Thursday, December 31, 2015

Local food resources

You can find information on Putting Down Roots Sustainability Salons (now in their sixth year!) and myriad other events on the main MarensList events blog.  The second Sustainability Salon (as well as the fourteenth and fifteenthtwenty-sixth and twenty-seventh, thirty-eighth and thirty-ninthfifty-first and fifty-secondsixty-secondsixty-third, and sixty-fourth) focused on food -- growing it, and sourcing it locally.  Afterwards, Maren put together a list of many such local sources:  CSA farms, farmers' markets, grassfed and humanely raised meats and dairy, natural foods suppliers, bakeries, and advocacy organizations.

East End Food Co-op has a great selection of local organic produce, along with a fairly comprehensive selection of natural and organic groceries.  There's also a vegetarian deli with prepared foods.

Marty's Market is a locally-owned supermarket-scale natural foods market, cafe, and coffee bar in the Strip District.  (update:  sadly, Marty's closed last year!)

Schwartz Living Market on the South Side is an indoor marketplace, eatery, and venue for classes, workshops, music, and films -- all in an old supermarket building undergoing seriously green renovation.

Whole Foods (not locally owned) has a store in Eastside, which is what they're calling East Liberty next to Shadyside.  Or something.  Amazon now owns the Whole Foods chain, which apparently means the prices will go down some, but I don't know what if anything will happen to their standards for humane livestock practices and such-like.  Still, there are some things that they carry that other local purveyors don't.

Frankferd Farms:  Originally a farm and grain mill, now a solar-powered grain mill *and* a regional organic and natural food wholesale distributor.  You may have purchased their wares at the East End Food Coop, or eaten their ingredients in products from Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill.  Individuals can visit their storefront in Saxonburg, and order for delivery.  In Pittsburgh proper, the delivery minimum is $250, but folks can group orders with or without a formal buying club, with individual minimum of only $35.  They also put out monthly sales flyers, both by paper mail and online.  I have a few extra catalogues, so just ask when you're here for a Sustainability Salon (or look for a stack on the literature table).

Wild Purveyors, a shop in Lawrenceville, has all kinds of locally-grown, -foraged, and -crafted foods from farm, field, and forest.  House-made delicacies, artisan cheeses, pastured meats, local produce, and all manner of wild foods in season.

Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery is a small, community-oriented business committed to increasing access to healthy, fresh food by providing strong vegetable, herb and flower starts to home gardeners, community gardens, nonprofits, schools and retail markets.  This little oasis sits on two reclaimed vacant lots in Wilkinsburg, near Pittsburgh’s East End.  They specialize in heirloom varieties of tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings and also grow produce that is provided weekly to their "Mini-CSA" members.  They carry hard to find vegetable varieties as well as seed garlic, asparagus crowns, raspberry canes, cover crop seed, seed potato, and organic gardening products such as potting soil and fertilizers. 

Kretschmann's CSA farm (Don and Becky have been here for more than one Food salon; this photo shows them accepting an award at the annual PASA conference) has one of the (if not the) largest CSAs in the region, with year-round in-town deliveries of herbs, veggies, and fruits, as well as cheeses, meats, locally-roasted coffee, and other produce from other local growers and purveyors.  They've been growing organically near Zelienople since 1971.

Blackberry Meadows Farm not only has a CSA program but also a grow-your-own version where they provide seedlings and supplies for backyard gardeners.  Greg Boulos will be speaking at the 38th Sustainability Salon.

Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, a group of local farms with a collective CSA, also à la carte preorder "farm stands".  You can even order online here.

Clarion River Organics, another multi-farm cooperative, is signing up members for 2015.  I just got word that they take food stamps, as well.

Who Cooks For You Farm can be found at farmers' markets including East Liberty (Mondays) and Squirrel Hill (Sundays), on the menu at Legume Bistro, and at your house via their CSA program.

