, which started the day activists left the property.
For the few residents who still live there, floodlights glare through the night on an active construction site that is surrounded by industrial fencing.
“It is not a home anymore, I can tell you that much,” Eck said.
Three million gallons of water a day sounds like an enormous amount to take from the Susquehanna River -- or any natural waterway.
But the Susquehanna withdrawals planned by Aqua America and Penn Virginia Resource Partners are only a fraction of water removed from all Pennsylvania water sources.
The partnership has completed 18 miles of pipeline that was carrying water, purchased from the Jersey Shore Water Authority, to drill sites by late April.
The Philadelphia-area companies plan to extend the pipeline another 18 miles to provide water to more natural gas producers.
Water is the primary ingredient of the slurry -- including sand and chemical additives -- that is injected into the rock to extend fractures and access the natural gas in Marcellus Shale formations.
The pump station on the Susquehanna will provide area natural gas wells with up to 3 million gallons of water per day -- a water volume equivalent to nearly five Olympic-size swimming pools.
The withdrawal amount was approved by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in March and is effective for 15 years.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission also reviewed the project, according to commission’s documents.
Loss of a home
What is the value of a home?
In late June, Chesapeake Energy settled with three families in Northeastern Pennsylvania for $1.6 million after the families sued, saying they had to move because gas drilling contaminated their wells, according to the Associated Press.
Eric Daniels gazed at his deconstructed trailer as he thought about the worth of his former Riverdale home.
“It’s not a mansion or a log cabin,” he said. “We loved it. The value of a home is in the people, not the dollars.”
The Riverdale holdouts eventually struck a deal with the partnership that meant more money and more time, though residents had to keep the terms confidential. Their deadline to leave is July 12.
The residents who took the company’s initial offer of $2,500 have grumbled, and there has been talk of a civil lawsuit, but most are weary and want to move on.
Even with the better offer, resident Denise Bliler said there would still be hardship. She had checked with four other mobile-home parks that would not take her trailer because of its roof and siding materials.
“They won’t accept me, so, no matter what, they’re taking my home from me,” she said.
Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo slideshow by Lynn Johnson
(Hover to view image caption)
Riverdale residents Deb Eck and her 10-year-old twin daughters, Chevelle and Amanda.
Pastor Leah Schade holds the group together with grit and prayer. In the past year, Schade has spearheaded one of few faith-driven groups that calls into question the morality of fracking.
Activist Wendy Lynne Lee takes the protest to Route 220, in front of the Riverdale Park, where much of the passing truck traffic is related to natural gas well development.
Deb Eck, a Riverdale Mobile Home Park resident who resisted eviction, sits with her daughter Chevelle on the porch of a vacant trailer. She was talking with activists who tried to help residents save their mobile homes.
Riverdale resident Deb Eck, whose family was one of the last to leave the mobile-home park, reads the names of residents who moved. Pastor Leah Schade lights a candle for each resident.
Deb Eck addresses a circle of Riverdale residents and activists. The environmental activists stayed for 12 days before police and private security guards ended the encampment.
Wendy Lynne Lee, a philosophy professor at Bloomberg University and an activist, sits on the floor of an abandoned trailer while calling media and other interest groups about the standoff at Riverdale.
Eric Daniels, his wife, April, and remaining neighbors and activists place his shed on a truck that will take it to their new home. Eric Daniels is also a truck driver who hauls water for the natural gas industry.
Activist Wendy Lynne Lee talks to Riverdale resident Chevelle Eck through a chain-link fence constructed shortly after activists were led off the property.