The meteoric rise of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania in recent years has boosted the economies of some of the state’s smallest and most rural counties.
But for some members of law enforcement in those counties, the frenzy surrounding the Marcellus Shale has also led to rapid population swells and, by extension, more crime.
“Economic boom equals crime boom,” said Daniel J. Barrett, the district attorney of Bradford County, Pa., which borders southern New York.
However, most of those who spoke to The Legal were quick to say they didn’t blame the industry for any rise in crime, and several said the large drilling companies had been supportive of local law enforcement.
Meanwhile, industry advocates said they haven’t seen crime rise in areas where there’s a high concentration of drilling activity and that to whatever extent it happens, it’s not representative of the natural gas industry as a whole.
According to Barrett, his county, a hub of drilling activity in northern Pennsylvania, saw a 60 percent rise in drunken driving arrests by the state police and a 35 percent rise in criminal sentences in 2010. Towanda, Pa., which is located in Bradford County, saw a 50 percent increase in drunken driving arrests by borough police, Barrett said.
Barrett said he believes those increases are at least partially attributable to the gas industry workers who have come to the county in droves over the past few years.
And both local law enforcement and prosecution, including his office, are starting to feel the strain, Barrett said.
“The issue is we’ve got an expanded burden on the criminal justice system,” he said, adding that while the private housing market, for example, responded to the population uptick by expanding hotels and increasing the number of rental properties, there has been no comparable way for law enforcement and prosecution to adapt to its increased caseload.
“The hotel that makes lots of money expands, but the criminal justice system that’s taking more cases can’t look to its customers to fund an expansion,” he said.
And while Barrett said he expects his office will call for additional funding from the county government, for now his office and local law enforcement agencies are handling the larger caseload by “enduring it.”
“We’ve been spending more time on what we do,” he said. “As always, we keep looking for ways to get more work done each week and we work pretty hard at that. Now we’re having to see what else we can do.”
According to Barrett, the state police have added five more troopers to the station in Towanda.
Meanwhile, he said, “the county and local police agencies are reviewing what can be done to deal with the numbers and the courts have had to allocate more time to criminal cases.”
And while the quantity of cases is a problem in and of itself, the nature of many of those cases has made things more challenging, according to Barrett.
For example, because drilling work often requires a nomadic lifestyle, suspects, victims and witnesses can often be difficult to track down during investigations, Barrett said.
“Some of the suspects drift on to other states and have to be brought back here on extradition or retainers and frequently the victims or witnesses are people who were here but maybe shifted on to other work in Western Pennsylvania or another state,” he said.
Barrett said the increase in the county’s labor force has also led to an increase in non-English-speaking parties in criminal cases, something he admitted his office is ill-equipped to handle.
According to Barrett, the majority of the crime his county has seen recently has been drug and alcohol-related, which he believes is at least partially a product of an influx of out-of-town gas workers with idle hands.
“There’s a lot of heavy, physical work being done, so it’s brought in a workforce that is largely male and young and they don’t have the same lifestyles that occupy the spare time and energy of our residents,” he said. “They are not tending their gardens; they are not going to their son’s Little League game; they are not taking their spouses out to dinner. They have a fair amount of time to get into drinking situations.”
He said he’s seen other cases in which gas workers were accused of “everything from credit card fraud to domestic violence to street violence.”
George W. Wheeler, district attorney of neighboring Tioga County, Pa., said he’s also seen an uptick in crime, but unlike Barrett, has not felt as though his office is being spread too thin.
“We’re not to a point where we’re going to break or anything imminent’s going to happen,” he said, but added that if crime continues its upward trajectory, “there’s definitely going to be a need for more resources.”
Wheeler said DUI cases have noticeably increased over the past year and that many offenders have been found to be associated with local gas drilling operations.
But the county has also seen gas workers implicated in arguably more serious crimes, such as a recent case in which a drunken fight left someone dead.
Wheeler said his office is also investigating some sexual assault cases in which the alleged perpetrators are gas workers.
“Obviously, a lot of people have come into this area [as the result of the gas boom] and the vast majority are here probably working hard to earn a living,” he said, but added that some are simply “up to no good.”
Barrett said he believes the Marcellus Shale has attracted some workers looking to escape troubled pasts.
“I imagine there are people in Arkansas and Oklahoma saying, ‘Uncle Bill’s making great money in the gas fields in Pennsylvania, why don’t you go up there and get away from the troubles you have here?’” he said. “Those people will bring those troubles to Pennsylvania with them.”
But a spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group of natural gas drillers, said 70 percent of new hires to the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania are either from Pennsylvania or the neighboring states.
While Barrett said many recent criminal defendants in Bradford County have been confirmed to be gas workers, he acknowledged that it’s “very difficult to come up with precise numbers.”
Industry advocates, meanwhile, said they don’t believe counties with high drilling activity have experienced abnormal crime rate increases compared to counties where little or no drilling occurs.
“We have not found it to be the case that there is rampant, widespread crime in areas where natural gas development is most concentrated,” the Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesperson said, pointing out that the gas boom has done a lot of good, such as lowering unemployment and boosting tax revenues in a number of counties.
Still, some gas-industry-related crime is easy to pinpoint, such as traffic violations involving gas trucks, Barrett said.
Prosecution of those cases, however, can be pricey, Barrett said.
“Very few people take a $200 speeding ticket to common pleas court,” he said. “But an $18,000 [or] $20,000 trucking fine is a lot more likely to run into some expensive defense.”
Still, Barrett stressed that he’s not blaming the rise in crime in his county on any failures of the gas industry itself.
Instead, he said, the issue is more about statistical probability.
“I’m not anti-gas,” he said. “I’m not distributing this information as any sort of slander on the gas industry, but if you bring a couple thousand people — particularly males — to an area as temporary workers, there are going to be stresses put on law enforcement in the area.”
Barrett said the large drilling companies have been “very supportive” of local law enforcement and prosecution, often requiring their employees to submit to drug and alcohol testing, but that the smaller subcontractors they use are often less discerning in who they hire.
“The gas industry is at-will, so they can fire fairly freely,” he said. “But it isn’t that hard to get into.”
Still, not every county with burgeoning Marcellus Shale activity has seen a corresponding rise in crime .
In April, Butler County Common Pleas Court President Judge Tom Doerr told The Legal he was bracing himself for the arrival of gas workers to result in more criminal cases.
“When they come in, there is an historical tendency not to be regular, church-going, family-oriented people,” Doerr said at the time. “The people will tend to be more loners, not associated with ties in this area. Any time that happens, whether for this or any type of activity, it’s always associated with an increase in crime.”
But Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger said Monday that any such fears have yet to be substantiated.
“The drilling’s going on here but I haven’t seen anything yet, though I think we still could,” he said, explaining that drilling in Butler County is just getting under way.
“It hasn’t really taken off here yet,” he said.