Sharon Wilson, aka Texas Sharon, had to move from Wise County in North Texas where, “Mitchell Energy experimented and learned how to get oil and gas out of shale,” she said. “It was literally born in my backyard. It cost me a great deal because I too lost my American dream.” Wilson adds, “The impacts to health are the same all across the globe. Frequent bloody noses, headaches, heart palpitations; many, many health problems that people experience. Water, soil and air are contaminated, but industry keeps saying that there’s no proof that they’re contaminating our water. But what they do when there is a contamination is they offer them some cash in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement which means those records are forever and permanently sealed from reporters, from our scientists and from our lawmakers. That allows them to say there’s no proof of harm, but the truth is they’ve been covering up their trail of pollution with these non-disclosure agreements.”
I traveled to DC on a bus sponsored by Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental organization charged with protecting the Catskill region of New York and one of the organizing groups of the rally. On the bus were friends, acquaintances and strangers. Members of the volunteer citizens group, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy (also part of the rally coalition) held up a sign in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge in Liberty, New York in the Sullivan County Catskills at 5am in solidarity to document this important moment in the movement to stop fracking before departing for the six-hour drive to the protest. Neil Fitzgerald, a farmer, said, “I irrigate from the Delaware River. I’m an organic farmer in New York. When they poison the river, I’m out of business. There’s a neighbor who leased upstream of the brook and when they pollute that brook which runs into the river my water supply will be destroyed. Anyone that leases in the basin upstream from me threatens my farm.”
Brandi Merolla, an artist in Narrowsburg, New York, responded to my question about participating in the protest, “For me this is a human rights issue. Industrializing our residential communities is unconscionable. I’ve been part of this movement for three years and this protest is the culmination of our works. I don’t want to be exposed to carcinogens and neurotoxins in my residential community.” Alice Zinnes of Milanville, Pennsylvania said, “I don’t want it to happen anywhere. It’s part of my terror, terrified of the end of life as we know it. I’m very aware of global climate change and I’m scared. The health impacts are terrifying. With the environment we don’t have a second chance. If you kill an aquifer it’s dead for generations.”
Also from Milanville, 12-year-old Annabelle Brinkerhoff said, “About a quarter-mile from our house is a test well [Crum Well] and it’s freaky that it’s so close, it’s eerie that it’s so close to people and there’s a stream near it. It’s on a gorgeous one-lane back road. It seems so pristine for something like that. I think it’s good that I’m educated about it. It’s better to get more young people involved because it’s going to affect our future. Young people have a big voice if we can be educated, we’d be listened to, so I’m going to learn more, keep going to protests like this and keep telling my friends about it.” Her cousin, Ruby Brinkerhoff, 20, of Galilee, Pennsylvania adds, “I don’t trust people who are pro-fracking. I don’t trust them with my well being or that of my community because they’re not seeing the other options. They are gaining something by taking risks with other people’s lives.”
New York is of particular importance to the fight because of the current threat to the fracking moratorium with Governor Cuomo’s recent statement that fracking would be permitted in the Southern Tier of upstate New York in the coming weeks. New York is not alone. The story of fracking, the controversy and the increasing complaints of devastation is one being amplified throughout shale oil and gas regions. I looked for pro-fracking supporters to talk to, but surprisingly none were to be found that day. The name of the rally is telling as the word “attack” is one that embodies infiltration and violence, describing the combination of fear and anger so many of the participants feel as they face fracking in their neighborhoods.
The 90-minute rally was followed by a march to the headquarters of America’s Natural Gas Alliance and American Petroleum Institute where participants converged at 5pm. At the headquarters of the Natural Gas Alliance, organizers dressed in hazmat suits delivered six containers of contaminated water, followed by the grand finale where a mock oil rig was smashed to bits. This first national protest against fracking presented a unified voice as approximately 5,000 people met on the Capitol lawn from communities large and small, urban, suburban and rural, spilling out in busloads demanding the stop to the destructive extractive method to capture oil and gas called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Why are thousands of people taking their time, and resources on an extremely hot and muggy mid-90 degree weekend day to participate in this protest? The determination and the multitude of people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Montana, Colorado, Maryland, California, Australia, and South Africa among others, demanding that their voices be heard, make the urgency and mobilization of this movement clear. As these modern-day warriors took to the streets, the future of communities is unknown. As the global initiative to extract gas expands globally so do the stories of heartbreak and loss, anger and resistance. Directly under my home in the Sullivan County Catskills are the desired Marcellus Shale gas reserves the oil and gas industry has targeted for drilling and extraction. Shale rock formations, including Utica, Eagle-Ford, Barnett and Monterey, are either being fracked or are targeted throughout the United States and globally for this form of extreme shale gas extraction.
The movement to examine, and reveal the risks caused by this form of extreme fossil fuel extraction is building with a focus on the United States where the fracking technology developed and is exported globally. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2010 that “70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year.”
The shale gas “play” is rapidly expanding both locally and internationally with cases of contaminated water and air and adverse health impacts being reported by hundreds and even thousands of people across the United States. The exact number is difficult to obtain as numerous non-disclosure agreements are made between citizens and the oil and gas industry where problems have been reported in drilling zones. So many people shared their stories on Saturday, whether from the stage or with me in person that it is apparent that the movement to stop fracking is building in the United States. Robert Finne from Heber Springs, Arkansas was asked to attend because he is on the advisory committee of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to address grassroots needs and represent the hard hit state of Arkansas with so few people speaking out. Finne told me, “One day I woke up and realized I lived in gas land. I have compressor stations surrounding my house, I’ve got at least half a dozen frack sites all within a mile of my house and constant traffic that wasn’t there before, so I knew I needed to get involved.”
Rancher John Fenton from Pavillion, Wyoming says, “We got hit really hard by natural gas drilling; it began to affect our water and our way of life and disrupt the agriculture. The biggest impact for us are the health impacts our family has seen, our youngest son having seizures, my wife losing her smell and taste, our neighbors becoming sick but it’s also we’re losing our way of life.”