Our friends at Farm to Table Pittsburgh have a searchable listing of CSA farms, more than I've shown here: .
Farmers' markets abound;  three that I frequent are at Phipps Conservatory (Wednesday afternoons), in East Liberty (Monday afternoons) and in Squirrel Hill (Sunday mornings):  Farmers at the Firehouse, run by Slow Food Pittsburgh and often featuring cooking demonstrations and tastings.  
Not all the farmers' markets are run by Citiparks, but the ones that are will be listed on 
The Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip is host to many great local and regional producers on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays year 'round as well as occasional events and soon a community kitchen. Vegan and vegetarian delights, artisanal cheeses, pastured eggs and dairy, fine woodworking, garden plants and accessories, fresh pasta, wines... (update: O dear, another Strip natural food emporium has closed its doors!)

Another enterprise put together by the Slow Food folks is the Laptop Butcher Shop, through which individuals can place orders with local farmers for local pastured, humanely-raised meats, which are delivered via the Farmers at the Firehouse market every so often.  A typical lineup includes goat cheese from Lake Erie Creamery, Wil-Den's Fresh Air Pork, lamb and rabbits from Pucker Brush Farm, meat and eggs from the Farmer's Wife, and wild salmon straight from Alaska.

Gina Anderson of Starry Sky Farm raises pastured lamb and chickens in Butler County.  She's currently taking orders for half or whole lambs for the fall;  you can get on the Starry Sky mailing list:  email or call 412-450-8242 / cell 503-956-4736.  

North Woods Ranch (Oliver has been to Salons, and spoke at one some years ago) is up in Marshall Township, with grassfed beef, pastured pork, honey, and maple syrup. You can find North Woods meats at the Co-op, at the ranch, and now, delivered to our house for local pickup! If you're going to eat meat, this is the way the animals should be raised. Oliver and Jodi also post adorable photographs of critters in the woods on Facebook and via their email list. Update: Oliver and Jodi have decided to leave ranching, and sold their animals to other local humane farmers, like Pittsburgher Highland Farm.

Cherry Hill Ecological Farm -- Will McGee and Gretchen Oat also raise grassfed beef and pastured pork at their farm in Albion, PA up near Erie, and deliver regular shares, sampler boxes, and à la carte orders to Pittsburgh (also with a monthly visit to our front porch).

Joe Rush of Rushacres Farm, who delivers to several locations around the 'Burgh every two weeks, with grassfed meats (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck, and turkey), raw dairy, eggs, and goodies like honey, jams, apple butter, maple syrup, and apple cider:

Weatherbury Farm, located 45 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh in Avella, PA, sells grass-fed beef and lamb and hosts visitors on the farm as well.  Their newest venture, taking off later this summer, is producing estate flours (think wine – from seed to processing everything occurs on the farm).  That will be followed by the production of pasta made from their grains (hard wheat, emmer and spelt).  They also hope to open an on-farm store to sell their and neighboring farms' products. 

The Burns family's Heritage Farm, a couple of hours east, also delivers to our area, including a stop at the East End Food Co-op (and you can find their products at the co-op through the week).  Fruits and forest-foraging pork, pastured poultry, grass-fed beef, vegetables, and eggs.

Further east but still in Pennsylvania is The Family Cow, which delivers raw dairy, grassfed meats (and nitrate-free cured meats), herbs, produce, and home-canned goods, to Swissvale, Ross Township, and Green Tree.
Also, right across the road from Don & Becky Kretschmann is the Lewis family's farm, with grassfed beef and pastured chickens for farm pickup.
Many of these farmers have periodic email newsletters that will keep you posted on what's available as the seasons roll around the year (or in the case of this winter, are skipped entirely).

Pick-Your-Own farms -- Here's a directory of all the U-Pick farms in Western Pennsylvania. Everything from apples, peaches, and pears to blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and grapes -- and pumpkins in the fall.

You can buy dairy, eggs, and meats from many of these producers at the East End Food Co-op as well as breads from Allegro Hearth and MediterraSpring Creek organic tofu from nearby West Virginia, raw milk from Frank White, eggs from The Farmer's Wife, off-grid NuWay Farms, and Blackberry Meadows Farm, beef from Ron Gargasz, lamb and goat from Clarion River Farms, flours from the Frankferd mill, and cheeses from many local dairies.  Many of them, and lots of others, will be at the Farm To Table conference this Friday and Saturday!

Grow Pittsburgh works in many realms (community gardens, urban farms, school gardens, gardening classes, and more) to help more people grow more food in our city.  Check them out at

Slow Food Pittsburgh sponsors talks, demos, and classes at various venues around town.

