Youngstown is the buckle of the American Rust Belt. Nestled in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, the city was one of the great steel manufacturing centers in the United States. Then the steel mills closed down, as automation and cheap imports drove the industry away. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
The steel mills closed down in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as automation and cheap imports drove the industry away. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
By the end, more than 50,000 people lost their employment and the city’s population shrank by nearly 65 percent, to just over 60,000. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Today, brownfields and empty factories litter the landscape and ghostly, boarded-up houses haunt the neighborhoods. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
The shale gas boom in the Marcellus formation of neighboring Pennsylvania has lifted up hopes in the city – while raising fears of new industrial-scale pollution. A slick $650 million plant with 350 employees, V&M Star, opened last October to great fanfare. The company makes steel tubes for the gas industry on the site where the Brier Hill Works of Youngstown Sheet & Tube once stood. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Drilling for shale gas has recently made its entrance into the Mahoning Valley, as the local Utica Shale has proven rich in profitable “wet gas,” saturated with natural gas liquids such as propane, butane and ethane. Like smokestacks turned upside down, the boreholes seem to promise a new industrial revival for Youngstown. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Aside from creating jobs, the shale gas industry promises to make the United States energy independent. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
The city council recently approved an ordinance to lease of the mineral rights of 180 acres of city-owned land. The potential revenue could fund the demolition of abandoned houses and buildings and give Youngstown a facelift. A 2010 survey by the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative showed that there are 3,246 vacant structures within the city limits, or about 44.8 structures per 1,000 residents, a figure 20 times the national average. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Restoring Youngstown with shale gas, though, may prove its own ironic pitfall. Shale gas harvesting requires an invasive technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, whereby millions of gallons of frack fluid – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic – are injected in the ground under high pressure to crack the impermeable rock and release the trapped hydrocarbons. Much of that mixture then comes back as “produced water” or “brine,” laced with high concentrations of salts, a variety of heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactivity, making it very difficult for treatment or disposal. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
“The gas industry could revitalize the town, but you can’t also look the other way. The rivers have been polluted, the land has been polluted by the steel industry, and they left us pretty much in shambles,” says Robert Hagan, an Ohio state representative and a Youngstown native who worked as a locomotive engineer for decades, ferrying steel products across the region. “You have to think very clearly about what could happen with the shale gas and oil industry.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Although there is no substantial drilling in the area yet, with just over a dozen wells in various stages of development, Youngstown has already felt the shockwaves, literally. With no previous history of major seismicity, the city experienced 12 earthquakes in 2011, the strongest one a 4.0 on the Richter scale. A preliminary report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources linked the tremors to a deep injection well, Northstar 1 (pictured), used for the disposal of brine from Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry. Located right across the new V&M Star pipe plant, on the opposite bank of the Mahoning River, the well was a reminder of the other, dirtier end-product of fossil-fuel extraction. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
At the end of 2011, a few local residents like John Williams, Lynn Anderson, and Susie Beiersdorfer (pictured) organized a grassroots movement against injection wells and fracking, Frackfree Mahoning Valley, which has since grown in popularity, staging a number of rallies and information sessions. And although some Youngstown residents see anti-fracking organizations as an obstacle to economic recovery, the area’s long tradition of unionism and populist activism have generally cast environmental protests in a positive light. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
When the company Consol Energy was recently allowed to drill a shale gas well in the protection area of Meander Creek Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to all the residents of Youngstown and adjoining residential areas, John Williams started his own private monitoring initiative, PEEPS (People’s Essential Environmental Protection Service). Almost daily, Williams takes samples from a nearby creek that empties directly into the reservoir. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Jaime Frederick, 34, of Coitsville, Ohio, just east of Youngstown, has ten gas wells within half a mile of her house. Three years ago, just as she moved in, she started experiencing a number of mysterious liver, kidney and intestinal problems. After five surgeries and the removal of her gallbladder, she tested her water and found that it was polluted with high levels of barium, strontium and toluene – chemicals associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It was only when she stopped drinking her water that her medical condition improved. Today, Frederick has a massive filtration system in her house, as well as gas detectors on every floor. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
“People are cautiously optimistic,” says Phil Kidd, a community organizer and owner of Youngstown Nation, a popular gift shop in the downtown area. “There’s a desire to see this happen, because we desperately need the economic development, but we are also concerned about the environmental aspects of it because once this resource is extracted these companies are gone. If Youngstown, Ohio, can’t learn from its past, I don’t know what community can.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.
Whether shale gas could revive Youngstown and bring people back, remains to be seen. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. United States, 2012.

Youngstown, Ohio, used to be one of the great centers of American steel manufacturing, until the steel mills closed down in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, brownfields and abandoned houses litter the landscape and the city has lost much of its population.

The recent boom of the shale gas industry in neighboring Pennsylvania and increasingly in Ohio has raised hopes for the revival of the city. A new steel mill, making gas pipes, recently opened, while restaurants and motels are getting busier.

At the same time, there are fears among residents that extracting shale gas could devastate the already fragile environment. The city was recently hit by a series of earthquakes caused by underground disposal of drilling waste. Weighted down by memories of its glorious but dirty past, the city of Youngstown is trying to choose its future.

This reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media, publishers of Shalereporter.com.

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