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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 4:03 PM EST

When Helen Slottje, a 44-year-old lawyer, saw "Drilling 101" at a Shaleshock forum in 2009, she was "horrified." She and her husband David had abandoned their corporate law careers to move to Ithaca in 2000. "We traded corporate law practice in Boston for New York State and less stressful work—or so we thought. New York's beauty seemed worth it."

When news reports about fracking started appearing, the Slottjes thought about leaving. "I kept saying, ‘What'll happen if fracking comes to New York? We'll have to move.'" "Drilling 101" made her reconsider. Then she visited Dimock, Pennsylvania, 70 miles southeast of Ithaca and that sealed the deal.

By 2009, Dimock, a picturesque rural village, had become synonymous with fracking hell. Houston-based Cabot Oil & Energy had started drilling there the year before. Shortly after, people started to notice that their drinking water had darkened. Some began experiencing bouts of dizziness and headaches; others developed sores after bathing in what had been their once pure water.

For a while, Cabot trucked water to Dimock's residents, but stopped in November when a judge declined to order the company to continue deliveries. The Environmental Protection Agency was going to start water service to Dimock in the first week of January, but withdrew the offer, claiming further water tests were needed. Outraged New Yorkers organized water caravans to help their besieged neighbors.

"When I went to Dimock," says Slottje, "I saw well drilling, huge trucks, muddy crisscrossing pipeline paths cutting through the woods, disposal pits, sites of diesel spills, dusty coatings on plants, noisy compressor stations—you name it. So I decided to put my legal background to work to prevent the same thing from happening where I lived. We'd been corporate lawyers before. We know the sort of resources the energy corporations have. The grassroots people have nothing. And they have this behemoth coming at them."

In May 2009, the Slottjes became full-time pro bono lawyers for the movement. One of their first services was to reinterpret New York's constitutional home rule provision, which had allowed local ordinances to trump state laws until 1981. In that year, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Mineral Resources exempted gas corporations from local restrictions.

"I spent thousands of hours on the research," says Slottje. "And then last August we were brave enough to go public and say the emperor has no clothes." The Slottjes' reinterpretation of the provision was simple enough: the state regulates the gas industry; towns and villages can't regulate it, but what they can do is keep its operations off their land through the use of zoning ordinances.

 

Zoning Out Fracking

The town of Ulysses is nestled in the heart of the state's burgeoning wine country in the Finger Lakes region. In 2010, a grassroots group, Concerned Citizens of Ulysses (CCU), asked the Slottjes to speak with members of the town board, which controls Ulysses's planning and its zoning laws.

The board members opposed fracking, but couldn't see how to prevent it. While the board talked with the Slottjes, CCU activists drafted a petition. If enough registered Ulysses voters signed on, the board would have the popular backing it needed for declaring a ban. Ann Furman, a retired schoolteacher who helped found CCU and write the document, recalls, "The petition was pretty specific: ‘We the undersigned want to ban hydrofracking in the town of Ulysses.'" A six-month-long door-to-door campaign followed.

"There was a lot of education going on in Ulysses at the town board and at forums, as we were going house to house. Even people who would sign the petition would say, ‘Tell me a little bit more about it.' And in that next 15 to 20 minutes you would do a whole lot more education." In the end, 1,500 out of 3,000 registered voters signed. This past summer the Ulysses town board voted to ban fracking.

Middlefield, 119 miles east of Ulysses and home of the grassroots group Middlefield Neighbors, enacted a similar ban. So did Dryden, 22 miles east of Ulysses. An out-of-state gas corporation that leased land for drilling in Dryden is suing to get the zoning ban declared illegal. A Middlefield landowner is suing that town on the same basis. The cases are pending.

Meanwhile bans proliferate. Six upstate New York counties have zoned out fracking, including Binghamton, which declared a ban in December. An organic brewery in Cooperstown, the Ommegang, mobilized 300 other businesses, including Cooperstown's Chamber of Commerce, to support more bans in the region.

Chefs for the Marcellus, a group headed by Food Network star Mario Batali, has urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking at the state level. "Call it home-rule democracy," says Adrian Kuzminsky, chair of the Cooperstown-based organization Sustainable Otsego. "If local communities can seize control over their destinies, a giant step will have been taken toward a sustainable future."

