An artifact of Marcellus drilling's disruptive glory days

JERSEY SHORE, Pa. - Blake and Gerlinde Trimble lived for nearly 30 years in the Riverdale Mobile Home Park outside this curiously named borough. But four years after they were evicted to make way for the shale-gas boom, they hardly recognize the place.

"I'm having some trouble getting my bearings," Blake Trimble, 61, said as the couple wandered through a grassy field where their trailer once stood, identifying traces of raspberries, blueberries, and honeysuckle they had planted. It was their first visit since 2012, when security guards and the state police told residents that after they packed up, they couldn't come back.

"This is weird," said Gerlinde Trimble, 55. "They should have left us alone here."

Of all the tangible reminders of the Marcellus Shale drilling slowdown, about a dozen vacant acres surrounding an operating water-pumping station may be among the more poignant monuments to the fizzled bonanza.

In 2012, two Philadelphia companies formed a joint venture to build a pipeline to supply water from the nearby West Branch Susquehanna River to hydraulic-fracturing operations. The pipeline, which eventually stretched 56 miles, would replace thousands of diesel trucks that hauled water to drilling sites, while rewarding its investors with a handsome return.

That didn't work out so well.

The trailer park's owner neglected to inform its residents that the property was changing hands. The untidy chore of evicting about three dozen families fell to the joint-venture partners, Aqua America Inc. of Bryn Mawr and PVR Partners of Radnor.

The partnership offered each family a $2,500 bonus to clear out, more than the law required, which was zero. But some residents said they couldn't afford to move. The Trimbles' trailer was so old that it was no longer roadworthy. They left it behind, and it was demolished.

The residents' plight attracted the attention of anti-drilling activists, who flocked to Jersey Shore to erect barricades denouncing villainous corporations for evicting poor families for fracking and profits.

Eventually, with the aid of a public-interest lawyer, the holdouts reached a settlement, the activists moved on, and the partnership built its pumping station and pipeline.

The $109 million project was designed to pump up to three million gallons a day, based on the industry's needs in 2011. But like many shale investments that were built on unsustainable expectations, the Aqua-PVR joint venture has suffered from the dramatic slowdown in drilling, which has taken a toll on a wider universe of suppliers.

Late last year, Aqua said the joint-venture partners decided that, because of sustained low energy prices, "this downturn no longer appeared to be temporary and instead may be a long-term condition."

The partners wrote off $67.3 million of the value of their investment.

Aqua, whose Bryn Mawr headquarters was targeted by protesters in 2012, took a $33 million impairment charge as minority share of the loss.

The 51 percent majority owner, PVR Partners, has been absorbed into the giant Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas company for which the loss is so minuscule that it is buried in financial statements as an anonymous "unconsolidated affiliate."

For former residents, the loss was not so easy to write off.

"You ripped up three dozen families for that?" asked Nick Noltee, a former Riverdale resident.

Noltee, 37, who lives in a 14-by-70-foot trailer with his parents and his 12-year-old son, said his family accepted the venture's $2,500 offer to move out by the deadline, even though the money covered only part of the cost of towing the trailer and setting it up in a new location.

His mother, Linda, who is the only household member currently employed, borrowed from her 401(k) retirement account to cover the moving costs. She said she will pay off the loan this year. The expense was a setback for her retirement plans.

The Noltees, along with the Trimbles and about six other Riverdale families, ended up at the Harvest Moon Mobile Home Park, four miles down the highway in Linden, Pa. They pay about $50 more a month at the new site, where the monthly rent is $315, water and sewer included.

Nick Noltee is resentful of his former landlord, who got $550,000 for the 12.5-acre Riverdale site in a flood zone.

He also has hard feelings for some of his neighbors who held out.

"The people who trespassed and stayed past the deadline got $12,500, and we only got $2,500," Noltee said. "It's not fair."

Sam Lehman, 48, who took the $2,500 and moved his trailer to Harvest Moon, is resigned but not embittered by the experience.

"What are you going to do?" he asked. "It's just part of a game. It's their game. We didn't have much say in it."

Lehman, who works in a fabrication shop and supports his daughter and her boyfriend in the trailer, remembers the protests and eviction as intense. Most of the activists were young people from out of state.

"They were nice people, and fighting for us," he said.

Riverdale's former residents reckon that the attention drawn by the protesters helped bring about a settlement.

"The water company didn't want to have bad press," said Blake Trimble, who added that he and Gerlinde needed all their settlement money to buy a used trailer in Harvest Moon.

Some former Riverdale residents have fared worse than others. One posted an account on a crowd-sourcing site about her hardship and unemployment. Another who moved to Harvest Moon apparently took his own life recently, and his neighbors say they will never know how much his depression was attributable to the upheaval.

"It really destroyed a lot of people," said Jim Noltee, 61, Nick's father.

They have mixed feelings about the gas industry, which doesn't seem to have ushered in the promised age of prosperity. Jim Noltee said the eviction soured him entirely: "I've been disgusted with it ever since."

The pump station was supposed to be an environmental improvement, reducing traffic and emissions in rural areas. Like a lot of utility infrastructure, the pumps operate by remote control, so nobody works at the location. It's just a silent building surrounded by a fence.

"I don't get the pump station," Gerlinde Trimble said. "What was the point of it?"

amaykuth@phillynews.com

215-854-2947@maykuth