The Pittsburgh Canning Exchange helps connect canners and create new canners by coordinating events and sharing resources for learning, planning, and trading.

Hazelwood Food Forest has transformed a space on Second Avenue into a lush, productive permaculture garden.  Join other volunteers on Tuesday evenings, and see what it's all about -- see the web site for more information!

The Farmer's Table presents elegant dinners at local farms several times a year, using meats and produce that are local (or even produced on-site) and naturally grown.

PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, hosts farm field days and networking gatherings through the year and, each February, a fantastic educational conference in State College.  Their Buy Fresh, Buy Local program is another way to connect with local producers.

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council is a consortium of individuals and community organizations working to make the local food system more equitable and sustainable.

In less than a decade, Food & Water Watch has become one of the leading food-system activist organizations around the country, with victories from Starbucks (eschewing rBGH in the dairy they use) all the way to the EPA (regulating per chlorates).  Their latest campaign focuses on the abuse of antibiotics on factory farms, the biggest contributor to the loss of effectiveness of many such drugs to treat human diseases.

GMO Free PA is working on the state and local level to educate consumers and policymakers about genetically-modified foods, and advocate for mandatory GMO labeling.

There are quite a few local food blogs you can browse or follow to find even more regional food resources, amazing recipes, and new insights.  Among my favorites are
This is just a broad sampling off the top of my head of the many fantastic local food resources in our agriculturally rich region;  I hope it's useful!  I'd love it if you let me know about connections you make as a result.  Many of these outfits can also be found on Facebook.

We talked a little about gardening during the salon in March;  I'd also be open to hosting more detailed workshops, if there's interest.

Be well, eat local, share food, and grow your own if you can!

-- Maren.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Local businesses worth supporting: Garden Dreams

I grow a great many plants, and make them available to area gardeners through occasional plant sales.  My operation is very small, though, with a broad but rather eclectic assortment of vegetables, herbs, and perennials, including forty varieties of tomatoes, lots of cucumbers, lush ferns, and many other plants that can find homes in your garden.  However, if I don't have what you want, I encourage you to visit a fantastic urban farm not far away, in Wilkinsburg.  Garden Dreams, run by my friends Mindy Schwartz, Hannah Reiff, and Bob Madden is a go-to source for a much larger selection of vegetable and herb plants each spring.  You can also find their plants at the East End Food Co-op.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Local businesses worth supporting: Sylvania Natives

Autumn is a great time to plant perennials. A former neighbor of mine, Kathy McGregor, has a native plant business right here in Squirrel Hill called Sylvania Natives. She has wildcrafted everything -- meaning that she has gone out and collected seeds of native plants, which she then propagates. Kathy got her start with natives by working as a volunteer for Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve (an Audubon facility in the North Hills). Sylvania Natives -- now in its 14th year and offering more than 120 species of locally native perennials, shrubs and trees -- is on Ira Way, a little alley off of Shady near Monitor; Google Maps knows about it, too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dynamic Soil Testing for Safe Urban Food Production

                                                                   © 2012  by Maren Leyla Cooke, updated May 2015

Urban farming
Pittsburgh is now home to a vibrant and growing urban farming movement.  It's one part of a hopeful trend in which Pittsburghers are helping to empower young people, restore local economies, rebuild communities, reduce crime, protect the environment, improve public health, and enhance local food security.  Our city is particularly well positioned for this development, with a vast stock of unused land (more than 14,000 vacant lots plus additional land in private hands), people needing employment, youth from all walks of life looking for constructive things to do, and countless citizens strongly motivated for positive change.  Amazingly, urban farming programs can address all of these issues simultaneously.

Local food security 
Agriculture is the number-one industry in Pennsylvania, but we grow mainly for export -- while importing most of our food from elsewhere.  In an age of increasing concern about both energy and security, this approach is clearly unsustainable.  Food consumed in this country travels an average of 1500 miles from farm to table, at great cost in terms of fuel use, emission of climate-changing carbon dioxide and other pollutants, and quality of the food.  Moreover, monocultures on big industrial farms are ripe for crop failures, and large centralized systems for food production and distribution present a significant risk for contamination or interruption -- either accidentally (think beef, spinach, and green onions) or intentionally.  We need to begin producing more of our food in our region, and that includes rural, suburban, and urban farms and gardens.  And to do that, we need to both keep the remaining farms in business and nurture a new generation of food producers.  With the average age of Pennsylvania farmers approaching 60, there is cause for concern -- as well as great opportunity for today's youth.

