Josh Fox: Are We About to Witness the Liquidation Sale of New York and its Drinking Water?

The "Gasland" filmmaker talks about the threats not just from fracking, but from oil, coal and any number of extreme energy extraction methods.

The following is from Sabrina Artel's Trailer Talk: The Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project. Listen to the complete program here.

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This is a conversation about community and sharing the voices from the gaslands of America. This is the story of Josh Fox, his movie Gasland and about his current, Save the Delaware campaign. "Is this the liquidation sale of New York and our drinking water?" asks Josh Fox.  

This is a week to celebrate the sudden November 17 cancellation of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) meeting where they were expected to vote on new gas drilling regulations, i.e. green-light fracking in the Delaware River basin that provides drinking water for 16.5 million people. On the 17th Governor of Delaware, Jack Markell announced that his state would be voting "no" on the new DRBC regulations that would have allowed 20,000 wells to be fracked in the watershed. Governor Cuomo of New York had already stated that he would vote "no" which left the expected "yes" votes of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, leaving the deciding vote to a representative for President Obama; a very complicated decision for him and one with risky implications. This is a movement about building coalitions, including the Delaware Riverkeeper that lead the numerous grassroots organizations organizing the event in Trenton, New Jersey on November 21.  

So a momentary respite from the threats of gas drilling to the Delaware was celebrated on November 21 as hundreds of people traveled to the already scheduled rally in Trenton, New Jersey which included actors and activists, Debra Winger and Mark Ruffalo residents of upstate NY. In addition, Julie and Craig Sautner of Dimock, PA who are still without safe drinking water three years later, as promised by Cabot Oil, gave their support of the victory for the watershed and served to remind us of what's at stake.  

Josh Fox said about the rally:

The past three years of campaigning in 200 cities all over the country and on five continents against fracking has taught me that I can't go home until everyone can. That this nightmare is being wrought on so many in their waking lives all over the world and that it must be stopped. Today we will rally in Trenton to reinforce our victory, yes, and it is victory that we have fought for and needed with such energy and passion that it almost seems unreal. But more importantly today we will rally for the rest of the country that is currently being fracked to hell. I think we are all just trying to become human again. We are in a system that has gone out of control.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hearings are in progress that address the draft regulations (SGEIS) that will determine whether or not the fracking of New Yorkwill be permitted. Two rallies were held in Binghamton on the 17th before each DEC session (the last two hearings will be held on November 29 and 30) to protest fracking throughout the state. This is another critical decision that will impact the kind of lives people have throughout the state. If permitted, fracking could devastate local economies, farming and resources, in addition to creating adverse health impacts and fracturing communities. If not legalized New York could continue being the leader in pushing back the gas industry and saying no to this kind of industrialization.  

The documentary film Gasland, directed by Josh Fox in a co-creation with Matt T. Sanchez has become an amazing catalyst and educational resource that has contributed immensely to the visibility of fracking and the increasing dialogue about it. Josh shares with me during our Trailer Talk conversations that his own definition of what home is has expanded as he continues to meet people who are sharing their stories of living with the oil and gas industry throughout the world. This is a story about people standing up to fight injustice.  

It can be the Marcellus, the Utica, the Barnett and the Eagle Ford Shale or the tar sands, mountaintop removal, deep-ocean drilling and pipelines. The conversation about natural gas drilling and fracking has expanded to encompass not only gas, but oil, coal and any number of extreme oil and gas extraction methods that are being utilized by industry to harvest these diminishing and harder to access resources. As people make their homes in places (I too live on the Marcellus) targeted for dangerous extraction methods the debate intensifies. This is not a new story and the fight to stop fracking is our opportunity to remember, to honor and to stand with those that have come before in this movement. The fight to stop fracking and un-safe and under-regulated shale gas extraction is about justice and community; it's about both the present and the future. It's about saying no to a system that has allowed these abuses to occur for generations creating trauma, poverty and anger. The exhilarating part of this story is the people. Josh Fox by sharing his own story has invited us to share ours and to imagine that another world really is possible.  
Josh and I have been talking about gas drilling for the last three and a half years. Here are some of our conversations from the last year. During this crucial time for our neighborhood in the Delaware River Basin and New York I invite you to join the dialogue.

Sabrina Artel: [The film] is very directly your story because you have your family home across the river from Callicoon, just a few miles from here in Pennsylvania, and you and your family got the letter to lease your land, and that's what started the journey.

