Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

The story of Grant Township’s fight to keep a proposed fracking waste injection well out of their community has been well documented in the local and national press.

To keep the PGE project at bay, the rural township in Indiana County passed an ordinance in 2014 banning injection wells, where fracking wastewater contaminated with chemicals is disposed of deep underground.

When the township was sued over it, Grant Township voted to enact a home rule charter in 2015, which banned injection wells and invoked a legal theory known as the rights of nature. The home rule charter was invalidated by the PA Commonwealth Court this summer, and the township is appealing to the state’s Supreme Court.

But “Hellbent,” a new short documentary, looks at the community’s fight through the lens of a special resident of the township – the eastern hellbender salamander.

Hellbenders are elusive by nature and now rare because of pollution and disruption of the habitat in their range, which includes Pennsylvania, where it is the official state amphibian.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with directors Annie Roth, a freelance science writer, and Justin Grubb, a science communicator who used to work as a biologist with hellbenders, about their film, “Hellbent.”

LISTEN to their conversation

(edited for clarity and brevity)

Kara Holsopple: The film is set in Grant Township in Indiana County, population 700. The two main characters are a daughter, Stacy Long, and her mother, Judy Wanchisn, who are opposed to a fracking waste injection well that’s proposed for the township. Who are these women?

Judy Wanchism

Judy Wanchisn outside her home in Grant Township, PA. Photo by Justin Grubb

Annie Roth: These women are really inspiring, like a tenacious mother and daughter team. They’re really engaged in their local politics. One of them is elected township supervisor. And so when they heard about this proposed project in their town, they were all over it. They were community organizing. They were doing the research, they were on the ground learning everything they could to make sure it wasn’t a threat to their community. So but they’re also just wonderful people. We got to know them pretty well when we were filming. And they’re just so fiery.

Clip from “Hellbent” film (Judy Wanchisn): I always have this one saying, “What you allow will continue.” So if we allow that, we’ll be putting in not [just] one injection well. After it, there will be two, there will be three. So we just did what we could do and said, “Hey, we’ll fight as long as we can until we run out of money or places to fight.”

Stacy Wanchism Long in creek with hellbenders

Stacy Wanchisn Long in the creek with hellbenders she helped protect. Photo by Justin Grubb

Holsopple: What were, what are their fears about the injection well?

Justin Grubb: You know, one of the biggest things about Grant Township is it’s a really rural area in Pennsylvania. And so most of the residents, I believe, get their water from well water. So they’re getting it from groundwater.  With injection wells and oil wells, and all kinds of fracking activities, they go through the water table in order to reach the oils that are in the ground. And so there’s always the risk of, you know, having your drinking water contaminated.

In addition to that, another one of their concerns is they have like this absolutely beautiful river running through their township. They’re in a really wonderful watershed. And so you go down to the creek and the river, and you’ve got crystal clear water. You’ve got fish swimming around, you’ve got kingfishers chattering along the banks. And of course, under all the rocks, you’ve got hellbenders.

They wanted to preserve the drinking water for their community, but they also wanted to preserve nature for their community and keep that ecosystem intact because that is a symbol of their community.

Holsopple: Of course, the other main character in the story is the hellbender salamander. And there’s a real sense of wonder about this species that lives in the Little Mahoning Creek watershed in the township. What’s special about the hellbender?

Grubb: For one, they’re the largest salamander in the Western Hemisphere. Hellbenders can actually grow up to be like two feet long. They’re also an extremely long-lived species. They can it’s estimated that they can live to be about 50 years old.

But, one of the cool things about hellbenders is that they essentially just breathe through their skin. And so if you ever see a picture of a hellbender, they have all these crazy folds along the sides of their bodies. That kind of motivates the name “old lasagna sides” because it looks literally like pasta, like lasagna that’s running the length of the hellbender. And essentially, what that does is it increases the surface area of their skin so they can maximize the oxygen diffusion across it into their bodies.

Scientist Matthew Kaunert

Scientist Matthew Kaunert holding an eastern hellbender in Western PA. Photo by Justin Grubb

Roth: Hellbenders go by many names like you saying lasagna sides, snot otter, grampus, river wizard. And they’re really an icon of Pennsylvania. And a lot of people go their whole lives, even in Pennsylvania, never seeing one, unless you’re a fisherman fishing.

