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Actor Mark Ruffalo Plays the Role of His Life: Defender of New York's Water, Land and Air From Dangerous Natural Gas Drilling

The acclaimed actor has jumped into the fight over gas drilling proposed for upstate New York and the environmental risks that come with the practice.
 
 
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Editor’s Note: The new process of natural gas drilling called "fracking" has come under increasing attack from residents in affected areas as well as scientists, environmentalists, and more recently elected leaders asGasland, the new documentary on the subject, makes clear. Some of the most vigorous anti-drilling activity is in the Upper Delaware River Basin, whose rivers and reservoirs supply drinking water to 17 million in NY, NJ, and Pa. Grassroots efforts have swelled and area artists and actors have lent their celebrity, talent and energy to the growing national campaign to halt the controversial technology. You can read more about how fracking is affecting communities.

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It’s been a busy year for Mark Ruffalo. The 43-year-old actor made an acclaimed directorial debut at Sundance with Sympathy for Delicious, a penetrating drama in which he plays a sympathetic priest, and he starred in the winning comedy The Kids are All Right, in which he plays a sperm-bank donor with boundaries issues.

I caught Ruffalo performing earlier this month on a platform high above a backdrop of majestic river, unflinchingly declaiming his love for river and land and all living things, vowing to protect them from a powerful enemy.

It might just be the most challenging role of his life. But he isn’t acting.

Ruffalo has come to a small park overlooking the Upper Delaware River in the town of Narrowsburg, NY as an activist, joining neighbors, environmental leaders and elected officials like U.S. Congressman Maurice Hinchey, to commemorate the river’s unfortunate designation by the environmental group American Rivers, as the most endangered river in America. It is gas companies’ imminent plans to drill in the area using the extreme technology called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” that has earned the river its title, and in turn, the day’s impassioned remarks. Fracking, performed in 34 states, and now aimed at eastern Pennsylvania and New York, involves pressure-drilling millions of gallons of water -- laced with sand and toxic chemicals -- more than a mile into gas-rich deep shale formations and then several miles across in many directions, to release methane gas from rock thought too deep and dense to mine.

For 12 years the town of Callicoon, NY, some 10 miles up the pure and beautiful river, has been Mark Ruffalo’s home and the keeper of his heart. Like his neighbor Josh Fox -- whose documentary Gasland premiered recently on HBO -- Ruffalo is determined to guard the river and the surrounding fields and mountains from invasion. When I ask him why and how, he answers with a spirit and thoughtfulness that tell me that for him this is not just defending a backyard, but defending reason from recklessness and right from wrong -- and that he just might prevail.

Nora Eisenberg: Why are you here?

Mark Ruffalo: This new form of natural gas drilling has taken the country by storm. We’re on a fast track to high-pressure water fracking here. I’m not opposed to progress or technology or energy security. But we don’t know what this hydraulic fracturing is doing to the environment. Hallibuton [one of the big players in fracking] uses 590 chemicals in their “secret sauce,” and they won’t reveal them to the public. Everywhere they’ve used this drilling there’s been incidents of water being poisoned, houses exploding from methane gas seeping in, animals dying. And until now the industry has been exempt from federal regulation.

The EPA did a study a few years ago that was totally corrupted. They didn’t know about the 590 chemicals so they didn’t know what they were looking for. Now the EPA is undertaking a two-year study and asking for a moratorium until they’re done. There are people saying, “It’s been tested, it’s been studied. Let’s just go.” But it hasn’t been.

NE: Of course everyone today is thinking about the BP Gulf disaster. How does what's going on with fracking relate to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster -- besides Halliburton's involvement in both?

MR: What we have in both places is oil and gas companies saying to us, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you. We have the technology. We know what we’re doing. Trust us.” But the gas and oil companies are like that lover that you had that is always cheating on you, and you keep taking back because they keep promising they’re not going to cheat on you anymore. That’s what they’re like. They can’t be trusted.

The Gulf is the perfect mirror to what’s happening here. What do they want to do here? They want to start exploratory wells that are under-regulated because they’re exploratory. That’s what that was in the Gulf of Mexico.

[Deepwater Horizon] was an exploratory well -- it wasn’t regulated. It’s the exact same thing. Except we get to intercede. It’s a cautionary tale. It should push people to say, “Hey wait, let’s stop here. What’s the rush?” We have to make sure that nothing happens here like the disaster that we keep seeing unfold in the Gulf.

NE: There’s lots of division in this community. What’s going on?

