Thousands Converge in Washington to Launch National Movement Against Fracking
Photo Credit: Brandi Merolla
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People traveled by plane, car, bus, bicycle, and on foot from across the United States and the world to Washington, DC on Saturday, July 28 for the 2012 Stop the Frack Attack Rally. The rally demanded that Congress take immediate action to protect public health and water from the now EPA-documented harmful effects of hydro-fracturing for gas and oil. Sponsored by 136 local and national organizations, citizens already impacted by fracking in their communities united with those under imminent threat to create this declaration of protest. In the three days leading up to the rally, leaders were lobbying and educating elected officials while others led workshops on organizing against the escalating abuses of the fossil fuel industry. In addition to demanding an end to fracking, an emphasis was directed toward a green energy future.
Maria Pena of Long Eddy, New York said, "I'm here because I want to stop the environmental terrorism that fracking will cause." Deanna Petula, a mother from Carlyle, Pennsylvania added, "I'm very upset about what's happening. It's awful. As a mother of three young children I'm concerned with their future. How will I explain this, what we let happen to our state 20 years from now, leasing state forests, water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River where we live downstream from it and depend on that water?"
Millie Cassese, a court reporter in New York City and a mother who has roots in upstate New York said, "I became concerned four years ago. I'm concerned about water, air, my environment and the way of life that we have. I think what's happening with big oil and gas here is happening all over the country. Big money and the corporations are taking over. We need a grassroots effort to stand up and make these voices heard. If we don't we'll be in trouble and so will our kids. The whole country is being taken over by money. We have no power, except ourselves, going in a bus and being united. This is an opportunity for everyday people to come together; the whole country should be waking up to what's happening. So many people don't know what this will do to their lives. As a court reporter for 32 years I have been in the middle of corporate litigation and have seen what the corporations have gotten away with and how much the country has changed in the last 30 years."
The rally started at 2pm on Saturday on the West Lawn of the Capitol. Rally speakers included Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish, Texas; Doug Shields, former Pittsburgh council member; Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org; Josh Fox, director of the documentary Gasland; Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, and numerous other community leaders and residents of states affected by fracking.
Bill McKibben said, "As this summer proves, between drought and wildfire and heat wave we've got to keep carbon in the ground. There's too much up there already so we can't be fracking for more or drilling or mining for more. Our job is to keep it underground. We've got to take our real swing now."
Tim Ruggiero, who now lives in Pilot Point, Texas, introduced himself as formerly of Decatur, Texas where he had to leave because of drilling in the Barnett Shale. He traveled to the rally with the former mayor of Dish, Texas, Calvin Tillman, who was also forced to flee his home and constituency because of the dangers to his family living in close proximity to drilling.
Ruggiero said, "I'm here with former Mayor Calvin Tillman, we're representing shaletest.org, a non-profit set up to help as many people as we can to provide baseline water testing for people that have been negatively impacted to test their water and their air for the people who are not financially able to afford such testing." Ruggiero continued, "All I can share with you now is that my family and I are victims of the shale and we were fortunate enough to be able to get off the shale, but I'm here because there are hundreds, if not thousands of other people that are trapped by shale gas drilling."
When I brought up water issues, he said, "We need to have an abundance of caution when it comes to our fresh water. It's not an unlimited supply and we're going through it faster than it can be replenished ... we as a species, including Mother Earth are going to be in some serious trouble... If industry isn't contaminating ground water, you're trying to tell me that it's providing drinking water [water buffaloes] out for people out of the generosity of your heart or do you have a vested interest in not exposing the dangers that are actually in the water that you the industry are actually creating and putting in there?"
Chip Desimone of Damascus, Pennsylvania said to me, "It's a direct threat to the water, property values and my health. I'm so upset, as a veteran of Vietnam; it feels like we're fighting another war."
Jill Wiener, of the Delaware River Basin in upstate New York and an organizer with Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy who was on the advisory committee for the Stop the Frack Attack Rally, chanted over the roar of the crowd, "Do we want clean energy now? Yes! Clean air now? Yes! Clean water now? Yes! That is solidarity and that is what we have with our friends across the shale. These connections that we've made mean that when Texas calls us we will answer, when Oklahoma calls we will answer, when Wyoming calls, we will answer and when New York calls they will answer and we have to stand together!"