Consumer choices can help sustain regional farms, through farmers' markets and subscriptions to community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms, and by demanding local foods in area stores.  But there are many consumers without such choices -- in some low-income areas of the city, there aren't even any grocery stores;  such regions are called "food deserts."  This is another side of food security -- the secure ability of every segment of the population to obtain healthy, affordable food.

Empowering youth 
Many young people in our urban core face uncertain futures.  Numerous programs are in place attempting to address this issue, but there are few activities that can be as fun, educational, motivational, and rewarding as growing food.  And while kids are having fun and being physically active outdoors, they're also learning about nature, health, nutrition, and good citizenship.  And they're gaining leadership skills and learning practical crafts that will open up job opportunities in fields like agriculture, horticulture, landscaping, building, and business.  Perhaps even more significantly, as at-risk youth in underserved communities take part in producing food for their families and neighbors, they gain a sense of ownership and responsibility that they may have lacked before.

Revitalizing neighborhoods
Pride of place is not limited to the people participating directly in the projects.  A piece of land that is obviously cared for is much less of a target for litter, dumping, and crime.  It has been observed again and again that urban farms and community gardens increase real estate values for the surrounding properties, and can bring neighborhoods together.  Add to these effects the generation of local jobs, more young people engaged in creative enterprises, increased access to fresh food, and beautiful and functional landscapes, and it's a winning combination.

Local economies
Whether or not large corporations see fit to locate stores in low-income neighborhoods, residents can begin taking control 
of their economic and nutritional destiny.  Creating the means of food production within our urban core is a great first step.  Pittsburghers can keep food dollars in their local communities by starting businesses that grow and sell food right in the neighborhood where it's grown.  This will create jobs for youth growing food, as well as fostering business skills and generating additional opportunities through value-added products.  Individual families can also become part of this urban renaissance, as residents who are generations removed from gardening and preserving foods will be able to participate in workshops and classes to learn those skills.  Those lacking outdoor space, or with unsafe soil, will be able to join community gardens.  Right now, there are people gardening where it's unsafe, and others not gardening at all.

Urban soils
Although urban land has tremendous potential for growing food crops, it is essential to go about it with care.  The history of any piece of land affects its present and its future;  in many places there may be residual contamination from past land use (known or unknown).  One of the most common contaminants of known concern is lead.  While Pittsburgh's public health pioneer Dr. Herbert Needleman was still at Harvard, he began investigating the link between childhood lead exposure, learning deficits, and behavioral problems.  With persistent research and advocacy, progress was made on the public policy front, but it took years;  lead paint was not banned until 1978, and lead was not completely phased out of gasoline until 1996.  Thus, soils near busy streets or painted houses is always suspect.  And Pittsburgh, a hub of steel production and coal-fired energy generation, has regional residues as well.
Subtle sources
Urban soils may also be contaminated by illegal dumping, application of pesticides or herbicides, or industrial emissions into the air, water, or soil -- whether they are long past (and perhaps invisible) or ongoing.  In addition, because of Pittsburgh's hilly topography many sites have had fill material brought in from elsewhere, or soil moved from one place to another on the property.  Whenever and wherever they came from, toxic heavy metals and organic pollutants can be taken up through plant roots or splashed onto plants from the ground below.  In order to turn some of Pittsburgh's vacant land from a liability into an asset, we first have to make sure each site being considered for farming, gardening, or play is safe.

Vulnerability of young people
It is well-established that children are far more susceptible to the adverse affects of environmental contamination than adults:  their bodies are still developing, with critical phases of nervous system and reproductive system development continuing into the teen years.  They also spend more time outside, and are generally more active than adults -- their more-rapid respiration takes in pollutants from today's industry and transportation, but also dust kicked up from the ground on a dry day.  And especially for younger children, hands often find their way into mouths.  Is the answer to keep kids away from soil?  Hardly;  a much better solution is to make sure the dirt on their hands is safe.

