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Fracking Gets Its Own Occupy Movement
Posted on Jan 25, 2012
By Ellen Cantarow, TomDispatch
“There are so many people working quietly behind the scenes. They’re not in the news, they’re not doing it to get their names in the paper. It’s just the right thing to do,” says Kelly Branigan, co-founder of the group Middlefield Neighbors. Her organization helped spearhead one of the movement’s central campaigns: using local zoning ordinances to ban fracking. “In Middlefield, we’re nothing special. We’re just regular people who got together and learned, and reached in our pockets to go to work on this. It’s inspiring, it’s awesome, and it’s America—its own little revolution.”
Consider this, then, an environmental Occupy Wall Street. It knows no divisions of social class or political affiliation. Everyone, after all, needs clean water. Farmers and professors, journalists and teachers, engineers, doctors, biologists, accountants, librarians, innkeepers, brewery owners. Actors and Catskill residents Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger have joined the movement. Josh Fox, also of the Catskills, has brought the fracking industry and its victims to international audiences through his award-winning documentary film Gasland. “Fracking is a pretty scary prospect,” says Wes Gillingham, planning director for Catskill Mountainkeeper. “It’s created a community of people that wouldn’t have existed before.”
Around four years ago, sheltered by Patterson’s stay against fracking, little discussion groups began in people’s kitchens, living rooms, and home basements. At that time, only a few activists were advocating outright bans on fracking: the rest of the fledgling movement was more cautiously advocating temporary moratoria.
Since then a veritable ban cascade has washed across the state. And in local elections last November, scores of anti-fracking candidates, many of whom had never before run for office, displaced pro-gas incumbents in positions as town councilors, town supervisors, and county legislators. As the movement has grown in strength and influence, gas corporations like ExxonMobil and Conoco Philips and Marcellus Shale corporations like Chesapeake Energy have spent millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying, and political campaign contributions to counter it.
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Autumn Stoscheck, a young organic apple farmer from the village of Van Etten just south of New York’s Finger Lakes, had none of this in mind in 2008 when she invited a group of neighbors to her living room to talk about fracking. She’d simply heard enough about the process to be terrified. Like other informal fracking meetings that were being launched that year, this was a “listening group.” Its ground rules: listen, talk, but don’t criticize. “There was a combination of landowners, farmers like us, and young anarchist-activists with experience in other movements,” she told me. Stoscheck’s neighbors knew nothing about fracking, but “they were really mistrustful of the government and large gas corporations and felt they were in collusion.”
Out of such neighborhood groups came the first grassroots anti-fracking organizations. Stoscheck and her colleagues called theirs Shaleshock. One of its first achievements was a PowerPoint presentation, “Drilling 101,” which introduces viewers to the Marcellus Shale and what hydraulic fracturing does to it.
When Helen Slottje, a 44-year-old lawyer, saw “Drilling 101” at a Shaleshock forum in 2009, she was “horrified.” She and her husband David had abandoned their corporate law careers to move to Ithaca in 2000. “We traded corporate law practice in Boston for New York State and less stressful work—or so we thought. New York’s beauty seemed worth it.”
When news reports about fracking started appearing, the Slottjes thought about leaving. “I kept saying, ‘What’ll happen if fracking comes to New York? We’ll have to move.’” “Drilling 101” made her reconsider. Then she visited Dimock, Pennsylvania, 70 miles southeast of Ithaca and that sealed the deal.
By 2009, Dimock, a picturesque rural village, had become synonymous with fracking hell. Houston-based Cabot Oil & Energy had started drilling there the year before. Shortly after, people started to notice that their drinking water had darkened. Some began experiencing bouts of dizziness and headaches; others developed sores after bathing in what had been their once pure water.
For a while, Cabot trucked water to Dimock’s residents, but stopped in November when a judge declined to order the company to continue deliveries. The Environmental Protection Agency was going to start water service to Dimock in the first week of January, but withdrew the offer, claiming further water tests were needed. Outraged New Yorkers organized water caravans to help their besieged neighbors.
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