Drew Hutton, from Queensland, Australia is the president of the Lock the Gate Alliance, the Australian umbrella organization for all of the community-based groups opposed to fracking in Australia. He informs me that the mission of the movement is "the refusal by land owners to negotiate any kind of access to their land by mining companies. It's a dire situation back home. We've got farmers, some of the most conservative people lining up at blockades, getting arrested and refusing access to their land despite the fact that the law says that they have to." According to Hutton, up to 20,000 landowners have refused to permit access to industry with their rapidly growing national movement. In response to why the Australian organization was participating in the rally Hutton said, "It's often the same companies and we learned from you what not to do." The direct action tactics have been very effective. "If they [the mining companies] can't get on the land, they can't drill for gas, if they can't drill for gas they can't meet their contract, their projects fall over. We've already seen one of the biggest ones fall over, backed by Shell and Petro China, they announced [July 27] that they aren't going ahead with investment."
Josh Fox, the director of the documentary film Gasland joined us and said about the significance of being at the Capitol, "The oil and gas industry are treating governments as if they are subsidiary wings of their corporations. We often think of the government as the highest power but actually at this moment the government is just underneath where the oil and gas world is and are just an expense. You can funnel $747 million to get an exemption to a single law, three-quarters of a billion dollars spent on the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption. That's not democracy anymore. That's the government as a subsidiary of oil and gas. That's what we're trying to fight against and a lot of people in Congress know it."
Sharon Wilson, aka Texas Sharon, had to move from Wise County in North Texas where, "Mitchell Energy experimented and learned how to get oil and gas out of shale," she said. "It was literally born in my backyard. It cost me a great deal because I too lost my American dream." Wilson adds, "The impacts to health are the same all across the globe. Frequent bloody noses, headaches, heart palpitations; many, many health problems that people experience. Water, soil and air are contaminated, but industry keeps saying that there's no proof that they're contaminating our water. But what they do when there is a contamination is they offer them some cash in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement which means those records are forever and permanently sealed from reporters, from our scientists and from our lawmakers. That allows them to say there's no proof of harm, but the truth is they've been covering up their trail of pollution with these non-disclosure agreements."
I traveled to DC on a bus sponsored by Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental organization charged with protecting the Catskill region of New York and one of the organizing groups of the rally. On the bus were friends, acquaintances and strangers. Members of the volunteer citizens group, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy (also part of the rally coalition) held up a sign in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge in Liberty, New York in the Sullivan County Catskills at 5am in solidarity to document this important moment in the movement to stop fracking before departing for the six-hour drive to the protest. Neil Fitzgerald, a farmer, said, "I irrigate from the Delaware River. I'm an organic farmer in New York. When they poison the river, I'm out of business. There's a neighbor who leased upstream of the brook and when they pollute that brook which runs into the river my water supply will be destroyed. Anyone that leases in the basin upstream from me threatens my farm."
Brandi Merolla, an artist in Narrowsburg, New York, responded to my question about participating in the protest, "For me this is a human rights issue. Industrializing our residential communities is unconscionable. I've been part of this movement for three years and this protest is the culmination of our works. I don't want to be exposed to carcinogens and neurotoxins in my residential community." Alice Zinnes of Milanville, Pennsylvania said, "I don't want it to happen anywhere. It's part of my terror, terrified of the end of life as we know it. I'm very aware of global climate change and I'm scared. The health impacts are terrifying. With the environment we don't have a second chance. If you kill an aquifer it's dead for generations."
Also from Milanville, 12-year-old Annabelle Brinkerhoff said, "About a quarter-mile from our house is a test well [Crum Well] and it's freaky that it's so close, it's eerie that it's so close to people and there's a stream near it. It's on a gorgeous one-lane back road. It seems so pristine for something like that. I think it's good that I'm educated about it. It's better to get more young people involved because it's going to affect our future. Young people have a big voice if we can be educated, we'd be listened to, so I'm going to learn more, keep going to protests like this and keep telling my friends about it." Her cousin, Ruby Brinkerhoff, 20, of Galilee, Pennsylvania adds, "I don't trust people who are pro-fracking. I don't trust them with my well being or that of my community because they're not seeing the other options. They are gaining something by taking risks with other people's lives."
