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Right now, Kevin and Trudy Vetter's backyard near Searcy has been returned to some semblance of peace, but it's not going to last. The towering “spudder rig” that Chesapeake Energy set up this summer less than 150 yards from their back door — a rig that they say bombarded their house day and night with lights and noise — is gone now, but another, bigger gas rig will soon take its place.
Unlike the gas-lease-holding property owners currently featured in Chesapeake's glossy “People of the Shale” infomercial, the Vetters don't own their land. (Trudy's mother owns the property, and she isn't sharing the monthly checks from the gas company.) Because of that, the Vetters say, they're dealing with all the hassle of shale drilling, but reaping none of the rewards.
Before Chesapeake came, the Vetters say, the rural home five miles outside of Searcy where they've lived for the past three years was a tranquil oasis. It sure looks the part from the street: a well-maintained mobile home on a narrow country lane, fenced in so their dogs can roam and with a tidy chicken coop in the backyard.
Since the drilling company came, however, Trudy Vetter said the lights and noise were almost too much to bear. Though it was quiet again when the Times visited in mid-August, the Vetters fear the cacophony will return with a vengeance when the gas rig is installed.
When Trudy Vetter first talked to the Arkansas Times, the spudder rig was still in place. She said that once the rig moved in, it never stopped. “The lights come on at dusk and stay on all the way until dawn,” she said. “It's daylight 24/7. They've got two or three lights that are aimed right at our house.” During the worst of the noise, six large compressors at the rig site made it sound as if a squadron of helicopters was trying to land on the roof, at times shaking the whole house. For days on end, the Vetters didn't have to turn on lights at night to move from room to room because of the glare from the rig. Eighteen-wheelers often rumbled non-stop past their gate, carving out chugholes in the road and sometimes stacking up bumper to bumper from the drilling site to the main highway a quarter mile away. Several times an hour when the spudder rig was in operation, a device the Vetters describe as looking like a double-barreled water cannon went off at the rig with a thunderous whoosh.
Trudy Vetter said that with all the commotion, she and her husband were only able to get a few hours sleep a night. Their chickens stopped laying. Trudy has since had to give away several of her hens because they started losing their feathers.
“It was stress. They couldn't handle it,” Trudy said. “Now, I've got some that are ready to lay and they're not going to because of all the noise.”
A long-haul truck driver, Kevin Vetter said that while the spudder rig was set up, he couldn't wait to get back out on the road so he could get some sleep. He said that the trouble started as soon as crews moved in to clear the site for the rig. Though dense pine forest used to stand behind the Vetters' property, now the view is of a vast, blue-gravel void that looks something like a cross between a honky-tonk parking lot and a low budget attempt at a rocket launch pad. Kevin Vetter said that when the trees were cleared, the truck-mounted chipper brought in to mulch them regularly lobbed bits of wood onto his property.
“They were throwing chunks of wood all across our backyard, hitting our house and our chicken coop,” he said. “A piece the size of a fist almost hit my wife … I found a piece that had been thrown over the fence that was almost three feet in length. What would have happened if our dogs or our grandkids had been there?”
While the pad was under construction, the Vetters called Chesapeake with their concerns, and a representative was dispatched. The company rep said that Chesapeake would make the drilling operation as unintrusive as possible, telling the Vetters that the company had sound barriers that could be installed to block some of the noise and light.
“When they started the well drilling, he called on the phone,” Trudy Vetter said, “He wouldn't even come out. Then he said they don't have anything like [sound barriers]. They won't put anything up, he said, but what they were going to do is put up these mobile homes in front of our backyard to help block the sound.”
Mark Raines is the manager of communications for Chesapeake Energy/Arkansas. He acknowledged that a spudder rig can be loud, but said a large part of the noise and activity around the Vetters' house could be blamed on actions taken by the owner of property adjacent to their yard.
“For instance,” Raines said. “The landowner cut down a number of trees located between the home and the drill site, which served as natural noise and light reduction barriers. Even closer to the home the landowner brought in an excavation crew to dig a pond.” Both, Raines said, are noisy jobs that are separate from the drilling.