New Starpower in the Fracking Fight

Why would Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., screen actor Mark Ruffalo, Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Mike Richter and NRDC's Executive Director drive 6+ hours round trip in one day in the heat to tiny Dimock, Pennsylvania?  Because, as I have written before, this remote rural town has become Exhibit A on the potential dangers of expanded "fracking" for natural gas throughout the mid-Atlantic states and around the country.

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Bobby Kennedy, Mark Ruffalo and Mike Richter hearing stories from Dimock residents (photo Mark Izeman, NRDC)

There continues to be some difference of opinion even within the environmental community on the dangers of this practice - with some arguing that the risks can be appropriately managed to a tolerable level with the right kinds of stringent regulation, and others of the view that no measure of regulation can suffice. But everyone agrees that what has happened to the folks in Dimock - ranging from contaminated drinking water wells, to exploding wells, to chemical spills, to depressed property values and health concerns - is a tragedy and violates what we in this country have come to see as a sacred right to clean, safe drinking water supplies.

That tragedy has been compounded by a perpetrator that has disclaimed responsibility at every turn, and by state regulators that have been slow to act (though some belated, much-needed action is been undertaken now with the Department of Environmental Protection imposing consent decrees on the responsible company, Cabot.)

This neglect - or worse - has forced fifteen families (and more than 60 individual plaintiffs) to file a lawsuit against Cabot. These plaintiffs had all been visited by Cabot “landsmen” who pressed them to sign contracts allowing gas drilling on their properties, and who assured them that the drilling would not pose environmental or safety problems. The complaint asserts nine claims, running from negligence and nuisance, to breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation, to institution of a medical monitoring trust fund.

Even after the filing of the suit, the plaintiffs continue to have either no or inadequate remedies.  Many are still not being provided with clean drinking water.  Those who are must endure daily visits by the gas company, which enters their homes to refill the above-ground water tanks in their garages or yards.  For many, the fear that they or their children might have been sickened by drinking and/or inhaling contaminants in their water is as bad as any actual physical ailments to which they have been, or may yet be, subjected.

While the most important reason to take the trip to Dimock is to ensure that its residents know that their situation is not being forgotten and that the environmental community is committed to helping correct the wrongs they have suffered, it is also critical to ensuring that the potential of natural gas to serve as a transition fuel away from the heavier fossil fuels is put in context.  Natural gas may burn cleaner than coal or oil, but its production is frequently not clean.  Indeed, even when the kinds of horrific accidents that occurred in Dimock don't happen, natural gas development is a heavy industrial activity that can change the character of communities.

Moreover, like all the extractive industries, the natural gas industry has enjoyed excessive exemptions from oversight and lax regulation.  Sadly, there have been two major gas well blowouts in the Marcellus shale since our trip: one in Pennsylvania that very same night that "shot explosive gas and polluted water as high as 75 feet into the air," and another in West Virginia today that sent flames 70 feet in the air and injured 7 workers.  Also today, a gas line exploded in Texas' Barnett shale, leaving at least 3 dead.

If there is one thing incidents like these and the Gulf of Mexico spill must teach us, it is that the oil and gas industry is not, and cannot be, self-policing, and that new and ever more complicated technologies must be thoroughly vetted and tested before being permitted.  Contrary to the oft-repeated claims of industry, fracking has not been subjected to adequate examination - in the Marcellus shale or anywhere else.  (And this is why New Yorkers must continue to insist that the state not move forward with permitting here unless and until it has properly examined the risks and proven new drilling can be done safely.)

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Mark Ruffalo with contaminated drinking water from Sautner well (photo Mark Izeman, NRDC)

This last trip out to hear from the families of Dimock was not a one shot deal for NRDC, its partners (Riverkeeper, Catskill Mountainkeeper and Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, who were also represented), or the celebrity activists who accompanied us. Nor was it an end in itself.  But it does show the commitment by all of us to not only do all we can to help the folks in Dimock, but to ensure that no others families in Pennsylvania or anywhere have to lose their water or more through gas drilling gone wrong.