Teresa Kehagias of Damascus speaks to the Independent about the possible downsides of natural gas wells.


“This is about permanent agricultural damage. This isn’t about some fertilizers that will run off into rivers and eventually flow away. This is about poison and carcinogens, cadmium and chromium, arsenic, and toxic materials. There is no way this cannot have an impact on all living creatures in the area. Once you’ve polluted the groundwater, you’ve made the whole place unlivable.”


Damascus resident Teresa Kehagias speaks with quiet passion, and with expertise. Prior to retiring to the Northern Wayne hamlet, she was a photographer with the U.N. Press Corps, traveling all over the world at great risk to herself to document environmental and humanitarian crises. And before that, she was an analyst for the natural gas industry, examining the sociopolitical impact of leasing mineral rights in communities like the one she is trying to protect today.


“I’d look at places like Damascus, like Manchester and Pleasant Mount, and try to determine whether the people would be amenable to developing oil and gas,” Kehagias said. “But I couldn’t have ever taken into account the beauty of the sunset, the contours of the mountains, like I do today.”


It’s nearly a classic case of corporate-worker-turned-citizen-activist; Kehagias carries her research in a cloth bag, with notes written in a marbled composition book decorated by her daughter with purple stickers. Yet the research she has dug up is far from amatuer. She lists the kinds of environmental damage citizens of Damascus could face—which include the aformentioned water pollution, but also less-frequently considered environmental hazards such as noise, light, and air pollution, as well as industrial accidents—and cites sources as august as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the DCNR, as well as grassroots groups like the Pennsylvania Sierra Club and the Our Public Lands Organization.


“It’s not like this is a bunch of tree-hugging hippies getting nervous,” Kehagias says. “I mean, I couldn’t even put an outhouse up on my property without getting an environmental impact statement. How are these concerns not being addressed?”


Of course, the immediate bromide to such prophesies of doom is the refrain of money. This refrain was the topic of much of the Penn State Cooperative Extension’s Natural Gas Leasing Seminar, but Kehagias warns that it is in no way an assured outcome for lessors—and indeed, property owners can end up impoverishing themselves.


“There’s a lot of land wealth in this area, and I know realtors who say it’s almost impossible to sell a tract with a dry well on it. They’re just eyesores, and in a region where so much of our economy is dependent upon tourism and sightseeing, that’s a major concern.”


Despite their differences in ideology, Ms. Kehagias and Mr. Murphy and Mr. Robbins from the Penn State Cooperative Extension’s messages have a similar summary; be educated. Do research on the pros as well as the cons of natural gas leasing, and consult legal professionals before signing anything. Above all, communicate with neighbors and experts to make the best decision for yourself and your community. To facilitate this end, Kehagias has joined with other Damascus residents to form the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, who will be holding a meeting tonight at 7 p.m.  at the Damascus Township Building.


“No fully informed decisions can be made without having an awareness and understanding of all the facts,” says Kehagias. “The potential for irreversible changes must be addressed now.”