Josh Fox: Well, a bunch of different letters came to my dad, and he was sort of like, "What is this? Go figure this out." And then, actually, the place that set off all the alarm bells was right here in the Delaware Youth Center. May 3, 2008, I went to the Damascus Citizens meeting. I hadn't heard both sides. I had only heard, "Okay, you can make a lot of money." And then some buddies of mine -- one guy from Honesdale, the other guy from Waymart -- were like, "We're going to this thing; we want to look into it," and I was like, "Alright." And I figured I'd get here and there would be, like, 12 people here, like kind of worried about something.

It turned out, there were 400 people in the room. And immediately, already, when there was 400 people in the Delaware Youth Center, I was freaked out. I was like, "What's going on, really? What's really happening here?"

I've just spent quite a bit of time out in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, which is coal country. And those people are really -- I wouldn't say "used to," but they've dealing with the coal industry destroying their lives for 100 years. And they're as adamant about what the gas industry is going as they were about the coal industry.

SA: Absolutely. Because when I went to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, two years ago, it was just when we were hearing about natural gas drilling here. It was in the early months of us hearing about it in the Catskills and upstate New York, and I asked them -- Larry Gibson and Ed Wiley and Jim Foster and Judy Bonds and all those people -- I said, "Well, what do you think," because we're being told this is a transition fuel. We're being told that we need to get off coal, which I agree with, and natural gas is the answer, and they said, "Absolutely not. Don't let us be used in this battle." So, that was an eye-opener.

JF: Yeah. And I talked with the director of Coal Country, this movie about coal, just two days ago, and I said, "Well, what do you make of this natural gas industry using natural gas as this sort of clean ... Are you on their side? Do you want to use natural gas instead of coal?" and she was, like, "Absolutely not."

She told me this amazing story. She had a 2,000-acre farm in West Virginia. It was her family's for 200 years or something; she was 8th generation. This was 2,000 acres and a farmhouse. Army Corps of Engineers took it as an eminent domain, paid her $150,000, and they kicked them off that property in 1977 to do coal mining.

Now, in this year, Army Corps of Engineers has leased that land to Chesapeake Energy for $48 million a year. Now, [her family] gets nothing; they get nothing.

When you're looking at extractive energy, and so much of this comes across with coal, with natural gas and with oil -- natural gas is doing this big PR job to say, "Oh, we're not like those guys." They're exactly like those guys.

So, it's very frustrating because here it is, the same story over and over again -- the story that happened in West Virginia; the story that happened with oil -- those practices are inherently contaminating. Those practices are destructive to communities, to places. And yet somehow, natural gas is coming out here and saying, "Oh, well, we're different." And what's disturbing is that people are going for it. I mean, there's so much evidence of how this works across the world, across America for hundreds of years. It's no different.

SA: Well, absolutely. What are you learning? You began your quest, your journey. Gasland: The Film. And also, a network of people who now are in touch with you, and a community that's building, that's fighting the natural gas drilling. But, how has it impact you personally?

JF: I'm seeking a format -- aside from the film itself -- to express what I have learned. Because almost as edifying as the trip that made the film itself has been the trip to do the tour. I mean, since January, since Sundance, I think I've criss-crossed the country nine times, and I've done it by land once, and I went across New York and back through Pennsylvania on a three-week journey. And I want to somehow try to encapsulate some of the poetry of what that is in another format, whether it's a book or something that I'm narrating, or a radio program, or whatever it is.

But what's so clear is that there is this immense movement of people across America ... like, I've never seen anything like this before in my life. I mean, it's just out of control. There's thousands of people -- hundreds of thousands of people, I would imagine, in these places, and every town that we go to, we have huge crowds, and three or five organizations working against this. And then even more disturbingly, lots and lots of people at each one of these stops that have said, "Our water's contaminated. Things are problematic. We have health problems; we have air problems; we've been run over; we lost our land; we feel like we're not in control of our lives anymore; we don't have water." And that has made an unbelievable impression on me.

SA: But in this debate over the safety; in trying to stop it; in allowing people's voices to be heard who have lost their clean air, who have lost their health, who have lost their homes. And, as you say, there are so many people across this country that don't even know who to turn to, and they're not being listened to. And the natural gas drilling has so adversely impacted their life.

JF: We sent out an e-mail that said we were going in the theaters, and, "Can you please help," because we don't have a huge PR budget or anything. We got an e-mail a minute for three days. I mean, it was crazy. And that was just sent out to our mailing list. But the response, and people feeling the need to get the basic awareness across that this is not as the natural gas industry says it is; this is not going the way they say it's going. That's all just lip service; that's all just PR; that's just, clearly not telling people the whole story. And that when they come to an area, they take over that area, industrialize that area, and that area is never the same. And it can't be reversed, I mean, because you have pipelines everywhere, you have gas wells everywhere, you have condensate tanks everywhere, and you have this sense of a takeover. And that's what happens to those places.

