Clean Water vs. Cheap Energy: Can We Have Both?

by |May 9, 2011

Dimmock, Penn. resident Craig Stevens holds up a gallon of contaminated water drawn from a well on his property. Photo by Benjamin Preston

At 6:00 a.m. on Monday, May 2, the sun wasn’t quite up yet, but enough light had seeped over the horizon to reveal a bright green 1996 International school bus rumbling away from Union Square in New York City. Riding the bus were a dozen or so young people dressed in garb reminiscent of the protest heydays of the 1960s. Rolled up posters, a box of pre-prepared trays of cous cous, an acoustic guitar, and a number of drums and rattles were stuffed between the bus’s flat, brown vinyl seats, amongst chattering clusters of sleepy-eyed hippies. Baby-faced Charlie Gonzalez, his mouth and eyes smiling constantly, piloted the bus north on I-87, toward Albany.

Several years ago, Gonzalez, the 30-year-old founder and executive director of Green Bus Tours, left the math and science trappings of MIT‘s mechanical engineering department to pursue a different path. He says the job market was terrible when he graduated in 2002, so he began traveling, and thus discovered the world outside of his left-brained engineering pursuits. Focusing on art and yoga, he decided last year to create a brand promoting sustainable development, holistic healing, clean living — pretty much anything good. That brand is the Green Bus, and this week, its marketing power was directed at convincing state legislators to ban hydraulic fracturing, the controversial natural gas drilling process many believe is a threat to New York’s drinking water.

Charlie Gonzalez's Green Bus. Photo by Benjamin Preston

“It’s all about water — it’s where life begins,” said Gonzalez mashing his foot to the floor to keep the bus going at 65 mph as it climbed a grade. The big diesel engine growled and the bus crested a ridge topped with light green springtime fuzz. Soon, it would be at its destination — the big protest at the state capitol. Gonzalez’s crew were hopeful that they could convince state legislators to put the kibosh on hydraulic fracturing, once and for all. They weren’t the first group to descend on Albany to voice concern about hydraulic fracturing, but they felt different. They were armed with youthful energy and optimism that theirs was the right cause, and that lawmakers would listen to them. In any event, it was as good an excuse as any to gather with likeminded people and raise a little hell about what they saw as an important issue.

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Journey to the Center of the State

Albany is a collection of buildings as diverse as the state over which the city presides. The palatial state capitol seems itself to be a physical manifestation of New York’s Byzantine politics. It took more than 30 years to complete, during which time the state government cycled through several different architects, each building his level in a different architectural style. By the time construction finished in 1899, the ponderous $25 million building (nearly $500 million in today’s dollars) had already begun to sink into its own foundation, creeping downhill toward the Hudson River. Both its elaborate facade and the unending battle to keep it standing seem nearly as complex and expensive as the state legislature’s struggle to keep a state as convoluted as New York running.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. The state's 19th Century capitol building is in the background. Photo by Benjamin Preston

The ultra-modern Empire State Plaza (built at the behest of Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller in a powerful style not unlike the ones preferred by fascists and Soviets in years past), the art deco Alfred E. Smith State Office Building, and the Greek temple-esqe State Education Department Building surround a grassy, tree-lined park in front of the state capitol. Green Bus Tour protesters met more than 300 other people from across the state there to listen to a collection of speakers talk about the ills of hydraulic fracturing, known colloquially as fracking. Like the styles of Albany’s mish-mash of important-looking buildings, New Yorkers’ opinions about fracking vary widely. Some support the practice for its potential economic benefit. The Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York estimates that gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale Formation — the deposit buried deep below five U.S. states — may be worth up to $1 trillion, and could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in New York State.

But the protesters gathered in the park beneath a bronze statue of George Washington were adamant that clean water was more important to them than extra revenue. Despite industry claims that hydraulic fracturing is safe, detractors of the practice say that groundwater has been contaminated by the slurry of chemicals needed to help break apart rock and extract natural gas. Additional concerns have been raised about the profligate use of water associated with the practice. Several million gallons of water can be used to drill a single well — there are currently 14,000 natural gas wells in New York State, and nearly 80,000 in Pennsylvania.

New York State Assemblymember William Colton says no way to fracking. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Strumming a battered guitar and singing a few out-of-tune bars from an improvised anti-fracking song, a gray-haired woman draped in a huge brown shawl urged her fellow protesters to stand up to gas and oil companies. Then came the speakers: Gasland producer Josh Fox, who has gained post-Oscar nomination celebrity for his regular appearances at drilling-related contamination and rally sites around the country; the state’s anti-fracking bill sponsors, Senators Tony Avella and Liz Krueger and Assemblymember William Colton; and a collection of business owners and activists from around the state.

