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New Starpower in the Fracking Fight

Kate Sinding

Posted June 7, 2010

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Why would Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., screen actor Mark Ruffalo, Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Mike Richter and NRDC's Executive Director drive 6+ hours round trip in one day in the heat to tiny Dimock, Pennsylvania?  Because, as I have written before, this remote rural town has become Exhibit A on the potential dangers of expanded "fracking" for natural gas throughout the mid-Atlantic states and around the country.

Bobby Kennedy, Mark Ruffalo and Mike Richter listening to Dimock residents tell their stories

Bobby Kennedy, Mark Ruffalo and Mike Richter hearing stories from Dimock residents (photo Mark Izeman, NRDC)

There continues to be some difference of opinion even within the environmental community on the dangers of this practice - with some arguing that the risks can be appropriately managed to a tolerable level with the right kinds of stringent regulation, and others of the view that no measure of regulation can suffice. But everyone agrees that what has happened to the folks in Dimock - ranging from contaminated drinking water wells, to exploding wells, to chemical spills, to depressed property values and health concerns - is a tragedy and violates what we in this country have come to see as a sacred right to clean, safe drinking water supplies.

That tragedy has been compounded by a perpetrator that has disclaimed responsibility at every turn, and by state regulators that have been slow to act (though some belated, much-needed action is been undertaken now with the Department of Environmental Protection imposing consent decrees on the responsible company, Cabot.)

This neglect - or worse - has forced fifteen families (and more than 60 individual plaintiffs) to file a lawsuit against Cabot. These plaintiffs had all been visited by Cabot “landsmen” who pressed them to sign contracts allowing gas drilling on their properties, and who assured them that the drilling would not pose environmental or safety problems. The complaint asserts nine claims, running from negligence and nuisance, to breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation, to institution of a medical monitoring trust fund.

Even after the filing of the suit, the plaintiffs continue to have either no or inadequate remedies.  Many are still not being provided with clean drinking water.  Those who are must endure daily visits by the gas company, which enters their homes to refill the above-ground water tanks in their garages or yards.  For many, the fear that they or their children might have been sickened by drinking and/or inhaling contaminants in their water is as bad as any actual physical ailments to which they have been, or may yet be, subjected.

While the most important reason to take the trip to Dimock is to ensure that its residents know that their situation is not being forgotten and that the environmental community is committed to helping correct the wrongs they have suffered, it is also critical to ensuring that the potential of natural gas to serve as a transition fuel away from the heavier fossil fuels is put in context.  Natural gas may burn cleaner than coal or oil, but its production is frequently not clean.  Indeed, even when the kinds of horrific accidents that occurred in Dimock don't happen, natural gas development is a heavy industrial activity that can change the character of communities.

Moreover, like all the extractive industries, the natural gas industry has enjoyed excessive exemptions from oversight and lax regulation.  Sadly, there have been two major gas well blowouts in the Marcellus shale since our trip: one in Pennsylvania that very same night that "shot explosive gas and polluted water as high as 75 feet into the air," and another in West Virginia today that sent flames 70 feet in the air and injured 7 workers.  Also today, a gas line exploded in Texas' Barnett shale, leaving at least 3 dead.

If there is one thing incidents like these and the Gulf of Mexico spill must teach us, it is that the oil and gas industry is not, and cannot be, self-policing, and that new and ever more complicated technologies must be thoroughly vetted and tested before being permitted.  Contrary to the oft-repeated claims of industry, fracking has not been subjected to adequate examination - in the Marcellus shale or anywhere else.  (And this is why New Yorkers must continue to insist that the state not move forward with permitting here unless and until it has properly examined the risks and proven new drilling can be done safely.)

Mark Ruffalo with Sautners' contaminated well water in Dimock

Mark Ruffalo with contaminated drinking water from Sautner well (photo Mark Izeman, NRDC)

This last trip out to hear from the families of Dimock was not a one shot deal for NRDC, its partners (Riverkeeper, Catskill Mountainkeeper and Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, who were also represented), or the celebrity activists who accompanied us. Nor was it an end in itself.  But it does show the commitment by all of us to not only do all we can to help the folks in Dimock, but to ensure that no others families in Pennsylvania or anywhere have to lose their water or more through gas drilling gone wrong.

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Lee WoodmanseeJun 8 2010 08:45 AM

From the comments I heard from Bobby Kennedy in the newspapers, he is a big fan of natural gas, but wants strong regulations. Who in the drilling community doesn't agree with that? If you find someone who doesn't agree, send them out of the State.

Also, the Dimock problem was not caused by fracking but by shoddy work in the initial drilling. That difference is a little muddy in the article.

KarlaJun 9 2010 07:45 PM

When even well-informed environmentalists I know in the NYC area are ignorant of the facts and true threat that fracking poses to our clean water, I've come to believe that to effective fight the interests behind fracking we need a well-funded, skillful national advertising, social media, and PR campaign that can effectively counter the gas industries claim of natural gas as a "green" transitional fuel.

And that takes money. What are the chance of the NRDC and its partner forming a Clean Water Coalition to mobilize a grass-roots campaign and raise money to beat Big Gas on this?

With the disaster in the Gulf, now is the time to show people that fracking is just as disasterous to our water underground.

I'm not an organizer myself and I don't know organizers, but I'm praying that a skilled organizer and fundraiser will step up on this.

Mary SweeneyJun 13 2010 05:37 PM

I hope that those who believe that hydrofracturing can be managed to an appropriate level of risk will contact me if/when NY begins drilling, because if my county is to become a gas field, I will be looking for someone to buy the home that I have lived in for the last 26 years and hoped to retire in.

Anyone can come up with a protective scheme that looks good on paper. Putting it into practice in the real world, where regulators and industry enjoy a far-too-cozy relationship and homes, schools, and businesses are occupying the land that the gas industry covets, is something else again.

The recent well blowout in PA demonstrates that these gas wells do not belong anywhere near inhabited buildings or drinking water sources, but the gas industry doesn't care about any of that and will fight hard to keep in place current laws, which allow the wells to be literally in peoples' back yards. Any "environmentalist" who is fooled by the gas industry's claims that shale gas is clean should take a hard look at the reality of shale gas drilling as opposed to the well-intentioned plans that look good on paper.

No environmental groups or environmentally conscious individuals should be giving a nod of approval to gas drilling as it is currently practiced and as it is likely to be practiced unless/until very major regulatory changes are made.

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