New York is of particular importance to the fight because of the current threat to the fracking moratorium with Governor Cuomo's recent statement that fracking would be permitted in the Southern Tier of upstate New York in the coming weeks. New York is not alone. The story of fracking, the controversy and the increasing complaints of devastation is one being amplified throughout shale oil and gas regions. I looked for pro-fracking supporters to talk to, but surprisingly none were to be found that day. The name of the rally is telling as the word "attack" is one that embodies infiltration and violence, describing the combination of fear and anger so many of the participants feel as they face fracking in their neighborhoods.
The 90-minute rally was followed by a march to the headquarters of America's Natural Gas Alliance and American Petroleum Institute where participants converged at 5pm. At the headquarters of the Natural Gas Alliance, organizers dressed in hazmat suits delivered six containers of contaminated water, followed by the grand finale where a mock oil rig was smashed to bits. This first national protest against fracking presented a unified voice as approximately 5,000 people met on the Capitol lawn from communities large and small, urban, suburban and rural, spilling out in busloads demanding the stop to the destructive extractive method to capture oil and gas called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Why are thousands of people taking their time, and resources on an extremely hot and muggy mid-90 degree weekend day to participate in this protest? The determination and the multitude of people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Montana, Colorado, Maryland, California, Australia, and South Africa among others, demanding that their voices be heard, make the urgency and mobilization of this movement clear. As these modern-day warriors took to the streets, the future of communities is unknown. As the global initiative to extract gas expands globally so do the stories of heartbreak and loss, anger and resistance. Directly under my home in the Sullivan County Catskills are the desired Marcellus Shale gas reserves the oil and gas industry has targeted for drilling and extraction. Shale rock formations, including Utica, Eagle-Ford, Barnett and Monterey, are either being fracked or are targeted throughout the United States and globally for this form of extreme shale gas extraction.
The movement to examine, and reveal the risks caused by this form of extreme fossil fuel extraction is building with a focus on the United States where the fracking technology developed and is exported globally. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2010 that "70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year."
The shale gas "play" is rapidly expanding both locally and internationally with cases of contaminated water and air and adverse health impacts being reported by hundreds and even thousands of people across the United States. The exact number is difficult to obtain as numerous non-disclosure agreements are made between citizens and the oil and gas industry where problems have been reported in drilling zones. So many people shared their stories on Saturday, whether from the stage or with me in person that it is apparent that the movement to stop fracking is building in the United States. Robert Finne from Heber Springs, Arkansas was asked to attend because he is on the advisory committee of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to address grassroots needs and represent the hard hit state of Arkansas with so few people speaking out. Finne told me, "One day I woke up and realized I lived in gas land. I have compressor stations surrounding my house, I've got at least half a dozen frack sites all within a mile of my house and constant traffic that wasn't there before, so I knew I needed to get involved."
Rancher John Fenton from Pavillion, Wyoming says, "We got hit really hard by natural gas drilling; it began to affect our water and our way of life and disrupt the agriculture. The biggest impact for us are the health impacts our family has seen, our youngest son having seizures, my wife losing her smell and taste, our neighbors becoming sick but it's also we're losing our way of life."
After the industry ignored his complaints about the water, he and community members contacted the EPA. Fenton continues, "After over three years of studying they've come back with a draft report saying that the hydraulic fracturing has impacted the deep aquifers in the Pavillion area."
He adds, "I am here today because I think that if instead of one person at a time speaking, we can get all of these voices across the nation, they're going to have to pay attention to us."
The Frack Attack Rally was the national launch for the movement to stop fracking by raising awareness, building coalitions and to put pressure on elected officials as a reminder that they represent the people and not corporations. Events and additional trainings will continue in Albany and New York City on August 24, 25 and 26, and in Pennsylvania on September 20 for Shale Gas Outrage, followed by actions throughout communities affected by fracking in the coming months.