This past October, activists were preparing to take on the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). That agency finds itself caught in a perpetual conflict of interest: on the one hand, protecting the environment; on the other, regulating the industries that exploit it. In fact, the 1981 legislation exempting gas corporations from New York's home rule had been written by Greg Sovas, then head of DEC's Division of Mineral Resources.

Guidelines for the hydraulic fracturing industry were first issued by the department in late 2009 and rejected in 2010 under withering public criticism. Then-Governor David Paterson declared a moratorium on fracking in the state pending DEC revisions. Revised guidelines appeared this past September in the form of 1,537 mind-numbing pages bearing the title, "Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement," aka the "SGEIS."

 

A World of Water

In study groups and online tutorials, activists prepared to write letters of commentary and protest to the Department of Environmental Conservation and Governor Cuomo, and to speak out in public hearings the department was organizing around the state. Thousands attended these. Pro-gas speakers predictably stuck to the twin themes of the jobs fracking would produce and the economic renewal it would bring about.

Opponents included an impressive line up of scientists (among them Robert Howarth, co-author of last year's landmark Cornell University study, which established the staggering greenhouse-gas footprint of fracking), engineers, lawyers, and other professionals. A letter sent to Cuomo by 250 New York State physicians and medical professionals deplored the DEC's failure to attend to the public health impacts of fracking.

Part-time Cooperstown resident James "Chip" Northrup, a retired manager for Atlantic Richfield (ARCO, America's seventh largest oil corporation), in one public agency hearing called the performances of pro-gas speakers "disgraceful" and the SGEIS "junk science." Citing an industry study that shows 25 percent of frack wells leak after five years and 40 percent after eight, he said, "Everybody in the industry knows that gas drilling pollutes groundwater… It's not... whether they leak. It's how much."

As 2012 began, the movement was demanding that the department withdraw the SGEIS. In mid-January, DEC spokesperson Lisa King said that once all the comments are tallied, "We expect the total to be more than 40,000." Earlier, agency officials had told the New York Times they didn't know of any other issue that had received even 1,000 comments. (Ten thousand letters were mailed from the Catskills' Sullivan County alone on January 11th, just before the commentary deadline.) Gannett's Albany Bureau has reported that anti-drilling submissions outnumber those of drilling supporters by at least ten to one.

Sustainable Otsego's website lists 52 serious and fatal flaws in the document. A letter posted at the website of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database service in Ithaca, elaborately details 17 major SGEIS flaws. By January 10th, when the Toxics Targeting letter was sent to the DEC and the Governor, it had more than 22,000 signatures representing government officials, professional and civic organizations, and individuals. (The DEC counts this letter with its signatures as only one of the 40,000 comments.)

At a November 17th rally in Trenton, New Jersey, to celebrate the postponement of a vote on allowing fracking in the Delaware River Basin, Pennsylvania and New York activists pledged future civil disobedience. "The broad coalition of anti-frackers has been operating on multi-levels all at once," says Sustainable Otsego's chair, Adrian Kuzminsky. If the governor approves the SGEIS "there will be massive disillusionment with the state government and Cuomo, and from what I'm hearing there will be ‘direct action' and civil disobedience in some quarters."

At the moment, in fact, the anti-fracking movement in the state only seems to be ramping up. Should the government approve the SGEIS in its current form, lawsuits are planned against the Department of Environmental Conservation. And a brief "Occupy DEC" event that took place in the state capital, Albany, on January 12th may have set the tone for the future. Meanwhile some activists, turning their backs on established channels, are already working on legislation that would criminalize fracking.

This past November, Sandra Steingraber told a crowd of hundreds of activists why she was donating her $100,000 Heinz Award to the movement. The money, she said, "enables speech, emboldens activism, and recognizes that true security for our children lies in preserving the... ecology of our planet."

She raised a jar of water. "This is what my kids are made of. They are made of water. They are made of the food that is grown in the county that I live in. And they are made of air. We inhale a pint of atmosphere with every breath we take... And when you poison these things, you poison us. That is a violation of our human rights, and that is why this is the civil rights issue of our day."

Ellen Cantarow's work on Israel/Palestine has been widely published for over 30 years. Her long-time concern with climate change has led her to explore, at TomDispatch, the global depredations of oil and gas corporations. Many thanks to Robert Boyle, sometimes called "the father of environmentalism on the Hudson," for sharing his expertise for this article. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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