Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Poison in the Well: Gasland

"O, they tell us there's poison in the well, that someone's been a bit untidy and there's been a small spill. All that it amount to is a tear in a salted sea...They'll have it cleaned up in a week. But the week is over and now it's grown into years since I was told that I should be calm, there's nothing to fear here. But I drank that water for years, my wife and my children.

Tell me, where to now, if your fight for a bearable life can be fought and lost in your backyard?"
– 10,000 Maniac's Poison in the Well

Somehow, having clean water, air and soil is sinking lower on our priority list.

In 2011, "Gallup finds the widest margin in nearly 30 years in Americans' prioritizing economic growth (54%) over environmental protection (36%)...The results...continue the trend toward Americans' assigning a higher priority to the economy since the economic downturn began in 2008. That trend was interrupted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; Gallup found Americans returning, rather dramatically but only temporarily, to a pro-environment position last May, shortly after the spill occurred."

The nation has a short attention span. We care about the environment when there'a natural disaster, but then sooon we forget all about it?

On the start of Fourth of July weekend, when most Americans are thinking about beaches, barbeques and fireworks and not about their domestic energy supply, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed reversing a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in New York State (read The New York Times coverage). Why is that bad? Josh Fox's Gasland documentary tells us precisely why.

"In 1972 the year that I was born Pete Seeger reminded people that if they polluted the upper Hudson especially the watershed areas, New York City's drinking supply the water would be ruined. Nixon signed the clean drinking water act.

The cold war was on, but there was the concept of leisure time and leisure suits. Computers and technology were supposed to bring on the four day work week and everyone was going to have plenty of time romping around fields and swimming in the rivers." Of course, we now know computers and technology have reduced the need for workers, and lengthened work weeks for many Americans. But that's a whole other blog post.

Only when it's in people's backyard does it seem to suddenly move up "the environment" in their list of priorities. Well natural gas came to Josh Fox's backyard, literally, when he was offered in excess of $100,000 to drill on his land, which sits on part of the Marcellus Shale (in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia), called the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."

At the time of Fox's documentary, 34 states were hydraulic fracturing (fracking) which produces natural gas. Fracking blasts a mix of water, sand and chemicals 8000 feet underground. The fracking itself is like a mini earthquake. The intense pressure breaks apart the rock to release the natural gas. To frack, you need fracking fluid, a mix of 596 chemicals. Digest that for a moment – 596 chemicals. Each time they drill a well they need 1 – 7 million gallons of water. Each time they frack an existing well they need an additional 1-7 million gallons of water. They can frack a well 18 times in its life.

The process produces what the industry calls "produced water" (doesn't that sound better than polluted?) From everything I've read aside from the film, the water often gets sent to local treatment plants, which are unable to deal with the toxic brew and it ends up in our communities.

It gets worse: the 2005 Energy bill passed by Congress during the Bush and Cheney administration exempted natural gas and oil industries from the Safe Drinking Water, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund and a dozen other regulations.

They stated out west: New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and beyond. Fox estimates 40 trillion gallons of produced water have been created. Now they are coming east. They are proposing 50,000 gas wells along a 75 mile stretch of the Delaware river and hundreds of thousands more.

Fox interviews people across the land whose health, water supplies, livelihood and real estate have been destroyed. Imagine the worst of the worst: water that comes out of the tap on fire, brain lesions, hair falling out of cats, dead wildlife, a loss of taste, pancreatic cancer death after drinking out of a well, a farmer who raises livestock who drinks the toxic brew and will end up on a dinner plate (possibly yours).

John Fenton, the cattle farmer whose father and grandfather were old time cowboys who has 24 gas wells on his property remarked, "It's amazing that what took mother nature millions of years to build can be destroyed in a few hours by a piece of heavy machinery."

While I don't eat meat, I respect smaller farmers like this trying to do right by their animals and land. "I think we should strive to be the cleanest and most environmentally conscious that we can," he says. Who can argue with that?

While politicians and natural gas companies are playing the "creates jobs" card, I'm not taking the bait. Does this include medical professional needed to treat those whose water could be polluted? Funeral directors? What are the potentials costs to real estate values when the water supply is damaged.

As one anonymous person stated, "They were making a beautiful, beautiful piece of country and turned it into this big trash dump."

"The whole concept of democracy and looking out for the little guy does not apply here," victim Jeff Locker said. I don't think our government looks out for the little guy at all these days.

The fallout of the Japanese earthquake saw calls around the world for nuclear plants to be shut down, but is natural gas the alternative? I hope not. Why do we never, ever hear this word in the energy dialogue: conserve. Or consume less. It's not just the suppliers – it's our reckless demand and waste. The UN predicted 10.1 billion people on this planet by the end of the century. Imagine how limited resources will be then.

I live in New Jersey where some residents complain about the sight of solar panels on their telephone polls. I complain about ignorance of people who would rather have dirty air they can't see than a solar panel they can.

We are not being proper caretakers to the land. This is simply about taking. Everyone else who lives on the planet including animal species and future generations be damned.

In Celia Rees' follow-up to Witch Child, "Sorceress," she talks of the native people leaving gifts by the stream (white pebbles, quartz crystals, a bead or two), "Offerings to the Mother, for water springs from her and flows free and pure to give us life. People had thought that from the beginning of time." Why do we no longer respect that relationship? We're willing to gamble our water in the false cause of job creation?

Louis Meeks, whose well water was destroyed, had to build another well which led to an explosion of natural gas that for three days bled three million cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere. He summed it up the entire state of the natural gas to me:

"Their word ain't no good. And we's all raised that way- if you're word ain't no good, you ain't no good. These are grown men who are lying to you for what? For money and that's it."

That's it.

Please watch Gasland now on DVD, contact your elected officials to remove the exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act for fracking and call for the disclosure and monitoring of the chemicals used in the process, and spread the word about Gasland.

"In the West, you say that I can see behind the mask,
Of those who call themselves the good guys in this, who take and take."
- Tori Amos, Sweet Sangria.


  1. I haven't seen "Gasland" yet, but I did see a mini promotional film shot by the gas industry refuting many of the claims made in the film. Interestingly enough, I saw it as a way to get free swagbucks. Nice way to promote, eh?

    But I wasn't buying their crap. It just reinforced my desire to see the film all the more, because they kept asserting their tactics were safe, without any real evidence to support it. I was just creeped out by the propoganda tactic. Thanks for this post--will definitely see the film. I think I need to, since I much prefer cooking with natural gas. I really need to learn more about this resource I so adore.

  2. Thank you for the comment.

    It's interesting how politicians and corporations not only use the "jobs" tactic to play off of people's economic fears, but the "terrorism" fear (the idea of using our own resources so we're not supporting governments or people who want to bring us harm). We worry about terrorists destroying our food, air and water supply - yet we are doing it ourselves (through our demand, through ignorance, through greed).