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Fracking: It's All About the Water

People get sick wherever gas companies start fracking. It starts with the groundwater.

| Mon Jan. 23, 2012 3:03 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

This is a story about water, the land surrounding it, and the lives it sustains. Clean water should be a right: there is no life without it. New York is what you might call a "water state." Its rivers and their tributaries only start with the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware, and the Susquehanna. The best known of its lakes are Great Lakes Erie and Ontario, Lake George, and the Finger Lakes. Its brooks, creeks, and trout streams are fishermen's lore.

Far below this rippling wealth there's a vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale. Stretching through southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, the shale contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life that died 400 million years ago. Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a nuclear bomb to unleash it. That idea died, but it's been reborn in the form of a technology invented by Halliburton Corporation: high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—"fracking" for short.

Fracking uses prodigious amounts of water laced with sand and a startling menu of poisonous chemicals to blast the methane out of the shale. At hyperbaric bomb-like pressures, this technology propels five to seven million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water a mile or so down a well bore into the shale.

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Up comes the methane—along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals and other substances that were also in the shale, among them radioactive elements and carcinogens. There are 400,000 such wells in the United States. Surrounded by rumbling machinery, serviced by tens of thousands of diesel trucks, this nightmare technology for energy release has turned rural areas in 34 US states into toxic industrial zones.

Shale gas isn't the conventional kind that lit your grandmother's stove. It's one of those "extreme energy" forms so difficult to produce that merely accessing them poses unprecedented dangers to the planet. In every fracking state but New York, where a moratorium against the process has been in effect since 2010, the gas industry has contaminated ground water, sickened people, poisoned livestock, and killed wildlife.

At a time when the International Energy Agency reports that we have five more years of fossil-fuel use at current levels before the planet goes into irreversible climate change, fracking has a greenhouse gas footprint larger than that of coal. And with the greatest water crisis in human history underway, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of purposely-poisoned fresh water into the Earth. As for the trillions (repeat: trillions) of gallons of wastewater generated by the industry, getting rid of it is its own story. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes: eleven in Ohio alone (normally not an earthquake zone) over the past year.

But for once, this story isn't about tragedy. It's about a resistance movement that has arisen to challenge some of the most powerful corporations in history. Here you will find no handsomely funded national environmental organizations: some of them in fact have had a cozy relationship with the gas industry, embracing the industry's line that natural gas is a "bridge" to future alternative energies. (In fact, shale gas suppresses the development of renewable energies.)

 

New York's "Little Revolution"

While most anti-fracking activists have been responding to harms already done, New York State's resistance has been waging a battle to keep harm at bay. Jack Ossont, a former helicopter pilot, has been active all his life in the state's environmental and social battles. He calls fracking "the tsunami issue of New York. It washes across the entire landscape."

Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, terms the movement "the biggest since abolition and women's rights in New York." This past November, when the Heinz Foundation awarded Steingraber $100,000 for her environmental activism, she gave it to the anti-fracking community.

Arriving in the state last October, I discovered a sprawl of loosely connected, grassroots groups whose names announce their counties and their long-term vision: Sustainable Otsego, Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, Chenango Community Action for Renewable Energy, Gas-Free Seneca, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Catskill Mountainkeeper. Of these few (there are many more), only the last has a paid staff. All the others are run by volunteers.

"There are so many people working quietly behind the scenes. They're not in the news, they're not doing it to get their names in the paper. It's just the right thing to do," says Kelly Branigan, co-founder of the group Middlefield Neighbors. Her organization helped spearhead one of the movement's central campaigns: using local zoning ordinances to ban fracking. "In Middlefield, we're nothing special. We're just regular people who got together and learned, and reached in our pockets to go to work on this. It's inspiring, it's awesome, and it's America—its own little revolution."

Consider this, then, an environmental Occupy Wall Street. It knows no divisions of social class or political affiliation. Everyone, after all, needs clean water. Farmers and professors, journalists and teachers, engineers, doctors, biologists, accountants, librarians, innkeepers, brewery owners. Actors and Catskill residents Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger have joined the movement. Josh Fox, also of the Catskills, has brought the fracking industry and its victims to international audiences through his award-winning documentary film Gasland. "Fracking is a pretty scary prospect," says Wes Gillingham, planning director for Catskill Mountainkeeper. "It's created a community of people that wouldn't have existed before."

Around four years ago, sheltered by Patterson's stay against fracking, little discussion groups began in people's kitchens, living rooms, and home basements. At that time, only a few activists were advocating outright bans on fracking: the rest of the fledgling movement was more cautiously advocating temporary moratoria.

Since then a veritable ban cascade has washed across the state. And in local elections last November, scores of anti-fracking candidates, many of whom had never before run for office, displaced pro-gas incumbents in positions as town councilors, town supervisors, and county legislators. As the movement has grown in strength and influence, gas corporations like ExxonMobil and Conoco Philips and Marcellus Shale corporations like Chesapeake Energy have spent millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying, and political campaign contributions to counter it.

 

Shale Shock

Autumn Stoscheck, a young organic apple farmer from the village of Van Etten just south of New York's Finger Lakes, had none of this in mind in 2008 when she invited a group of neighbors to her living room to talk about fracking. She'd simply heard enough about the process to be terrified. Like other informal fracking meetings that were being launched that year, this was a "listening group." Its ground rules: listen, talk, but don't criticize. "There was a combination of landowners, farmers like us, and young anarchist-activists with experience in other movements," she told me. Stoscheck's neighbors knew nothing about fracking, but "they were really mistrustful of the government and large gas corporations and felt they were in collusion."

Out of such neighborhood groups came the first grassroots anti-fracking organizations. Stoscheck and her colleagues called theirs Shaleshock. One of its first achievements was a PowerPoint presentation, "Drilling 101," which introduces viewers to the Marcellus Shale and what hydraulic fracturing does to it.

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