This is the second in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.
Like most people on the left and particularly those with an ecosocialist orientation, I have been following the struggle over fracking quite closely. But I have an additional motivation. Sullivan County in upstate NY, where my tiny village of Woodridge growing up can be found, is a battleground over fracking drawing support from the Hollywood film star Mark Ruffalo who has a country house there.
If you grew up in the southern Catskill Mountains that extends through Sullivan County you will be familiar with the trout streams that were fed by melting snow from those mountains. Their names are legion: the Neversink, the Willowemac and Callicoon Creek. The Neversink was not just valuable for sport; it also feeds the Neversink Reservoir, one of NYC’s primary sources of exceptionally clean water.
When I was young, I used to swim in the Neversink in kind of natural pool underneath a tiny suspension bridge that was designed by John Roebling, the same engineer responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge. Although I stated in my article on Shamir that I have no use for the spiritual, that river is about as close to godlike as any I can think of. It was my Ganges.
The Croton Bridge (named after the company that built it in 1897)
The Riverkeeper Website is a good source of information on the threat posed by fracking:
The entire West-of-Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed (supplying 90% of drinking water to over half the state’s population) sits on top of part of the Marcellus Shale, a large mineral reserve deposit deep beneath the earth’s surface. Oil and gas companies have known about this shale reserve for decades, but the technology to extract natural gas from it has become available only recently. The Marcellus Shale spans across at least five states. To extract natural gas from the mineral reserve, oil companies plan to use a process called “hydraulic fracturing.”
“Fracking” involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into shale formations. This toxic brew, along with any natural gas, is then extracted, or leaked to the surface. Whether any toxic discharges will flow into New York City’s drinking water supply is uncertain.
I keep track of the fracking fight in my hometown newspapers, the Middletown Times-Record and the much smaller circulation Sullivan County Democrat, the newspaper my mom used to write for. Since the hotel industry went bust, Sullivan County has become one of the poorest counties in the state. As such, landowners—many of whom are impoverished farmers—are tempted to lease their land to an energy company. For the time being, Cuomo has suspended fracking but given his shitty politics, there’s some question how long that will last. The third speaker on the panel dealt with NY state issues.
A Middletown Times-Record video on the Neversink River:
The first speaker was Steve Horn, who you may know as the foremost journalist covering the fracking beat right now. I strongly suggest you bookmark his blog: http://www.desmogblog.com/blog/steve-horn
This article from the Middletown Times-Record should give you a sense of the sharp divisions in Sullivan County:
Emotions run high as fracking divides neighbors
Takes toll on communities
By Steve Israel
Times Herald-Record, 02/17/13
An anti-fracking hunter no longer hunts in the woods he’s trod for decades. He says he was made to feel so uncomfortable by the pro-fracking hunting friends who own the land, he just doesn’t feel like he’s wanted there.
A pro-fracking volunteer at a public radio station quits the station. She feels ostracized because of what she says is the anti-fracking atmosphere.
Then there’s the builder of second homes who’s potentially put hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction on hold in Sullivan County towns where fracking is a possibility. He’s waiting until the state finally decides whether the natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will be permitted.
The possibility of fracking – and all its explosive divisiveness – has insinuated itself so deeply into so many aspects of local life, the fabric of that life has been frayed.
That is the one thing both sides of the issue can agree on.
“Everything has become politicized,” says builder Charles Petersheim, who will not build his Catskill Farms homes in certain western Sullivan County towns until the state issues a decision on fracking.
“The grocery store, the town board, the chamber of commerce. And there’s no rest.”
“I don’t think anything has had the impact on the town as much as fracking,” says Town of Highland Supervisor Andy Boyar, whose Delaware River town banned fracking last summer.
“The residue, the hard feelings still exist and we need to heal.”
“It’s permeating other issues in ways we never would have predicted,” sums up former Sullivan West School District Superintendent Ken Hilton. When his district tried to sell one of its unused schools, the issue of whether to keep or sell the mineral rights for natural gas beneath school property became a point of contention.
No subject is immune
From real-estate values that anti-frackers say would plummet and pro-frackers say would soar, to farms that anti – and pro-frackers say would either be ruined or saved, the implications of fracking have, for many local residents, become as much a part of the daily conversation as the weather. And even that weather would be affected by fracking, say those against it, because of the polluting climate change they say fracking would cause.
But nowhere in the region is the reach of the fracking divide more obvious than the town, planning or zoning board meetings of Sullivan County that once attracted a handful of residents but now can be standing-room only whenever there’s a chance fracking might be discussed.
Take the recent public hearing on the proposed comprehensive plan – or blueprint for growth – in the western Sullivan Town of Callicoon. The plan includes a provision for gas drilling, which fracking opponents (and the county planning department) want removed and supporters want retained.
The steady flow of remarks to the Town Board by the standing-room-only crowd of more than 60 made it obvious that virtually every aspect of local life would be hurt or helped by fracking – depending, of course, how you felt about an “issue (that) can affect us all whether we want it or not,” said Nathan Swenberg.
“Are you really ready to gamble with our tax base, our health, our economy,” asked fracking opponent Jill Wiener, ticking off the areas of local life she said will be at risk if the town allows fracking.
The heart of local life
That’s why emotions always run high whenever this potential strand in the fabric of local life is mentioned as a possibility. It’s no exaggeration to say that for some, the debate over fracking gets at the heart of what local life is all about.
Those for it view it as the key to economic progress and livelihood in this county where the unemployment rate hit 10 percent in December.
Some struggling farmers “wait every day to see what New York is going to do,” says Callicoon Supervisor Tom Bose, who mentions a farmer raising cattle in nearby Broome County who’s waiting for gas drilling – and its royalties – to begin, to pay Bose the money he owes him.
But those against it say fracking and its industrial activity will ruin the lifeblood of Sullivan – its pristine water and pastoral land.
“I know people in the city who want to buy homes but won’t consider the area until this thing is resolved,” says Cristian Graca of Shalom Mountain Retreat in Livingston Manor.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the fracking debate has been on the community itself.
“A lot of people are unfriendly to one another,” said Earl Myers at that comprehensive plan meeting.
John Ebert, who supports fracking and the comprehensive plan, put it like this at that meeting when he said he spoke for “the silent majority of citizens in this township” and expressed a sentiment of the most vocal pro-frackers:
“We also have a minority group with a lot of mouth, money and misinformation to slow progressive progress in this township.”
‘You can be blacklisted’
In fact, fracking is so divisive, and so controversial, some choose not to express their real opinions about it for fear they – or their businesses – will be hurt. Others say longtime acquaintances with opposing views on fracking no longer speak to them because of how they feel.
“If you’re not part of the anti-fracking community, you can be blacklisted,” says Petersheim, expressing a sentiment many for fracking say. He’s spoken out against the legality of towns trying to zone out fracking, as well as the laws that are supposed to protect roads from fracking truck traffic, but, he says, would also hurt construction activity.
Bose agrees that folks for fracking often remain silent.
“We’ve seen contractors who can’t wait for this to happen, but they’re cautious in what they say because they don’t want to hurt their business,” he says.
And because whatever decision the state ultimately makes on fracking will bound to be appealed, the divisiveness in so many strands of the fabric of local life is likely to deepen.
That’s why Boyar – who mentions the cursing and obscene gestures he’s seen because of fracking – speaks not only for his town, but also for just about every area that’s been torn by the divisive issue.
“The town really has to go through a healing process.” he says. “It really does.”