Fracking's "Little Revolution": How a People-Powered Movement Fights Big Business for Clean Water
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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.
“When I went to Dimock,” says Slottje, “I saw well drilling, huge trucks, muddy crisscrossing pipeline paths cutting through the woods, disposal pits, sites of diesel spills, dusty coatings on plants, noisy compressor stations -- you name it. So I decided to put my legal background to work to prevent the same thing from happening where I lived. We’d been corporate lawyers before. We know the sort of resources the energy corporations have. The grassroots people have nothing. And they have this behemoth coming at them.”
In May 2009, the Slottjes became full-time pro bono lawyers for the movement. One of their first services was to reinterpret New York’s constitutional home rule provision, which had allowed local ordinances to trump state laws until 1981. In that year, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Mineral Resources exempted gas corporations from local restrictions.
“I spent thousands of hours on the research,” says Slottje. “And then last August we were brave enough to go public and say the emperor has no clothes.” The Slottjes’ reinterpretation of the provision was simple enough: the state regulates the gas industry; towns and villages can’t regulate it, but what they can do is keep its operations off their land through the use of zoning ordinances.
Zoning Out Fracking
The town of Ulysses is nestled in the heart of the state’s burgeoning wine country in the Finger Lakes region. In 2010, a grassroots group, Concerned Citizens of Ulysses (CCU), asked the Slottjes to speak with members of the town board, which controls Ulysses’s planning and its zoning laws.
The board members opposed fracking, but couldn’t see how to prevent it. While the board talked with the Slottjes, CCU activists drafted a petition. If enough registered Ulysses voters signed on, the board would have the popular backing it needed for declaring a ban. Ann Furman, a retired schoolteacher who helped found CCU and write the document, recalls, “The petition was pretty specific: ‘We the undersigned want to ban hydrofracking in the town of Ulysses.’” A six-month-long door-to-door campaign followed.