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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.

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 as Gasland, 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.


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.