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The Fight Against Fracking

How New Yorkers won a moratorium on a drilling practice that threatens their lives, homes, and water.
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Gasland documentary still

Filmmaker Josh Fox watches a resident demonstrate the effects of hydrofracking chemicals on his water.

Photo courtesy of Gasland

When politicians refer to natural gas as a "clean" alternative to oil and coal, they seldom mention a commonly used technique called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

But in New York, residents were concerned enough about the long-term environmental, health, and economic fallout of fracking that they convinced the state Senate to institute a moratorium on the practice. In a 48-9 bipartisan landslide, state leaders voted to prohibit fracking for nine months so they can evaluate the environmental and health impacts of the practice before deciding how to continue.

"It was absolutely the result of thousands of citizens weighing in with their senators,” said Katherine Nadeau, director of the Water and Natural Resources Program for Environmental Advocates of New York. “When that many people call, write, and show up, it gets results. The other side was spending obscene amounts of money, but the more compelling argument was that there have been serious tragic repercussions to drilling."

Those repercussions have included fatalities from exploding wells, 30-mile stretches of streams without any living organisms, exploding tap water, diesel fuel spills, sick children and adults, plummeting property values, farmland that is no longer tillable, the destruction of vast swaths of once-beautiful scenery, along with many other documented cases of harm to people and the planet.

Gasland's scene of a man lighting the water coming from his kitchen tap on fire has become iconic of fracking's dangers to drinking water.

Fracking involves blasting through shale rock to release the gas trapped deep below ground. Each fracked well uses between 3 and 8 million gallons of clean water—usually trucked in from rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and other fresh-water sources—that is then mixed with sand and a toxic stew of chemicals that drilling companies are not required to disclose. But Theo Colborn, a noted endocrinologist and water issues expert, has identified many of them as carcinogins, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors. They include acrylonitrite, ammonium bisulfite, benzene, boric acid, ethylbenzene, 5-chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazotin-3-one, formaldehyde, monoethanolamine, styrene, tetrachlorethalene, toluene, and xylene.

Much of the waste fluid is left underground, where these toxins have affected groundwater drinking supplies in many states.

First-Time Activists in “A Fight for Our Lives”

Many fighting this battle had never before been involved in political issues. But after seeing the impacts of fracking around the country or in their own daily lives, they got active.

They organized and attended forums, panels, meetings, and rallies—sometimes alongside public figures like actor Mark Ruffalo and singer-songwriter Pete Seeger. Day after day, thousands of people called state senate and assembly offices to pressure for the moratorium. Achieving it was a first-round victory beyond expectations—a small but important win.

With their air, water, land, properties, communities, and health on the line, residents have made the campaign a priority, often sacrificing family time, leisure time, and sleep to keep abreast of developments and share information. "The petrochemical-industrial complex is stealing our land and our health," says New York resident and architect Joe Levine. "Life as we know it will change forever if we don’t stop them."

Levine has a home near the New York State border in Damascus, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Jane Cyphers, and their two daughters. The family has turned over their lives to this issue since they were first approached by gas companies wanting to lease their land. They soon realized that their beloved Delaware River would be imperiled by drilling. Levine cofounded Damascus Citizens, a grassroots group made up of people who are fighting to keep the Delaware safe from fracking. Their influence, and the experiences of the town of Dimock, Pennyslvania, inspired Josh Fox to make the documentary Gasland.

Sullivan County, New York, resident Larysa Dyrszka, a retired pediatrician, has also taken on the role of state-level activist for the first time.

"Nobody thought drilling would really come here, to a populated area, with technology that couldn't ensure against harmful effects to our drinking water and health," says Dyrszka. "Little did we know it was already happening in Texas and Colorado and in other populated areas."

Together with her friends and neighbors, Dyrszka started SACRED—Sullivan Area Citizens for Responsible Energy Development. On January 25, Dyrszka joined hundreds of New Yorkers from all corners of the state to lobby their representatives in Albany—many, like Dyrszka, for the first time.

"I was hooked," Dyrszka says. "Now, whenever Roger [Downs, of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter] or Katharine [Nadeau, of EANY] or any fellow foot-soldier groups suggest a lobby day, I’m there."

For months, Dyrszka and her fellow activists continued building relationships by phone, e-mail, and in person with legislative staff, sending them scientific, health, legal, economic, and other information on fracking.

New York’s Recipe for Success

"For every 3 to 10 calls they got against the moratorium, there were 100 for it."
          -Wes Gillingham

Wes Gillingham is program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper. He was on the floor of the Senate all day August 3, waiting with Dyrszka and fellow activists until the bill finally came to a vote around midnight.

"I got two reports from Senate staffers later," he says. "One said that for every 3 to 10 calls they got against the moratorium, there were 100 for it. Another told me it was 80-to-1 in favor”—despite the fact that drilling companies funded a counter-campaign claiming that allowing fracking will bring riches to strapped upstate regions.

Timing also had something to do with the vote's outcome. "The Gulf spill and Gasland coming almost simultaneously got a lot more people aware of the carelessness of the gas and oil companies and what's happening with unconventional gas drilling,” says Kevin Millar, a retired nurse anesthetist from Tioga County who belongs to New York Residents Against Drilling and the Coalition to Protect New York.

Kennedy Main Photo by Shadia Fayne WoodCitizens, Defend Your Local River
Robert Kennedy, Jr.: Everyday citizens have powerful tools for protecting our waterways.

Filmmaker Josh Fox brought his award-winning Gasland to many New York cinemas in early summer. Fox, who'd traveled to 24 states to document the heartbreaking human stories behind the industry hype about a "safe, clean fuel," has appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and other national shows. Gasland has been showing on HBO since debuting there in June. Its scene of a man lighting the water coming from his kitchen tap on fire has become iconic of fracking's dangers to drinking water. Everywhere it shows, more people join the antifracking movement.

In September, the New York Assembly will vote a similar moratorium bill. Activists are working to ensure it gets to the floor for a vote. Another focus is on educating outgoing Governor David Paterson, whom they expect to sign the moratorium bills (he had threatened to veto, but that's now unlikely, given the huge majority Senate passage).

The incoming governor will be the focus of attention post-election. Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins has called for a total ban on the practice. Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Rick Lazio say they are in favor of "safe" drilling. Activists are already showing up at Cuomo's statewide rallies to let him know that fracking isn’t safe.

Antifracking advocates believe their multifaceted approach—based on educating themselves, the public, and legislators—will work. They're optimistic that their concerns about their health, homes, and drinking water won’t be ignored.

"Cooperation from around the state made us succeed in the Senate," says Dyrszka. "None of us are being paid. Nobody's offering us money, now or in the future. We're just fighting for our lives, and that 's why we're winning these little battles."


Maura Stephens wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Maura is an independent journalist and associate director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and a founding member of the Coalition to Protect New York. She is writing a book, Frack Attack: Fighting Back, about unconventional gas drilling and the grass-roots people who are combating its dangers.

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