Soil testing
It is clear that soils need to be tested prior to any food-growing enterprise, both for the safety of the food itself and for the health of the people working the land, especially young people.  However, the distribution of contaminants is often highly uneven, with variations related to former buildings, roads, and dumping.  Furthermore, soils have often been moved around due to redevelopment, construction, and landscaping over the years, and one can neither discount the potential of land near roads nor trust that land away from them will be safe.  Hence, soil testing needs to be systematic and detailed for each site.

New technology
Conventional soil testing at a state laboratory requires charting a grid, clearing the surface, digging samples (usually just a few), preparing and packaging them, shipping them off and waiting weeks for results, not knowing how optimal the grid placement was relative to often-uneven distribution of contaminants, nor how many samples are warranted.  Now, however, there's a hand-held instrument that uses X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF) which is designed for soils, and which is safer than the similar devices often used for lead paint testing because it uses a battery-powered X-ray tube instead of a decaying radioisotope as an X-ray source.  This unit allows for dynamic selection of sample locations and on-the-spot analysis for dozens of elements at a time (conventional lab tests would cost ~$10-40 each for just a few heavy metals, and a grid sample could be three feet away from where a car battery sat for twenty years).  It can be linked to a GPS transceiver to further streamline site mapping, and can even detect contaminants in plant tissues.  And while the XRF is not solely oriented toward nutrient testing like the basic state lab tests, several key nutrients are detected including phosphorus and potassium. (Nitrogen, the third macronutrient, is volatile and moves through soil freely, so generally needs to be renewed each season anyway.)

This program could produce substantive research results while providing for some of the real needs of real people.  How effectively certain crops are affected by and can remediate contaminated soil -- the rate of remediation for different contaminants and different crops, and in what plant tissues the elements are sequestered;  the impact of various contaminants on plant growth and food safety;  the results of different land-use histories;  and how contaminants move through soil under different conditions are among the many important questions that can be addressed.

Funding needs
The major obstacle to this enterprise is the cost of the XRF device, upwards of $30,000 (including a nonprofit discount);  additional initial expenses would include the device-linked GPS unit, software, and training.  The XRF instruments can be rented (typically ~$600/day for short periods, often plus several hundred for an operator), but we propose to get a unit into the hands of the local nonprofit community so that testing can take place as needed without trying to coordinate people, instrument availability, and weather -- and then being unable to go back and check more samples.  Because of the extensive skill-set required for the XRF operation and data analysis, it is far more cost-effective to bring the equipment into the community than to hire the service each time it is needed.  Since the ultimate goal of this work is to strengthen our community by working with urban youth, building local economies, and creating a sustainable local food system, we are hoping that the foundation community will be able to help with startup costs.  We had an initial contribution from the Allegheny County Health Department for a small demonstration project, and hope to gather additional funds to begin a soil testing program in earnest.

Financial plans
Several models are possible for this program.  It could be an arm of a nonprofit organization, or a social enterprise.  In the latter case, once we can secure funding for the instrumentation, software, and training we would operate on a fee-for-service basis, at rates intended to make the service accessible to everyone (perhaps with a sliding scale based organizational size or individual income, and/or different levels of service).  In either case, we'll be able to provide testing and analysis for farming projects, community gardens, school gardens, homeowners, and soil remediation projects -- more quickly, at substantially less cost, and with far more detailed results than other approaches.  Using the XRF results, spatial data from the GPS and logged sample depth, and geographical information system (GIS) software we will be able to produce maps of soil contamination, and can couple these with recommendations for mitigation and cultivation.

To discuss this project, please email Maren:  maren dot cooke at gmail dot com

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Group Against Smog & Pollution GASP is a non-profit citizens’ group in Southwestern Pennsylvania working for a healthy, sustainable environment. Founded in 1969, GASP has been a diligent watchdog, educator, litigator, and policy-maker on many environmental issues, with a focus on air quality in the Pittsburgh region.

Pittsburgh environmental organizations

Pennsylvania Resources Council
composting classes
vermicomposting workshops
watershed education and rain barrel workshops
hard to recycle events

Three Rivers Bioneers (3RB) is the Beaming Bioneers conference partner based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The mission of 3RB is to foster a local movement of citizens and organizations who strive to cultivate sustainable communities in the Three Rivers Bioregion through actions revolving around social justice, ecological health, and innovative solutions.