MR: It’s the saddest thing. Look around. All these people buy from local farmers here in the Catskills and across the river in Wayne County. I buy a pig, a lamb from my neighbor. My neighbor gives me deer. I let neighbors hunt on my land. It’s a relationship that we’ve enjoyed. Now drilling’s come in and everyone wants to tear everyone’s throat out.

One of the sources of the division comes from the fact that the farmers have been screwed in upstate New York. They can’t make a living wage. They have farms that were handed down to them that they’ve been working for decades but can’t make a living from. The gas companies, in a very cynical way, before they’ve even gotten the OK to drill, have come in and promised money. What’s happening as a result is our community is being torn asunder. It’s heartbreaking to me.

One of my neighbors, I love him, an old farmer, said to me, “I can’t live like this. I want to leave my wife some money so when I die she’ll be OK.“

“Where you going to go after this?” I asked him. He said,“I’m going to Florida.”

I said, “What if I told you I’m working on starting a creamery and red meat processing plant?" He said, “I don’t care. I’m leaving.”

NE: Is that how all the farmers are thinking?

MR: There are farmers who think that this is a complete rape of the land. But this is a tight community and they don’t want to come out against each other. A farming community is a special community -- farmers really look out for each other. They’ve never been peeled off the way they are being peeled off right now. But a lot of farmers don’t like the drilling.

Look, people are being bought and sold. The gas companies come in and spend a lot of money and promise a lot more money.  So people take the money and then feel culpable. They’ve taken the money. They’ve spent it. I have neighbors who think, “What am I going to do? I can’t give that money back.” Once you take the money, it’s difficult for people say, “This gas drilling is really bad.”

The best thing that could happen is that the gas companies go and local people who need money get to keep the gas company money and pay their mortgages.

NE: So you don’t think this new drilling could benefit the community at all financially?

MR: I’ll put it to you this way. They drilled the Millennium Pipeline right behind my house. The gas companies said, “This is going to be great for your economy.” Every truck I saw was from Michigan, Texas, Ohio. I didn’t see a local person getting paid to work on that pipeline in this community except for a neighbor who was working on cleanup. We don’t know anything about drilling. We don’t have the trained workforce.

As far as the money coming in, the people getting money for leasing, much like my sweet farmer, those folks are mostly going to Florida…well maybe not Florida anymore. But they’re going away. They want to cash out. So I seriously doubt that the money is going to stay here.

NE: Do you see a way to establish some unity going forward between those who’ve leased and those who haven’t, to safeguard the environment? 

MR: I hope so. There’s a group called Fleeced, a group of people who leased and thought that everything was going to be great. Then they saw what was happening in Dimock, Pennsylvania and other places, where so much water and earth and air have been destroyed, and now they’re saying, “Oh my God, what did I get myself into!”  

But some people are pro-drilling and unwilling to wait for the EPA studies because they want to get rich quick. Look around today. There are guys standing next to farmers, shouting to drill now, who are tanned and wearing flip-flops and a yachting belt. They got money; they just want a lot more.

You think I’m going to stand by and let my kids drink the water that runs off from their drilled fields to my pond and well? No way. They can do whatever they want on their land, but when they’re poisoning me, poisoning my three kids, poisoning 9 million in New York, I got to stand up and say no. It’s a matter of conscience for me. Clean air and clean water is a matter of right. I can’t let people poison this land without a fight. And I’m just one of many.

NE: How are you going to fight?

MR: I’ve gone to Albany. I’ve talked to people in government. The lawmakers on our side, you know what they told me? “You better not let up on your lobbying.” It’s not an easy fight. We’re up against a powerful enemy with lots of money, lobbyists and lawyers.

NE: You believe you can battle that powerful enemy and prevail?

MR: The system is not entirely rigged. The most cynical of forces would like us to believe that, but a group of people together can change things. There is nothing more convincing than to see people who have nothing to gain but the overall public good out in the world and lobbying for what is right. 

That’s what we have today. That’s what we have when we go to the state senate, to the meetings of the Delaware River Basin Commission. We can’t let up if we want to effect change. 

I believe we’re seeing the beginning of a national campaign to pause the drilling madness, and to educate and illuminate. When you go out and you have the facts and you take steps forward to defend the things you know to be right, then the world becomes a more hopeful place.

Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York's fellowship program for emerging scholars. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as the Partisan Review, Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times and Tikkun. Her most recent novel, 'When You Come Home' (Curbstone, 2009), explores the the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness. She lives in NYC and Narrowsburg, NY.