Hugely deserved honor for Helen Holden Slottje, who innovated NY's local fracking bans

It was Nancy Reagan who famously popularized the phrase “just say no,” in the context of drug abuse. Now, an attorney named Helen Holden Slottje has won major recognition for helping dozens of municipalities across the State of New York to “just say no” to fracking, which has the potential to result in serious, in some cases even horrifying, impacts on our communities. For her astute research and her tirelessness in carrying the fruit of that work to towns all across the state – which has, in turn inspired localities nationwide – she has won The Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest award honoring grassroots environmentalists.

We at NRDC have worked closely with Helen and her husband, David, through our Community Fracking Defense Project, which was in no small measure inspired by their groundbreaking work.  The project aims to give communities the tools that they need to protect themselves against the risks that fracking poses to their essential character and to their residents’ quality of life. In some cases, the only way to provide those protections is to impose a moratorium or ban fracking within their borders. That’s an approach that NRDC supports, because we believe that municipalities should have the ultimate right to decide what kinds of communities they want to be.

If you want to read more about the legal issues involved in this work, take a look at this post by my colleague, Dan Raichel, about the cases of two upstate municipalities, Dryden and Middlefield, that are defending local fracking bans.  (NRDC filed amicus, aka “friend-of-the-court,” briefs in the highest court in the state in those cases last Friday.)

I’m immensely motivated by Helen’s accomplishments, which helped dozens and dozens of communities to act. In fact, I’ll be traveling on Wednesday to Washington, DC, to applaud her in person. This award is sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of environmentalism, and it comes with a large cash prize. But no amount can come close to compensating Helen for all the priceless hours of pro bono research she did and all the miles she drove in helping municipalities across upstate New York.

Helen’s and David's dedication to this issue began after they left a large Boston law firm, and moved to Ithaca and began to learn about the threat of fracking in the Finger Lakes region. Helen discovered that many local land owners had signed natural gas leases. Then, at a community meeting in 2009, she saw in graphic detail what fracking could mean to the beautiful corner of New York where she and David had chosen to live.

“And that was something I couldn’t imagine happening here in Ithaca,” she said in a brief video presentation on the Goldman Environmental Prize website. “Shortly thereafter, horror turned to resolve, and David and I decided that we were going to stay here and see this fight through. So, we started looking at what sort of local land-use laws could a town use against drilling, and the consensus was that local governments were powerless. But, while you couldn’t regulate the industry, you could simply say no. This right to ban fracking came out of the state constitution, and this was an incredible power for local communities.”

That phrase “horror turned to resolve” is an apt description, because horror may motivate, but resolve brings results. Revulsion alone, without the hard slog of legal research and litigation, isn’t enough. In this case, Helen’s digging yielded an understanding of the home rule concept in the state’s constitution—the core idea that even the smallest incorporated communities have the power to make land-use decisions for themselves, no matter the size or the power or the relentlessness of the outside forces attempting to sway those decisions.

New York’s constitution is a complex mix of high ideals, maddening levels of detail on minutiae, and odd gaps, such as the lack of a constitutional procedure for replacing a lieutenant governor who suddenly becomes governor. But its home rule idea is absolutely vital to the fight against fracking. Last year, I posted this blog after an intermediate appeals court ruling upheld this right.

Helen’s award offers a moment of celebration and affirmation. But the legal battle continues. The extraction industry has many failings, but lack of legal stamina is not among them. It is not easily discouraged, and it has plenty of funding for legal battles to clear the way for further drilling. So, no matter what we have achieved to this point, we still have work ahead.  “Victory is always sort of one step ahead of us,” Helen said.

For this moment, let’s applaud her for the work she has already done, and let’s follow her example and turn our horror into unflagging resolve. The drillers are tireless, and we must be, too.