“Don’t drink the water here.”
Ken Dufalla cracked open two small cans of off-brand tomato juice and poured them into a tall glass. Dufalla is a passionate 70-year-old man who serves as the president of Greene County’s Izaak Walton League of America [IWLA], an organization devoted to protecting the environment. He bit into his cheeseburger and washed it down with the red liquid, which, to him, is much safer than the water in town.
He was sitting around a table at Laverne’s Place, a local diner famous for their low-priced fare, with some of his IWLA cohorts: Donna Cooper, the chapter’s treasurer, Dallas Slagle, the online content creator, and Chuck Hunnell, who helps out with media outreach. They nodded in agreement with Dufalla. Their faces were serious.
“You can’t trust bottled water either,” said Cooper, chiming in.
“Yeah,” said Dufalla. “You have to be real particular.”
“If you want to be safe, look closely at the label,” said Cooper. “It should say, ‘Purified by Reverse Osmosis.’ If it says it comes from a spring, you just have to hope there isn’t a [fracking site] next to it.”
According to the 2010 United States Census, Greene County is the eighth poorest county in Pennsylvania. In a town where the per-capita income is $20,258, the oil, gas and coal industries are sometimes depicted as saviors – a way to make things better.
Because it sits on a rich portion of Marcellus Shale, Greene County’s official website calls itself a “modern gold rush.” Billboards across the county promote the energy industry with photos of beautiful women and cute children in construction hats with dirty faces.
As for Dufalla and his fellow members of IWLA? They just aren’t buying it.
The IWLA is devoted to fighting for clean water and air. To the members of this organization like him, the well-being of the environment, and therefore the people, is jeopardized by the mining and drilling industry. But in a county where cash and energy are king, they’re the Outliers—a group of people who just don’t fit in.
Wayne Rossiter, an assistant professor of biology at Waynesburg University, never would’ve pictured himself as an advocate against the energy industry. He doesn’t consider himself a politically active person, and even when he is, he considers himself a conservative.
“I was in favor of these industries before I moved to Greene County and started living it,” he said.
Towards the center of Greene County lies Rogersville, otherwise known as Rossiter’s hometown. Rogersville is the type of town where neighbors can often be found sitting on their front porches, talking until the sun sinks down under the horizon, while their children ride their bikes through the streets or play in their backyards.
For Rossiter, Rogersville is a convenient place for his family of four. To outsiders, it might seem perfect.
But behind the smiling faces of chatty neighbors and playful children, he said there’s a hidden, unsettling terror:
“Everybody on my block drinks bottled water because they fear what’s coming out of the tap.”
As an ecologist who is passionate about the wellbeing of the environment, Rossiter said he has personally seen the damage these industries have done.
He has had students approach him with photos of local streams that are tinged fiery orange from mine drainage. He has seen his own hands shake after testing the water straight from the tap in the university lab. He has watched the numbers for metals present in that same water go off the chart on his testing kit.
In situations like these, he thinks immediately of his daughters. Lauren is five and Emily is two.
He wonders to himself, “What will their futures look like?”
As president of the local IWLA chapter, Dufalla is very busy.
“I’ve been wanting to retire from being president, but somebody keeps voting me back on,” he said, looking around the table.
“The thing is, we need him,” said Hunnel, who looks to be roughly the same age as Dufalla. His smile is sweet and full of gapped teeth. “He has the science background. He makes sense of all of the data for us.”
Dufalla said due to his involvement with the IWLA, his cell phone rings constantly. Within an hour during lunch, he received two separate phone calls.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
His phone, which was nested in the front pocket of his flannel, wouldn’t stop ringing—mainly because he didn’t know how to turn the damn thing off. He tried to just ignore it and keep talking, but Slagle, the most technologically advanced of the bunch, reached into Dufalla’s shirt pocket and hit the lock button of the phone—just so it would stop shrilling.
“See? He helps me out,” Dufalla said, pointing his thumb over to Slagle, who was grinning.
As a biology professor, Rossiter is often asked questions. Usually, they pertain to class material or an upcoming quiz. But lately, he said, students have had other concerns.
“I’ve been [at Waynesburg University] for five years and nobody ever came to my door to talk about stream pollution,” said Rossiter. “In the past two weeks, it’s happened three times.”
Since he’s somehow become the go-to guy in the Biology Department to answer questions about the impacts of the mining and drilling industry on the environment, he said he’s been trying to brush up his overall knowledge of the subject. As a result, he knows a lot about it.
But this just makes him more afraid.
“We’re stuck with something that will literally go on for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “People say it could be worse, but try telling that to your two-year-old.”
His mastery of the subject, as well as his relationships with those who have been personally involved or impacted, has inspired him to become an advocate himself. He has since been to multiple meetings of Dufalla’s Izaak Walton League chapter, and hopes to finally be able to join this year. He also helps lead a Facebook page titled, “Friends of Greene County Water.”
As an Outlier himself, Rossiter said he thinks there are more people out there that share his beliefs, but they’re too afraid to speak out.
“How many are willing to risk their own security and economic well-being to try and stop what they often know is wrong?”
Dufalla reached down under the table at Laverne’s and grabbed a large yellow file folder. It was full of evidence: statistics, charts, e-mail conversations that have been printed out, articles and lab reports in support of the IWLA’s views. The individual pages looked old and worn down—the ink seemingly faded from sunlight and the margins stained with various orange and brown splotches.
“We don’t analyze our own data,” said Dufalla, thumbing through the pile of papers. “We get it from the [Department of Enviornmental Protection]. And when we criticize it, they act like they’ve never seen it before.”
Pennsylvania’s DEP is the fuel to Dufalla’s fire. According to him, they don’t do proper testing on Greene County’s drinking water. He also said they insult his intelligence. He once read the textbook definition of the word “pure” to them during a board meeting.
“Sometimes you have to get on their level of thinking,” he said, laughing.
Dufalla holds degrees in aquatic biology and chemistry, and when he starts talking about things like trihalomethanes and radium 226 and picocuries, it’s as if he just learned all the terms and concepts yesterday.
“Everybody thinks people who live in Greene County are a bunch of ignorant hicks, but a lot of us are very intelligent,” said Dufalla, annoyed with the people from the DEP who won’t take him or the IWLA seriously. “We just live here because we like it.”
Like Hunnell said before, Dufalla’s expertise is one of the reasons why he keeps getting elected. But it’s also mainly because this is his passion. He puts out flyers and speaks at town hall meetings, among many other related events. He also has over 140 bylines in the Greene County Messenger for his “Nature’s Corner” series, which are a collection of articles containing his opinions on this very subject.
And these actions, while they are meticulous, really do work. Since becoming president, Dufalla has grown the IWLA’s Harry Enstrom Chapter from 19 members to 147. Most other IWLA chapters bring in new members with property, nice facilities or gun ranges. Dufalla said they bring in people simply with their devotion to clean water and air initiatives.
Just like Rossiter, Dufalla and the rest of the IWLA members know they’re Outliers. But that only makes them work harder to win the community over.
“We just have to keep informing and teaching people and telling them what these drilling companies are doing,” said Dufalla, wide-eyed and persistent. “We eat, breath, and sleep this stuff.”
But drink it? Never.