This disturbingly high number of people who are in the film actually have been forced to move, or want to move, or are saying, "We're going to walk away from our property."

One of the very first people I interviewed down in Texas -- they're anonymous because they were in the middle of a lawsuit -- they had a four-house Texas ranch-style compound which they built by hand -- took them 30 years -- and built all the furniture and the wainscoting, and had an inlay of the Lone Star in the floor -- it was then mirrored in an inlay in the ceiling. This is how intricate ...

And they had planned that for their children, and for their retirement, and they had a smokehouse and a place where the matron was going to give cooking lessons. They had to walk away from it, because right down the road from them, [a company] installed a mini-refinery for natural gas, and the fumes coming off of there were making their skin break out in hives; they had hydrogen sulfide in the air and they were getting rashes when they were doing their gardening, and literally getting sick staying in their house, and there's no way that natural gas refinery was going to move.

And here's the thing -- these gas wells are not singular places. You might have one well, two wells, three wells, but then once it starts, you have pipelines everywhere; you have compressor stations everywhere, which are incredibly noisy; and you have these mini-refineries that start popping up. And none of that stuff is regulated in terms of the air.

If this were to happen around here, this would no longer be a tourist area; this would no longer be a good place to live. This would be an industrial zone, and that's what's planned for it.

SA: What does this mean? If we lose our water, which is such a precious resource -- a limited resource both in the United States and throughout the world, what does that mean? What does that mean for all of us?

JF: You have to trust the environment you live in, right? You have to trust that your home is healthy; that your environment's healthy. Now, if three or five people in this area -- if they do the drilling -- get these kind of chemicals in their water, bad water, then all of a sudden you have no trust in your living environment anymore.

I don't even think it's about long-term. I think it's, here it comes; the hammer comes down; and then all of a sudden, within a very short period of time, the place is laid waste. I mean, they only started drilling in Dimock, [Pennsylvania] in 2008, in a real way.

SA: That's a very short amount of time ... people getting asthma attacks in their homes; rashes. Again, we're talking about exactly the immediate impacts, and then who knows what the long-term ones are?

But first of all, I want to say, with your film, Gasland, which I find really incredible, is that in real-time now, this film is in the middle of a movement because we're fighting to protect our lives, our homes, our communities, the environment, with this unsafe gas drilling. And so, your film is right in the middle of that debate, which is quite amazing. It's not a film that was made looking back on something; it's a movie that you made while it's happening.

JF: Well, like I said, I'd heard from Damascus Citizens, and you know, was like, "Well, what's really the truth here? Is this really how it is?" And I went out to Dimock and got completely shocked, that it was actually worse than they were saying. And then I wanted to know, "Alright," being the skeptic, "is this as bad in the rest of the country as it is in Dimock?" and then I found that it was actually worse in places where there had been longer development.

So, this just kept getting worse and worse. Then I ended up at the EPA with Weston Wilson, who told me a little bit about how that was covered up during the Bush administration, and all the investigations that the EPA were trying to start were shut down by the Bush administration.

And then I was, like, "Oh, uh-huh," you know, and got home with some of the footage and said, "Well, I don't know what to do here. What am I making?" And friends' jaws hitting the floor going, "You have the 'Inconvenient Truth' on your hands. This is the priority." I said, "I know it's a priority, 'cause I'm going to lose my house. I'm going to lose everything that I know of home, and I don't want to see that happen."

SA: You mentioned "home," and you're fighting to protect your home, and to prevent the loss of it. What does "home" represent to you?

JF: Well, you know, this is what's really strange, is that that definition has become bigger and bigger and bigger. Because you go enough times around America, it's sort of like, "Oh, I'm in Albuquerque." It's sort of like going down to the corner store or something. "Oh, I'm in Fort Worth," or, "I'm back in Paonia, Colorado," and that becomes a big back yard. So, in a way, it's that -- "It's not in my back yard," and the back yard is the United States. And the back yard's going to be Australia; we're going to go to Australia.

And so, what's home, you know? "Home" during the thing was the front seat of the '92 Camry. But I know what "home" is when I walk in the door. You know, it's the way that it smells, and it's the way the door sounds when you walk in and you realize, and you sit there, and then something inside of you just releases, and you're like, "I'm home." And that's the deal.

And that is really precious. 'Cause nowadays, everything is so transient, and I'm constantly on the move. But that's it. And I walk in there and there's time to think it through. 

You can hear the rest of this interviewhere.

Sabrina Artel is the creator and host of Trailer Talk, a weekly radio show that engages the community through conversations about culture, politics, the arts and the environment. To find out more about Trailer Talk's Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project visit Trailer Talk.