They’re like a canary in a coal mine. If you have a good, healthy population of hellbenders, that means that your river or your watershed is doing pretty well. So to have hellbenders in your backyard is a really lucky, fantastic thing.

“They’re like a canary in a coal mine. If you have a good, healthy population of hellbenders, that means that your river or your watershed is doing pretty well.”

Grubb: Because they breathe through their skin and they’ve got such permeable bodies like Annie was saying, they’re so sensitive to pollutants in the water and that those pollutants kind of get absorbed into their skin and then that causes them to perish. And so really, if you’re going to have a spill or any issue with your water quality whatsoever, the hellbender is going to be one of the first species that are going to start disappearing.

They mostly spend their time underneath rocks. But there’s one particular time of year that’s exceptionally exciting for these hellbenders, and that’s the fall. It’s called the hellbender rut, and all the males come out, and they fight one another because they want the ability to breed.

So the females will be in the nest cavities, and they’ll be laying eggs that can lay up to like 100 – 300 eggs at a time. The males will be outside, and they’ll be fighting each other, and they’ll be rolling around, and they’ll be, you know, causing all kinds of injuries to one another. The big, bad male gets the right to go into that nest cavity and fertilize the eggs.

When he does that, the male sticks around in that nest cavity and guards the eggs until they hatch about 75 days later. So the male will voraciously guard them. If anything goes in there to bother those eggs, the male will be there to bite and move.

One of the main issues with pollutants and bad water quality is if the male is stressed, they’ll actually eat the eggs. So maintaining high water quality in those rivers is really the best way to protect the hellbender and allow them to keep breeding.

Roth: I like to add that the reason you can’t really talk about fracking without talking about hellbenders is because the areas along the Marcellus Shale where there’s the most fracking are also where the last of the hellbenders exist, and in Western Pa., the last refuges for the eastern hellbender salamander.

That’s why it’s so important to stop new fracking activity and new fracking infrastructure to protect the few places they have left. They used to be all over the East Coast. There are only little pockets of them now, and the habitats they’re in are threatened by fracking.

Holsopple: As you said, most people have never seen a hellbender, and there’s a really great scene where Stacy and Judy, her mom, get to see one for the first time with a researcher in the field. Can you talk about that scene?

Roth: From the beginning of the film, we knew there had to be a scene where everyone came together and really enjoyed the resource: the river running through Grand Township. The Little Mahoning Creek is home to hellbender salamanders, and it’s also a study site of a biologist named Matt Kaunert, who’s been studying hellbenders for a long time.

“The fact that they’re declining now because of the amount of fracking, construction…is kind of alarming.”

And across Pennsylvania, this biologist, Matt Kaunert, has installed hundreds of these nest boxes, which are these big concrete-like fake rocks, essentially that hellbender can go in. So when he comes back, he knows exactly where to look to study individual hellbenders, how much they’ve grown, and how many eggs they’re laying.

So we followed Matt with Stacy and Judy to his field site, and he pulled a hellbender out of the creek for them while he was doing his sort of scientific measurements. And it was such a wonderful moment. They really wanted to see one, they’d worked so hard to protect its habitat. And there was a really strong emotional connection at that moment. I had never seen a hellbender at that point either, and it was amazing.

Clip from “Hellbent” film (Stacy Long): Feeling her heartbeat was just right there. And the living amazing creature is in my hands, and we’re both alive together. And our mascot rules.

Map of fracking activities

A map of fracking infrastructure created by the FrackTracker Alliance. Photo by Justin Grubb

Holsopple: Why is the hellbender a symbol for this fight against gas development? The community group that formed around fighting the injection well even called themselves The East Run Hellbenders Society.

Grubb: Hellbenders have been around for 150 million years. You know, they’ve gone through a lot of environmental changes during that time. The earth is warmed and cooled, and it’s been through a lot, and they’re a resilient species. They find a way to adapt and find a way to survive,

The fact that they’re declining now because of the amount of fracking, construction, and all the issues that these areas, these habitats are facing, the fact that they’re in decline now is kind of alarming.

So at the individual level, they’re such resilient animals, and they go through a lot. And I think that’s kind of also embodied in the spirit of this group, is that they are willing to adapt and willing to keep fighting to protect [hellbender] habitat and to continue persisting in their community.

Annie Roth and Justin Grubb are directors of the film, “Hellbent.” It will be screened at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival and is available for community screenings.