New Film Tells Story of Community’s Fight Against Fracking Waste
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In this article, FracTracker’s Ted Auch, Ph.D., discusses “Hellbent,” a new documentary slated for release in August 2022 that tells the story of a small town in Pennsylvia and a species on the brink of extinction that are unlikely allies in the fight for a clean, livable environment.
When I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, in 2002 to pursue a master’s degree at Virginia Tech looking at the impacts of mountaintop removal and strip mining, I began hearing stories about a creature that seemed like something out of a J.R.R. Tolkien book. These stories told of a giant salamander that can grow to more than two feet in length, and respires through slimy, wrinkled flaps of skin along the sides of its body. Sometimes nicknamed the snot otter or lasagna lizard, it is evident in the fossil record as far back as 160 million years ago, and is probably the coolest organism throughout all of Appalachia: North America’s largest amphibian, the hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis).
Ever since, I’ve had my eye out for what herpetologist James Petranka describes as the hellbender salamander’s ideal habitat in hope of seeing one: “large, flat rocks in swift, shallow waters.” These types of waters must also be very high quality, cold, swift-running, and with very little sediment loads, while also ideally supporting thriving populations of the hellbender’s favorite prey: the crayfish. However, the salamander’s habitat has been under constant threat: first, by logging and, more recently, by the processes involved in hydraulic fracturing, namely the tremendous buildout of vast networks of natural gas pipelines that go over and under many of the once-pristine streams and creeks relied upon by the hellbender.
When I first started working at FracTracker, I met Jill Hunkler, a local activist and seventh-generation Ohio Valley resident who spoke about her experiences in the Captina Creek Watershed in the southeast Ohio counties of Belmont and Monroe. This small watershed remains one of Ohio’s best examples of what once was, but it has been under constant threat by acid mine drainage and now sits within the heart of the natural gas boom in Ohio’s portion of the Marcellus and Utica Shale region. Captina Creek was the first place I saw a nesting pair of Bald Eagles in Ohio and too many Pileated Woodpeckers to count. It really is a special place, but the more you visit, the more you see it changing for the worse and I can’t help but wonder what all the pipelines have done to the hellbender population. I’ve never seen one in person and my bucket list won’t be complete until I have, but if you find yourself in watersheds like the Captina or similarly beautiful watersheds throughout the Ohio River Valley, you, too, can try to glimpse the salamander in its natural habitat and imagine how these slimy creatures once numbered in the hundreds per mile of stream, fluidly trolling crystal clear waters looking for their next meal or their next mate.
Hellbender Population in Decline
However, seeing a hellbender in its natural habitat is an increasingly rare opportunity. Unfortunately, this species now sits on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species (and is inexcusably not on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species list), even though researchers like Missouri state Herpetologist Jeff Briggler, Lycoming College’s Peter Petokas, and The Ohio State University’s Greg Lipps have documented as much as 82% declines in the species population throughout their geographies between the 1990s and 2010s. Estimates from south-central Missouri and Arkansas put the Ozark Hellbender’s population at 8,000 at one point, but now there are fewer than 600 which prompted the US FWS to list the Ozark Hellbender, but not the Appalachian Hellbender, as federally endangered back in 2011.
The good news is that Briggler and Lipps’ teams have been instrumental in buying the Hellbender time to recover, but if states like Missouri and Ohio and the US FWS don’t begin to push back significantly on habitat destruction and prioritize restoration, Lipps predicted that the species would be functionally extinct by 2050 along with countless other amphibians which make up 21% of all species of concern according to a recent report by the IUCN. As Lipps and Briggler pointed out, Hellbender rearing and release efforts have been hugely successful, but if there are not suitable places to release them then much of that effort will be for naught.
