Business
2:06 am
Tue March 25, 2014

Chevron Pizza 'Scandal' Leaves Small Town Divided

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 2:05 pm

More than 12,000 people from the Netherlands to San Francisco have signed a petition demanding that Chevron apologize for insulting Bobtown, Pa., after the energy giant responded to an explosion of one of its natural gas wells by giving nearby residents coupons for free pizza.

The explosion killed a young worker.

Even Stephen Colbert has taken his shots at the so-called Chevron pizza scandal by joking that the gesture was "literally the least they could possibly do." But for residents like Joann Herrington, the whole business isn't registering as a scandal. She lives just down the hill from where the natural gas well exploded.

"I just thought that they was just showing their appreciation of us standing by them with all the trucking, with all the traffic, with all the noise and stuff," Herrington says.

Chevron says that's exactly why it gave out coupons for free pizza.

In this part of Pennsylvania, the relationship between companies and communities is complicated.

Decades before natural gas drilling, coal was king. In the early 1900s, Bobtown became a thriving coal patch on the border of West Virginia. The company owned most of the land in town and built houses for the workers and their families.

The biggest mine in town closed in 1993. Now, many of the workers' houses sit abandoned, as does the old company store. Those who grew up in Bobtown still savor the rituals of a close-knit company town.

Food is a big part of Bobtown tradition, including the rites of grief: Someone dies, and neighbors bring dinner to the family.

"Maybe that's kind of why everybody was so surprised at the reaction to the pizza thing, because we're just used to that. If something happens, you give people food. I never looked at it as a negative thing, you know?" says Bonnie Gansor, who runs the local beauty salon. Her father was a coal miner.

But not everyone in Bobtown sees it that way. Julieann Wozniak thinks a multibillion-dollar corporation like Chevron could afford to do even more for the community.

"Like we'd be satisfied with pizza coupons for God's sakes," Wozniak says.

Wozniak's distrust of big energy companies runs in her blood. Her grandfather was blacklisted for helping organize the mineworkers' union in this part of Pennsylvania.

While she supports the petition urging Chevron to apologize, Wozniak says the media attention distracts from the fact that a young worker died in the explosion.

"I think an equal attention should be paid to workers' safety. I mean, that was what union organizing was about back in my grandfather's day — assuring that workers didn't die at a prodigious rate in the mines — and here we have this new industry and it's the same old, same old," she says.

A month after the blast that killed Ian McKee, 27, the cause is still under investigation. Residents in this old coal mining town say they know all too well the risks faced by workers just like him.

Copyright 2014 WHYY, Inc.. To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Last month, a Chevron natural gas well in Bobtown, Pennsylvania exploded, killing a worker. The energy giant offered free pizza as part of its apology. Opponents of fracking were angered by that move.

But as Katie Colaneri, of member station WHYY, reports many residents of the town have had a different reaction to the company's gesture.

KATIE COLANERI, BYLINE: More than 12,000 people from the Netherlands to San Francisco have signed a petition demanding Chevron apologize for insulting the residents of Bobtown, Pennsylvania. Even Stephen Colbert has taken his shots at the so-called Chevron pizza scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

STEPHEN COLBERT: So tonight, I'm giving a tip of the hat to Chevron. It's the least they could do. Literally, I think it is the least they could possibly do.

COLANERI: But for residents like Joann Herrington, the whole business isn't registering as scandal. She lives just down the hill from where the natural gas well exploded.

JOANN HERRINGTON: I just thought that they was just showing their appreciation of us; standing by them with all the trucking, with all the traffic, with all the noise and stuff.

COLANERI: Chevron says that's exactly why they gave out coupons for free pizza.

In this part of Pennsylvania, the relationship between companies and communities is complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

COLANERI: Decades before natural gas drilling, coal was king. In the early 1900s, Bobtown became a thriving coal patch on the border of West Virginia. The company owned most of the land in town and built houses for the workers and their families.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC CUTTERS)

COLANERI: Bonnie Gansor runs the local beauty salon. She's cutting Kathy Chubanic's(ph) hair. Both of their fathers and Kathy's husband were coal miners. The biggest mine in town closed in 1993. Now, many of the workers' houses sit abandoned, as does the old company store. Those who grew up in Bobtown still savor the rituals of a close-knit company town.

BONNIE GANSOR: A lot of tradition.

KATHY CHUBANIC: Yes.

GANSOR: Food and...

CHUBANIC: It's the foods, everything. The fish fries every Friday.

GANSOR: Friday, which still go on in our fire hall out here.

COLANERI: Food is also part of the rites of grief in Bobtown; someone dies and neighbors bring dinner to the family.

CHUBANIC: Maybe that's kind of why everybody was so surprised at the reaction to the pizza thing because we're just used to that. If something happens, you give people food. I never looked at it as a negative thing. You know?

COLANERI: But not everyone in Bobtown sees it that way. Julieann Wozniak thinks a multibillion-dollar corporation like Chevron could afford to do even more for the community.

JULIEANN WOZNIAK: Like, we'd be satisfied with pizza coupons for God's sakes.

COLANERI: Wozniak's distrust of big energy companies runs in her blood. Her grandfather was blacklisted for helping organize the mine workers' union in this part of Pennsylvania. While she supports the petition urging Chevron to apologize, Wozniak believes the media attention distracts from the fact that a young worker died in the explosion.

WOZNIAK: I think an equal attention should be paid to workers' safety. I mean that was what union organizing was about back in my grandfather's day, assuring that workers didn't die at a prodigious rate in the mines. And here we have this new industry and it's the same old, same old.

COLANERI: A month after the blast that killed 27-year-old Ian McKee, the cause is still under investigation. Residents in this old coal mining town say they know all too well the risks faced by workers just like him.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Colaneri in Bobtown, Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: The story comes to us from StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public media reporting project focusing on Pennsylvania's energy economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program