Wilkins School Community Center

Group Against Smog & Pollution GASP is a non-profit citizens’ group in Southwestern Pennsylvania working for a healthy, sustainable environment. Founded in 1969, GASP has been a diligent watchdog, educator, litigator, and policy-maker on many environmental issues, with a focus on air quality in the Pittsburgh region.

CCI Center


Monday, April 4, 2011

A Marcellus Primer

                        A Marcellus Shale Primer
                by Maren Leyla Cooke -- September 2010

An issue that has quickly dominated environmental concerns in our region is the prospect of deep gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.  The Marcellus formation lies beneath much of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, along with parts of Virginia, Ohio, and New York State.  The shale layer, named for an outcrop near the town of Marcellus, NY, runs as deep as 9000 feet in some areas and underlies more than 30 million acres.

How did it get there?  During the Devonian period, nearly 400 million years ago, the supercontinents Laurentia (later North America) and Gondwana (including what would become Africa) were coming together at the future Appalachian Basin.  As marine organisms died, they settled to the bottom of a deep sea, along with silt from the eroding Acadia mountains nearby (which included things like barium, strontium, uranium, radium, and other heavy metals).  Because of the warm climate, the sea was stratified and oxygen was quickly depleted at the bottom.  Anoxic decomposition of the organics produced methane within the sediment;  folks who compost can attest to the stinky result of anaerobic decomposition!  Heat and pressure slowly transformed this mud into a dense black shale, and impermeable limestone layers above and below trap the gas in the formation where it has tantalized the energy industry for years.  

Because the Marcellus shale is so very dense, gas does not travel freely through it.  In gas-rich, porous sandstone, a vertical well can tap a large area -- but not so with this shale.  Not until horizontal drilling techniques were developed in the 1990s did this broad, thin reservoir become accessible.  With 200-500 trillion cubic feet of gas underground, this region has been called "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas" -- it is the largest on-shore natural gas reserve in the world -- and now energy companies are champing at the bit to extract it.

We know that as a fuel, natural gas is cleaner to burn and releases less carbon per unit energy than other fossil fuels (half as much as coal).  However, getting it out of these deep reservoirs with current technology comes at a very great cost to the land, water, air, wildlife, and human health.  Deep shale gas drilling has already been going on in other shale "plays" around the country for years -- first in the Barnett Shale in Texas, then in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming, and Arkansas.  Now, deep-shale gas drilling is taking place in 32 states around the nation, including Pennsylvania.  The ramp-up has been astounding.

What does the extraction process entail?  At first blush, it sounds efficient -- a well is drilled straight down until it reaches the shale layer, then holes are bored horizontally in various directions for hundreds to thousands of feet.  That way, one surface site can tap a large area of subsurface shale.  However, that single surface site is much larger and more devastated than one might imagine.  Although each well-head itself is relatively small, the well-pad surrounding it must be large -- typically several acres -- to accommodate all the necessary trucks, tanks, and machinery.

What is all that machinery for?  Some of it is the drilling rig, of course, which goes away after a well is completed, but there's a whole lot more.  Even with long horizontal well shafts in the shale layer, the methane doesn't just spurt out;  it's tightly bound within the dense shale.  A process called high-volume slick water hydrofracturing (or hydrofracking, fracking, or fracing), is necessary to shatter the rock and release the gas.  Fracking fluid -- a mixture of water, sand (to prop open the cracks), and an often-undisclosed cocktail of chemicals to reduce friction, prevent corrosion, kill microbes, maintain viscosity, and other functions -- is pumped down into the shafts.  Some of that fluid comes back up along with the gas, and in addition to the chemicals sent down are heavy metals (some of them radioactive) and salt (recall that the sediments were deposited at the bottom of an ocean, which then dried up) so the euphemistically named "produced water" is 5-10 times as salty as ocean water.   A million or more gallons of this toxic brine is generated for each well.  

