On January 21, 2015, scientists, doctors, homeowners, documentarians and activists alike swarmed the New York State Capitol to deliver a message to Governor Andrew Cuomo at his State of the State Address. That message was, surprisingly enough, one of gratitude. Hours later, this same swarm migrated into the Albany Hilton for a victory party. The occasion? A statewide prohibition of hydraulic fracturing--"fracking"--the controversial fossil fuel extraction process--because of a 184-page report from the Department of Health declaring the risk of public health harm was too high to ignore.
A triumph of science and people power, was it not?
Call me cynical, but more importantly, call me Pennsylvanian. I come from a poor family living on a small farm on a dirt road in a minuscule rural town called Dimock, located in the northeastern corner of the state in Susquehanna County. If the name Dimock rings a bell, you may have seen films such as Gasland and Gasland II, which documented families across the country who have experienced the fear, deception, and (literally and figuratively) toxic changes to their communities, bodies, water, soil, and air that arrived with the shale gas development industry.
Our town is in a prime location for this development for more than one reason. The most obvious reason is that Dimock is located on the Marcellus Shale formation, which has been called the Saudi Arabia of natural gas for the amount it could bear. Another especially significant yet often overlooked factor is the poverty plaguing Dimock and the surrounding area. This played a key role in the rapid and massive hold the industry was able to take on the local population: the jobs were needed, the money was promised, and there were so few other options being offered. A decade later, fracking has yet to be halted in Pennsylvania, and as of today a federal jury trial is taking place, in which two Dimock families continue to name Cabot Oil and Gas (the company responsible for fracking and related activities in the area) as the culprits behind their water sources being contaminated irreparably--though numerous other families in the same circumstances were unable to continue the fight and settled in 2012.
Tap water from the Ely household photographed in January 2016. Photo courtesy of Vera Scroggins.
The Marcellus Shale extends into New York State as well, but New York has more money than Pennsylvania. While some parts of New York State remain interested in bringing fracking jobs into their communities, many people prefer to invite less hazardous industries into the state. In fact, the jobs themselves are not only full of health dangers, they are shrouded by industry secrets that make getting adequate medical help potentially impossible. The wealthier citizens of New York were more able to protect their state from fracking--especially when armed with alarming reports of water contamination, air pollution, and health hazards in areas where fracking occurred.
In other words, New York State residents looked across the border at our state of emergency and said "yikes, sure wouldn't want that to happen up here."
If I have learned one thing from this ordeal, it's that people like to say the word "fracking." I have seen campaign after cutesy campaign with slogans like "frack you," "frack the frackers," "go frack yourselves," etc. And while hydraulic fracturing itself is linked to myriad problems, it's just one step in the shale gas development process--and the problems that come with every other step are blamed on the fracturing process alone.
This is where New York messed up. Banning fracking alone did not keep fracking out of the state. The ban did not address storage of pressurized fracked gas in salt caverns, despite the risks. Pipelines such as the Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline and the Constitution Pipeline carrying fracked gas through New York are being built, which is not only an environmentally destructive process in itself, but it draws New York into the fracking cycle.
Tree clearings for the Constitution Pipeline and a sign in protest of the development at a sugar maple farm along the pipeline's route. Photos courtesy of Vera Scroggins.
So the next time you hear someone say how glad they are that fracking is banned in New York, remind them that the gas doesn't magically vanish after its extraction from the ground. For New York to be a truly frack-free state, it needs a ban that includes compressor stations pumping the gas through the pipelines, which are not exactly something most people want in their neighborhoods as it is, and every other piece of the shale gas development puzzle.
As a Dimock girl living in the capital of New York State, I feel a connection between our states that is stronger than a pipeline. If we work together across our shared political border, maybe we can find the solution we have wanted all along.