Problems related to natural gas drilling are well known here in Arkansas. Ever since companies moved in to exploit the Fayetteville Shale several years ago, residents have complained about dirty water, the number of semi trucks running up and down their small country roads, the methods used to dispose of drilling waste and the noise created by drills and compressor stations. All bad stuff for sure, but all in the name of job creation and royalty payments.
But what most people still may not realize is that if they don't own the mineral rights to their land, and the gas company does, there is nothing they can do to stop the gas company from setting up a drilling operation on the property.
Because of the way land has been acquired in Arkansas over the years, many landowners own only the surface rights on their property. But Arkansas law makes the mineral estate dominant to the surface estate. Otherwise, those who hold the mineral rights would never be able to extract the minerals. It's a concept that's becoming more and more familiar to Paul and Ashley Yanke.
"Chesapeake [Energy] came out here about two and a half months ago and said, 'We're putting a pad there,' " says Paul Yanke. "So I asked him, in not so eloquent terms, 'So you're here to tell me we're effed?' And he said, 'Yes, we're putting the pad right there.' "
"Right there" was in the middle of a horse ranch near Mount Vernon, in Faulkner County. It's beautiful land, with long sloping green fields, big old oak trees and a couple of streams running through the middle of it all. The couple bought the land seven years ago and built their dream house, along with a slowly but steadily growing business taking care of horses and rehabilitating their injuries. It's peaceful and quiet, which is exactly why they bought it. Or at least it used to be.
"We have over a million dollars worth of horses in that pasture that aren't ours," Paul Yanke says. "Most of these horses have been in stalls or on the road their entire lives. We have one that's 17 years old that needs some mental rehabilitation. This is a resort for them. So it's going to be no more resort. It would be like sitting at the bar at Club Med and have someone hammering something right next to you."
The Yankes are worried about what damage might ultimately be done to their property, but most of all they're worried about their business. What was a quiet place for the animals has turned into what the Yankes call a "war zone."
"Do you think if people that had these expensive horses here knew, do you think they would want their horses around this?" Ashley Yanke asks. "There are always people out there and there's always something going on. That's why these horses are here: to get away from that."
The Yankes did what they could to keep Chesapeake off their land, hiring a lawyer and trying to at least come away with some concessions. It was a losing battle. After being told by their attorney that signing the contract offered by Chesapeake was their only option, Paul Yanke said his wife did so reluctantly and while in tears.
Bulldozers rolled onto their property about two weeks ago and within a matter of days a rig was up on their land complete with all the trailers, trucks and traffic that go along with it.
Litter has also become a problem. Paper fast-food bags, Coke bottles and aluminum cans now line the road leading to the gas well pad, prompting one neighbor to put up a cardboard sign that read, "Pick your trash up fucking gas field!"
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