Where does all this water come from?  Millions of gallons of fresh water are drawn from our rivers and streams for each well, often seriously affecting flow rates and habitat for fish, invertebrates, plants, and the complex food webs that depend on them.  Natural flow rates depend on the season, of course, and we can hardly expect drilling companies to alter their fracking schedule to account for drought conditions.  On the way back up from the deep shale layer, highly contaminated frackwater can even leak through inadequate well casings (metal tubes surrounded by concrete that are installed in each well) out into the aquifers from which many residents draw their water.  In any case, what comes back up is not fit to be returned to the watershed (especially considering the reduction in stream flow due to all the withdrawals), and generally sits in a great open pit (which can occupy several more acres, plus the mountain of soil and rock that was excavated to create it) for evaporation, as well as a few rounds of reuse down the well...  before being covered and buried (to go where?) or trucked away for treatment or reinjection into the ground (potentially polluting aquifers elsewhere).  Pipelines transporting fluids to and from the wellhead often leak, spilling unknown contaminants onto the land in between.  The waste fluid is also full of VOC's (volatile organic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, many of which are known carcinogens or endocrine disruptors), so as long as it remains in the open brine pit it emits huge amounts of airborne pollutants (some operations even use misters to hasten evaporation, though others try to capture the volatiles to sell into the chemical industry).  In an ironic twist (when we are trying to replace coal and oil), the methane itself is a potent greenhouse gas.

Combined with methane leaks and venting from well-heads, tanks, trucks, and pipelines and the copious diesel emissions and fugitive dust from construction equipment, drilling rigs, generators, trucks, and compressor stations, this produces a serious air-quality problem.  Ground-level ozone (damaging to lungs, trees, and crops) and smog at rural drilling sites can reach levels comparable to large urban areas.  All of this equipment is also noisy, of course, and the truck traffic alone is prodigious;  a single well can require more than a thousand trips by giant tanker trucks, in addition to transporting equipment and materials on- and off-site -- so wear and tear on roads and bridges is also a concern for municipalities, along with local emergency services which suddenly have a much bigger job to do;  in general the first-responders (often volunteers) are inadequately trained and equipped.  Yet another burden on local people and communities is the impact on property values -- when residents are sickened by nearby drilling operations, they often have nowhere to go, as nobody else would want to buy their unhealthy homes.

Where does it all go?  Wastewater from drilling operations cannot be treated effectively by 
most conventional water-treatment facilities.  Even if we assumed that the effluent could be effectively stored or treated, the fracturing process itself puts entire aquifers at risk.  Over and over again residential wells, springs, and streams have been contaminated as toxic compounds have migrated from the shale or from poorly-sealed well-casings -- and over and over again, 
the drilling companies have avoided responsibility by every means possible.  

Texas, where all this has been done for years, does have the advantage of 12,000 spent wells for wastewater disposal.  It is also fairly flat and semi-arid;  there are no trout streams to pollute and only one natural lake.  Water wells there tap deep aquifers, rather than our shallow wells into groundwater that can be contaminated by surface spills, dumps, or blowouts.

When drilling companies do replace drinking water supplies (and a 500-gallon "water buffalo" is a far cry from a freshwater spring used by a family for generations), they often do so on condition that the homeowner keeps mum about the whole experience;  people have to sign nondisclosure agreements or the water buffaloes stop coming (this is just one of the many ways in which the companies don't play fair with landowners).  And they don't seem to care about water supplies used by livestock, let alone wildlife.  

Unfortunately, key federal regulations have been sidestepped, and the EPA's hands are tied:  the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (based on the recommendations of Dick Cheney's secret energy task force) specifically exempts the hydraulic fracturing process (pioneered by Halliburton, Dick Cheney's former employer) from the Safe Drinking Water Act.  In most cases, it is also effectively exempt from the Clean Air Act because individual wells are considered as sources, rather than entire wellfields.  Drilling companies have not been required to disclose the contents of their proprietary fracking fluids (which would enable the confirmation of drilling-related contamination in wells and streams).  Pennsylvania has been particularly hospitable to the extraction industry:  the state Oil & Gas Act explicitly prohibits a municipality from restricting aspects of extraction operations that it regulates, thus preempting the municipality's right to self-government.  

