Beyond the Gahagan Pad and across Ten Mile Creek, in the woods of Marianna, Christina DiGiulio extended a camera from the passenger seat of a white SUV, aiming its lens toward a mass of pipes and valves at an Equitrans Midstream compressor station. The field scientist flipped out the screen, revealing a spectrum of oranges and blues and reds — it was a FLIR camera, a $90,000 piece of technical equipment used to detect otherwise invisible emissions. On the screen, the facility lit up.

A steady plume of royal blue emissions drifted up from the compressors against a red thermal background on the camera’s display. They stretched skyward and drifted away in the breeze.

A FLIR camera shows emissions in blue rising from a drilling rig in Washington County on August 29, 2023.

FLIR — for Forward-Looking Infrared — cameras are often used by operators or regulators to detect leaks, but DiGiulio, who works with the health advocacy organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, uses the camera to document invisible emissions in communities encroached by industry. 


Read more: ‘It’s just too close’: People living near fracking suffer as Pa. and local governments fail to buffer homes


The proximity of gas drilling to homes and schools is regulated by the state, and legislative efforts this year to increase buffers have stalled. Many industrial emissions are invisible, and their effects aren’t fully known. A FLIR camera, though, can make the stakes much more tangible.

“When I see something, I know it’s a hydrocarbon,” DiGiulio said. She operated similar chemical detection equipment for the U.S. Department of Defense as an analytical chemist before turning her attention to the shale fields. That day, she and Jodi Borello, an organizer in Washington County with the Center for Coalfield Justice [CCJ], had traversed the hills of Washington County, stopping frequently to image frack pads, compressor stations and other gas infrastructure next to schools, parks and residential neighborhoods.

Christina DiGiulio hikes through the woods and images a well pad with a FLIR camera near Washington, Pennsylvania, on August 29, 2023.

The FLIR image can pick up hydrocarbon emissions at a single source or facility, but it can’t tell methane from benzene, and it can’t detect how much is being emitted. Regardless, the images raise questions about the cumulative effect of invisible industrial pollution on communities like Marianna, in Washington County’s shale country.

“It’s right next to people’s houses,” DiGiulio said. “Over a long period of time that’s direct contact. It’s cumulative.”


Read more: Study on health benefits of Neville Island coke plant closure raises questions about Clairton


FLIR imaging is in part a way to validate the experiences of those communities. By visualizing the emissions, DiGiulio is hoping to help people to better trust their bodies, and to show that their symptoms could have a culprit. “It's like trying to train people to not be so desensitized to it anymore.”

A FLIR camera shows invisible hydrocarbon emissions rising from an Equitrans Midstream compressor station in Marianna on August 29, 2023.

Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Center for Coalfield Justice join eight other organizations in advocating for increased setback distances in Pennsylvania. A coalition of organizations advocates for a minimum buffer of 3,281 feet between fracking pads and residences, and greater distances for ethane cracker plants, compressors and natural gas processing plants, based on a number of studies examining health impacts. 


Read more: Inside Pennsylvania’s monitoring of the Shell petrochemical complex


A state law would go a long way in disrupting the exposure that many Pennsylvanians experience but might not see when fracking comes to their backyard, DiGiulio said. But even a new regulation wouldn’t protect communities from the accumulation of pollutants in the most densely drilled parts of the state.

Representatives of the natural gas industry, and some legislators, have said that setbacks would amount to a de facto ban on new drilling.

Photographs by Quinn Glabicki.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on instagram and X @quinnglabicki.

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...