Faced with the possibility of natural gas drilling in their state, 900 environmental activists from almost 30 campuses across New York joined together for the first time to coordinate their protests and help each other push back against the practice termed fracking.
Reed Steberger, one of the many leaders of the New York State meeting at Powershift 2011, came up with the idea of organizing the state around fracking. Steberger. a high school dropout who worked his way into to Cornell, has since taken a leadership role as an environmental activist at the state and local levels.
On Sunday, he collected email addresses for a listserv and Facebook group.
“I don’t think I chose fracking as the issue to organize around, it chose me,” said Steberger on the issue. He spent his summer in Ithaca playing folk music and spoke with many landowners there.
Hydrofracturing, or fracking for short, is the process by which sand, water, and chemicals are blasted into a well to create cracks in the earth that release natural gas. It has been banned for years, but on July 3rd, the moratorium on fracking in New York expires. If that happens, drilling is expected to begin soon thereafter.
Chemicals used in fracking have been shown to cause lung disease, cancer and countless other medical conditions. These problems are unusually prevalent in communities where fracking takes place, and have been the focus of several recent documentaries like Gasland and Split Estate.
The natural gas industry’s official position has been that neither the chemicals nor the process is dangerous to people. But the opinions of the people that have become sick or have developed cancer, including and especially those represented in Gasland, is markedly different.
Much of New York lies on the Marcellus Shale, a layer of rock known to be abundant with natural gas.
“It’s the first major moratorium of it’s kind in the world,” said Gasland director Josh Fox, “and it needs to serve as an example for everyone else.”
Steberger said he had a vision of New York in 50 years: he was still able to gaze out at a beautiful landscape. That’s why he and many others from Ithaca came to Powershift, he said, to ask for the help of the rest of the state.
The problems near Ithaca produced a number of leaders that weekend.
Ava Holmes, 15, attended Powershift with a group from her high school, The Lehman Alternative Community School. Back in her hometown, Holmes organized a community screening of Gasland.
While there may not be any fracking going on near Ithica just yet, the nearby Cayuga Lake has fallen victim to fracking pollution nonetheless. Frackers from Pennsylvania dump fluids there. “That’s where we get our drinking water from,” she said.
She was also appalled by the way natural gas companies treated the people whose water they polluted. “The worst thing for me was seeing how the filters the companies gave the people were melted by the chemicals they were supposed to catch,” said Holmes.
Holmes introduced Gasland to 2,000 people, telling her story in the process. “I was born in Oregon, moved four times, and now I live in Ithaca. When I got there, I stopped worrying about all of the construction and smokestacks I’d seen elsewhere,” she said.
But after stumbling upon Gasland in a coffee shop, Holmes returned to activism. She proudly told me about a picture of she had of herself yelling at a construction truck. She was five in the photo.
Beal St. George, a graduate of Ava’s school who is now in college, also opposes fracking. She worked for State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton last summer and will be joining her again after finals.
Lifton is an active opponent of fracking who worked hard to extend the moratorium last summer. She even visited affected communities in Pennsylvania to better understand how her own could eventually look. According to St. George, it only strengthened her resolve.
New York residents made up almost 10% of attendees, the most of any single state. Many of them came from areas that would be affected. “The whole world is looking to New York,” said Fox.
As for the 900 New who attended Powershift, they had each other to look to. Their goal is to coordinate their efforts and make everyone aware of hydrofracking, the moratorium on it, and the damage that could be done if it were lifted.
“If people know the scale of the problem, then they’ll know what the scale of their response needs to be,” said Steberger.