Original Range of the Hellbender Salamander
This interactive map looks at the Eastern Hellbender Salamander’s original range along with existing oil and gas infrastructure associated with the hydraulic fracturing process.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
This identification and stewardship of suitable habitats to reestablish the hellbender is one issue I find myself thinking about when I travel across Appalachia and see the thousands of miles of pipelines, and acre upon acre of frack pad, gas plants, and compressor stations. It’s important for rural and urban communities alike to understand that the decline of the hellbender population is directly linked to a decline in access to clean water. As the president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Student Leadership Council (SLC) Abby Hebenton said in supporting Gene Yaw’s Pennsylvania Senate Bill 9, which designated the Eastern Hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibia, “Clean water is important for humans and amphibians, and if we don’t act on making our waterways as clean as they can be, we will all suffer,” or put more scientifically by Saint Louis Zoo curator of herpetology and aquatics Jeff Ettling, “Capillaries near the surface of the hellbender’s skin absorb oxygen directly from the water — as well as hormones, heavy metals and pesticides. If there is something in the water that is causing the hellbender population to decline, it can also be affecting the citizens who call the area home.” Just like canaries were once used in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and related toxic gasses before they impacted humans, now, we have a species that is manifesting all the symptoms of a system on the brink. We should be taking this warning seriously and acting vigilantly.
That is part of the message being delivered in a new documentary called “Hellbent” produced by Matthew Podolsky and directed by Justin Grubb and Annie Roth (with yours truly playing a small cameo role). However, the real stars of this amazing film are the aforementioned hellbender, Ohio State PhD candidate Matthew Kaunert, and courageous residents of Grant Township, like Judy Wanchisn and her daughter Stacy, who is the Supervising Vice-Chair of the town and has embraced the hellbender as part of her fight for her community’s water in the face of a proposal by Pennsylvania General Energy to build a Class II fracking waste disposal well near the town’s only source of freshwater, the Little Mahoning Creek, which also happens to be home to one of the last remaining populations of hellbender in Pennsylvania.
Anyone who is reading this is probably familiar with the perils of fracking waste production, transport, and disposal, but what you might not be familiar with is the fact that in states like Pennsylvania, the US EPA has regulatory primacy over injection wells. But as Grant Township resident Judy Wanchisn says in the film, “Profit motives are more important than the protective motives.” This fight got so bad for Stacy, Judy, and others that they began calling the EPA “Every Permit Approved.” However, in March 2020, these brave individuals won a major victory when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection enforced the first-ever local Rights of Nature law and revoked PGE’s permit to build the toxic fracking waste disposal well.
Judy Wanchisn says it best, “We feel that we should be able to speak for the hellbender salamander, plant, water, whatever… We need to give a voice to the voiceless.”
Slated for release August 2022, “Hellbent” tells the story of the simultaneous struggle for community Home Rule and the need for muscular rights of nature laws to push back against the bullying tactics of the Oil & Gas industry nationwide. This is a wonderful tale of persistence and a deep local connection between humans and their natural environment that resulted in a significant loss for the Oil & Gas industry. At a time when there is so much bad news, this documentary allows us to celebrate a small town outside Pittsburgh, PA, where the power of the human spirit and a species on the brink of extinction are unsuspecting allies in the fight for a clean, livable environment. In the words of the Sioux or Oceti Sakowin people, Mni Wiconi (“water is life”), and that life is more valuable than the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry.
The Take Away
Healthy ecosystems are vitally important for humans and other species alike. Amphibians, such as hellbender salamander, rely on clean aquatic environments that are being threatened by the oil and gas industry. This connection between living organisms and their environment is a main theme explored in the new documentary, “Hellbent,” slated for release in August 2022.
References & Where to Learn More
- “Hellbent” Documentary
- Google Scholar Results for Hellbender Salamander Research
- IUCN Red List Entry for the Hellbender Salamander
- NPR’s “Snot Otters Get A Second Chance in Ohio”
- The Nature Conservancy’s Animals We Protect for the Hellbender Salamander
- Notes on Salamanders with the Description of the a New Species of Cryptobranchus, by Arnold B. Gorman, 1943, January 26, Occasional Papers of the Museum of Zoology
- Salamanders of the United States and Canada, by James W. Petranka
- World’s First Captive Breeding of Ozark Hellbenders, Science Daily, 2011, December
- Pennsylvania General Assembly Senate Bill 9, 2019-2020 “designating the Eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) as the official amphibian of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
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