“Are we going to allow fracking in New York State? No fracking way!” screamed an excited Avella, adding, “Forty-two twenty or fight!” in reference to the legislation’s number. “The more people understand how bad this is, the better able we are to win this fight.”

Eric Weltman, a bald, bespectacled man wearing a gray blazer and a cheerful smile, held a clipboard as he made his rounds amongst the protesters, signing people up to receive more information about Food & Water Watch. He is a senior organizer for the Washington, D.C. non-profit’s New York branch, which helped put together the day’s slate of speakers and musicians. Earlier that morning, he had led a busload of 20 or so New York City residents to Albany, telling them that their best strategy would be to pressure Governor Andrew Cuomo into supporting Avella and Colton’s anti-fracking legislation. “Ultimately, our goal is to ban fracking across the country,” he said. “It’s a bold position — there’s no other national environmental organization that’s taking this position — but we believe it’s the right one.”

Gasland filmmaker and celebrity anti-fracking spokesperson Josh Fox reads a hypothetical letter he says Governor Cuomo should deliver to the legislature. Photo by Benjamin Preston

The speeches went on for almost three hours, a quite a few people strayed to the line of food trucks assembled in front of the Education building. Finally, after the last speaker made the rallying cry of “4220 or fight!” a woman with long, gray hair raised a brass hunting horn to her lips. “WhoooooOOOO!” The call had been sounded. Scores of costume-clad protesters lined up into a loosely organized file to begin the march downhill. They were headed to the offices of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the West Firm, one of the law firms known to lobby for gas drilling companies. The line was too long for slogans to be uniform. Sporadic rhyming chants and screams of “Frack No!” echoed off the walls of crumbling, windowless abandoned buildings along State Street. The crowd stretched long and thin over a few hundred yards as it snaked down the hill from the state capitol toward the offices of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But the gathering in front of the DEC headquarters allowed the accordion to compress a bit, and the chanting once again became somewhat unified.

Anti-fracking demonstrators begin the half-mile march to the state's DEC headquarters. Photo by Benjamin Preston

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Conflicting Points of View

Protests are a funny thing. Perhaps its because protesters want so badly to reconnect with the glory days of protesting that they often embody the stereotypes many of us have of what they should look like. The knot of people assembled below the DEC’s headquarters was just such an example. There was no shortage of couples in their 60s. They were denim-shirted, wearing slogan buttons. The women wore their hair long and undyed, the men were white and gray-bearded and stoic. They were seasoned, frost-covered versions of their younger selves. “This reminds me of when we used to march on Washinton in the 60s,” one woman said, a gleam in her eye and a nostalgic smile on her weathered, sun-kissed face.

The group’s more youthful participants — makeupless 20-something women and fresh-faced men with shaggy hairdos and feisty dispositions — wore colorful, mismatched clothing. Prevailing styles of dress featured quilted patterns mixed with plaids and paiseleys. “This is my hippie bling,” said a dreadlocked girl wearing a heavy hemp necklace adorned with large wooden beads. She puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette and smiled, bobbing her head back and forth. Her patched, multicolored skirt flowed to the ground, and she wore a long, dilapidated beige shawl over her shoulders. “I’ve worn this outfit to so many protests, I can’t even count,” she drawled, raising the shawl to reveal a battlefield of warring colors beneath. A hairy leg poked out from beneath the skirt’s tattered hem as she moved.

New York State DEC employees come to the window to see what all the commotion is about. Photo by Benjamin Preston

A handful of bewildered (or maybe they were just thinking, “These guys again?”) government workers staring down from behind the DEC’s lightly mirrored second floor windows were no less predictable. Short gray and white hair. Buttondown shirts and mustaches. Glasses and I.D. badges on nylon lanyards. A woman in a pants suit looked over their shoulders as she shuffled past with a stack of paper cradled in her arms. The besieged bureaucrats looked on for a few minutes, then disappeared from view, presumably to return to the more pressing matters of running the department.

The crowd congealed in front of the West Firm, and a pinstripe-suited man with a shock of short, white hair appeared in the building’s entrance and made his way casually across the street. It was Tom West, the man himself. He stood next to a long-haired young woman holding a megaphone, and the open space around her quickly filled in as demonstrators jostled in to get a better look. A few people shouted jeers, insults and profanities, but eventually, everyone quieted down and West spoke. “I believe hydraulic fracturing can be done safely,” he said. “I’ve seen Gasland and I’ve been to Dimmock (PA). I’ve seen gas wells all over the country, and I’m confident that New York State will continue to regulate itself so that natural gas drilling can be done safely.”