The Marcellus shale underlies 40 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, and does not distinguish between remote rural areas and densely-populated cities.  Surprisingly, the regulatory framework hardly differs either;  as a result, gas companies have been planning well-sites and leasing land within the city of Pittsburgh.  The process is dangerous wherever it occurs, but the stakes are much higher where there are more people.  Accidents like the Marcellus fire in nearby West Virginia and the blowout in Clearfield County, PA last spring (both close on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) would be catastrophic if they had occurred in a city like Pittsburgh.  Further, as our region already has air-quality problems, we need to be even more vigilant about additional sources.  In Dallas/Fort Worth, the fourth-largest city in the US, emissions from the drilling process turned out to exceed pollution from all the cars and trucks in that area.

In an attempt to catch up with the rush to frack, there has been a great deal of education and activism around this issue, both regionally and in Pittsburgh, a city that has paid more than its share of the environmental and health costs of industrial progress.  Recently, City Council member Doug Shields introduced a bill to ban gas drilling within the city, called Pittsburgh's Community Protection from Natural Gas Extraction Ordinance.  It was drafted with the help of the Community Environmental legal Defense Fund, and is based in part the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states that

  The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation 
  of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. 
  Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of 
  all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these 
  resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for 
  the benefit of all the people." 
           Article I, Section 27
The bill has a strong chance of passing;  six of nine Council members have pledged their support, which gives it a veto-proof majority.  It will face legal challenges based on preemption, however.  Another local effort is afoot which relies on zoning laws, an approach which may fare better under preemption but which may allow some drilling operations in the city.  

However, even if this legislation holds up in court (which is not a sure thing, though neither were emancipation, women's suffrage, or legislative advances in civil rights), and drilling is banned in Pittsburgh proper, we need to think about our entire watershed.  90% of Allegheny County residents get their drinking water from the Three Rivers, and tens of thousands of wells are planned upstream from the Point.  Contamination of a tiny mountain brook can certainly find its way to a municipal water intake.

At the state level, it has been an uphill battle to pass a moratorium on drilling (as has been done 
in the New York City watershed) to give residents a chance to catch their breath and learn more about the implications of signing a lease, to allow the EPA and other agencies study the environmental impacts, and for the actual engineering to be refined to reduce some of the risks.  The gas has been there for hundreds of millions of years;  it isn't going anywhere for the next ten or twenty years.  But part of Pennsylvania's gas rush is due to the drilling industry wanting to extract as much as possible before a "severance tax" is enacted.  Such a tax would return a small fraction of the gas industry's profit to the Commonwealth from which the resources are being extracted -- Pennsylvania is currently the only state without a severance tax.  Other states have severance taxes for oil, coal, gas, timber, sand, gravel, even seafood taken in coastal waters.  Such a tax could help fund environmental restoration, infrastructure repairs necessitated by all the heavy trucking, public health measures, and initiatives to help make the transition to renewable energy.  Unfortunately, both these efforts -- slowing the development of the Marcellus Shale and levying a severance tax -- will be even more difficult with the upcoming change of leadership (and the drilling companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to election campaigns).  

So should we stick to coal, which still produces the lion's share of U.S. electricity?  No;  coal brings its own extraction hazards, from coal-mining deaths, subsidence, and acid-mine drainage to the horror of mountaintop-removal mining.  And it is still true that coal is much dirtier than natural gas at the burning stage, what with fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, mercury and other heavy metals, acid rain, ground-level ozone, greenhouse gas emissions, and yet another waste disposal problem:  large quantities of toxic fly ash.  

What we do need is true-cost accounting for the energy economy (and everything else, for that matter), which factors in the real environmental and health costs of energy production and consumption.  That would enable simple market forces to favor renewable energy and reward conservation.  The cheapest energy is always the energy you don't have to generate, and the more expensive energy is, the greater the incentive to use less.  Instead of subsidizing the oil and gas industries, let the money go to fund R&D for renewables and energy efficiency.  Tax pollutants, figure out risks and hazards early on -- and require companies to pay for possible cleanups up front through bonding or other  means.  Finally, we need a cultural shift to an ethic in which stewardship and responsibility outweigh the longstanding American appetite for consumption, and common sense trumps comfort (think long johns and a sweater rather than cranking up the thermostat).  We need to be a very different kind of role model in the world than we have been up to now.

Photos of drilling sites at  Data on wells, drilling permits, and impacts at .
The author maintains an environmental events listing, including many Marcellus events, at .