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Fracking's "Little Revolution": How a People-Powered Movement Fights Big Business for Clean Water

Consider this, then, an environmental Occupy Wall Street. It knows no divisions of social class or political affiliation. Everyone, after all, needs clean water.
 
 
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This is a story about water, the land surrounding it, and the lives it sustains. Clean water should be a right: there is no life without it. New York is what you might call a “water state.” Its rivers and their tributaries only start with the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware, and the Susquehanna. The best known of its lakes are Great Lakes Erie and Ontario, Lake George, and the Finger Lakes. Its brooks, creeks, and trout streams are fishermen’s lore.

Far below this rippling wealth there’s a vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale. Stretching through southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, the shale contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life that died 400 million years ago. Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a  nuclear bomb to unleash it. That idea died, but it’s been reborn in the form of a technology invented by Halliburton Corporation: high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing -- “fracking” for short.

Fracking uses prodigious amounts of  water laced with sand and a startling menu of  poisonous chemicals to blast the methane out of the shale. At hyperbaric bomb-like pressures, this technology propels five to seven million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water a mile or so down a well bore into the shale.

Up comes the methane -- along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals and other substances that were also in the shale, among them  radioactive elements and carcinogens. There are 400,000 such wells in the United States. Surrounded by rumbling machinery, serviced by tens of thousands of diesel trucks, this nightmare technology for energy release has turned rural areas in 34 U.S. states into toxic industrial zones.

Shale gas isn’t the conventional kind that lit your grandmother’s stove. It’s one of those  “extreme energy” forms so difficult to produce that merely accessing them poses unprecedented dangers to the planet. In every fracking state but New York, where a moratorium against the process has been in effect since 2010, the gas industry has  contaminated ground water,  sickened people, poisoned livestock, and killed wildlife.

At a time when the  International Energy Agency reports that we have five more years of fossil-fuel use at current levels before the planet goes into irreversible climate change, fracking has a  greenhouse gas footprint larger than that of coal. And with the  greatest water crisis in human history underway, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of purposely-poisoned fresh water into the Earth. As for the trillions (repeat: trillions) of gallons of wastewater generated by the industry, getting rid of it is its  own story. Fracking has also been linked to  earthquakes: eleven in Ohio alone (normally not an earthquake zone) over the past year.

But for once, this story isn’t about tragedy. It’s about a resistance movement that has arisen to challenge some of the most powerful corporations in history. Here you will find no handsomely funded national environmental organizations: some of them in fact have had a cozy  relationship with the gas industry, embracing the industry’s line that natural gas is a “bridge” to future alternative energies. (In fact, shale gas  suppresses the development of renewable energies.)

New York’s “Little Revolution” 

While most anti-fracking activists have been responding to harms already done, New York State’s resistance has been waging a battle to keep harm at bay. Jack Ossont, a former helicopter pilot, has been active all his life in the state’s environmental and social battles. He calls fracking “the tsunami issue of New York. It washes across the entire landscape.”

 
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