Pro-drilling attorney Tom West addresses demonstrators assembled in front of his office. Photo by Benjamin Preston

“Hey,” Gonzalez said softly to West, “I just want you to know that I appreciate you coming down here, and I love you.”

West smiled and shook his hand. “God bless you.”

Craig Stevens, a Dimmock, Penn. resident featured in Gasland, told West that the Pennsylvania DEP ignored him after repeated requests that they do something about his contaminated well water (he had a gallon of brown tap water with him at the protest). West countered that it was unlikely to happen in New York. His firm represents a number of gas drilling companies — including Chesapeake Energy, LLC, which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of hydrofracking effluent into a Pennsylvania creek a few weeks ago. In New York, he said the industry wants to pay its drilling licensing fees into a state fund dedicated to gas well enforcement. “The state has already said that it won’t allow drilling until it has the staff in place to regulate it,” he explained. He also said that in New York City’s watershed, both the quality of the shale and the extra regulatory steps required make it unlikely that companies would want to drill in those areas of the state. West made available several PDF packages full of facts and figures, all of which pointed out the potential environmental impacts of fracking. With proper regulation and monitoring, the reports indicated that spills could largely be averted and impacts to water supply and environment minimized. By reusing drilling wastewater over and over again, he said water consumption, which his numbers suggested would only be 0.1 percent of the state’s industrial use, could also be reduced.

But most of the protesters weren’t willing to take a chance on regulators and gas companies always doing what they’re supposed to.

“How much do we have to pay you to represent us?” someone shouted.

West’s reply, delivered absolutely straight faced: “You can offer me any amount and I’ll still represent the gas industry. I believe in the blue flame.”

Mounted State Troopers patrolled the edges of the march. Photo by Benjamin Preston

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Fracking Fracas in the Halls of Power

Weltman and other protest organizers encouraged participants to visit state legislators individually at their offices to pressure them into supporting the proposed anti-fracking bill. Most of the legislators have offices in a squat (compared to the Empire State Plaza towers and the spiry capitol), monolithic, windowless white building adjacent to the capitol, but protestors headed over to the capitol entrance to visit the governor’s office. Concentrated in the dimly-lit, red stone stair well outside Governor Cuomo’s office, the crowd once again began to chant. The close quarters seemed to excite the cadence of their incantations, and it crescendoed as expressionless state troopers stepped in front of the office’s glass doors. The sound echoed through the capitols cavernous corridors.

Protesters assemble in front of the Governor's office. Photo by Benjamin Preston

“What do we want?”

“No fracking!”

“When do we want it?”

“NOW!”

If he was in his office, the governor stayed put. Undeterred, the still-shouting crowd marched up several more flights of stairs toward the state senate chambers. Inside the gold-plated, marble-columned room, a state senator spoke to his colleagues about Holocaust remembrance, but it was difficult to hear what he was saying from the gallery. The chanting of protesters just outside a window looking down upon the semicircle of wooden desks drowned out most of his words. The demonstrators moved to a stairwell on the other side of the building, and after a few more speeches by fiery young activists and some more spirited chanting, the excitement reached its climax and the crowd dissipated. A few at a time, they began to filter away down the stairs. The protest was over. “I think it was a success,” said Weltman. “A good rally keeps people motivated, and I think people left with a sense that we can win this.”

A pair of state troopers chatted with one another as they watched the scene from the floor above. “This country was founded on free speech, so it’s good to let people come in and have their say,” said Capt. John Kovaleski. Money has been tight around the state this year, and he’s seen a lot of protests at the state house — sometimes as many as three per week. “I mean, there really shouldn’t be that many people assembled in the stairwell, but they’ll be gone soon.” The last anti-fracking group to descend upon the state capitol last month was much larger — perhaps as many as 500 people — but Kovaleski said they were also older and a lot quieter. He shrugged and smiled, his Stetson casting a deep shadow across his face: “It makes the day go by.”

Protesters listen to their leaders, assembled in the stairwell below. Photo by Benjamin Preston

—–

Looking Forward

Darkness began to fall as Gonzalez drove the green bus back toward the Big Apple. A couple of people dozed, but most were charged by a day spent exercising constitutional rights. Philosophical discussions filled the cabin as the bus sped south. Gonzalez has other events he plans on using the bus for, most immediately, the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. A band will play on the roof and a DJ will spin records on the hood. Music will spread the messages of love and good living Gonzalez has made it his mission to distribute. The anti-fracking protest was only a drop in the bucket, so to speak. Rooftop farming, sustainable agriculture, holistic, sustainable community evolution, healing, love — these are the the tenets of his vision for the future.

“We’re looking to keep the water pure, but we have to purify ourselves internally, too.”

Charlie Gonzalez pilots the Green Bus back to New York City. Photo by Benjamin Preston

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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