More than 50 people gathered in the Harrison Public Library Wednesday evening for a screening of GasLand, a documentary by Josh Fox that tells stories of people across the U.S. detrimentally affected by hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking.
The screening took place one day after the New York State Senate passed a measure placing an 11-month moratorium on the state's Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) issuance of fracking permits. The DEC is expected to complete a study assessing possible fracking in New York this fall.
In response to the Senate measure, the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York's Executive Director Brad Gill said in a statement, "reason, science, logic and economic opportunity has lost out to a calculated campaign of misinformation and ignorance."
Gill condemned the Senate for "turning its back on an industry that would have safely explored for natural gas and provided a large part of the solution to New York's economic despair."
Co-sponsoring a similar bi-partisan bill in the State Assembly is Assemblyman Robert Castelli (R, C, I-Goldens Bridge.) He co-hosted the viewing of GasLand with the progressive activist group Westchester for Change.
Co-organizer of Westchester for Change and Harrison resident Susan Van Dolsen said that she heard about the film from Castelli's office after calling to see if he was in support of a drilling moratorium.
Van Dolsen said she was compelled to help arrange the screening because of the possibility of irreparable damage to the environment and Harrison's drinking water if fracking is allowed in the Marcellus Shale region that encompasses the New York-Pennsylvania border.
Cabot Oil and Gas's fracking in Pennsylvania has been under scrutiny since June, when one of their wells exploded and spewed gas and toxic chemicals into the air. Since then, the state has placed several limitations on new drilling and the Environmental Protection agency has commenced a national listening tour.
"You can't start doing a process that could be potentially disastrous and not be able to undo it. Imagine if these chemicals were going underground into our water supply," Van Dolsen said.
In an introduction to the film, Castelli said that hydro-fracking could permeate and contaminate the New York City Watershed with chemicals like benzene, formaldahide and hydrogen sulfide, which are three of 590 chemicals suspected to be used in the fracking process.
"I don't have a problem with using our state's natural resources, but I do have a problem doing something before you know it's safe to do it," said Castelli.
He lauded Fox as "a great citizen who took the bull by the horns and said: 'We've got a problem here. How can we fix it?'"
Fox's interest in hydro-fracking came about when he received a letter from a gas company offering him an up-front payment of $4,750 per acre to purchase his family's 19-acre property for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region of Eastern Pennsylvania bordering the Delaware River.
He rejected the $100,000 but was intrigued by the subject, so he set off on a road trip across the U.S. visiting people who had reported contaminated drinking water and illnesses after hydro-fracking had begun near their homes.
Fox's interviewees, most of whom lived within one mile of the extraction sites, complained of hair loss, headaches, muscle aches and in an area of Colorado where hydro-fracking was first done, some residents had developed cancer, neuralgia and permanent brain damage.
"These citizens certainly felt wronged and that there was no one to complain to," Fox narrated.
He pointed out that people who have sued oil and gas companies after their drinking water was contaminated or their homes exploded often won, but signed non-disclosure agreements that legally prevent them from sharing their stories, particularly with media outlets.
Fox visited Weld County, Colorado, where one resident showed him that by placing a lighter near his kitchen sink faucet, after a few seconds his sink was up in flames.
"Can I try?" Fox mused.
His next stop was Wyoming, where a cattle rancher living near multiple fracking sites feared that his cows were drinking contaminated water and that their meat would eventualy end up on someone's dinner plate.
"The whole concept of democracy and looking out for the little guy doesn't apply here," the rancher said.
Citing his family's roots in the area and the demise of his farm and his family's health after the fracking began, he said that victims of large oil and gas corporations should "get together, speak in a unified voice and stand up to these [expletive]."
GasLand also delves into the corporate and political interests that create hurdles for legislation regulating or banning hydro-fracking. He concentrates on Dick Cheney's involvement in exempting hydro-fracking from regulation in the Bush Administration's Energy Policy Act of 2005 under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fox also admonished Cheney for playing a prime role in the Bureau of Land Management's leasing of public properties to gas companies.
The Federal FRAC Act of 2009, co-sponsored by House Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NYC) and sponsored by Senator Chuck Shumer, would require the oil and gas industry to unveil all of the chemicals that are used in the fracking process as well as allow for Federal oversight of fracking.
After the screening, Castelli and Matt Wallach, Program Coordinator at Citizen's Campaign for the Environment - Hudson Valley (CCE-HV) discussed how audience members could use their outrage spurred by GasLand to convince their political representatives to take action against fracking in New York.
Audience member Jeff Levin of Scarsdale posited, "Unfortunately in this political cycle we have a very suspect government on all levels. Why would we put any trust in the legislative process to deal with this?"
"Should you trust the government unilaterally? No," Castelli responded. "The process is flawed and it needs to be fixed."
Wallock explained that New York currently gets about 24 percent of its gas from in-state sources and that he has met with industry representatives to discuss the environmental concerns about fracking.
He said that CCE-HV isn't opposed to hydro-fracking in New York, but is seeking to work with the industry to ensure that their practices are safe and don't pose threats to the environment or the public.
"We can't be under the assumption that we can just stop it instantly," Wallock said.
Another audience member asked if the fracking issue was political, noting that the State Senate bill was voted down by nine Republicans and only one Democrat.
Castelli said, "These are issues that are apolitical and should not be allowed to be politicized. We need to keep these things on a level above politics."
After the question and answer period, the group watched a short film called "Marcellus Shale Voices," which is an excerpt of "Gas Odyssey," a documentary by Aaron Price.
In a statement, Price said that he decided to make the film after "watching communities transform over the border in Pennsylvania, where drilling has created jobs, community investments and hope while New York communities are in a free-fall."
Like Fox, Price said that his goal was to "help the voices of average Americans be heard."