em>Athena Ponushis investigates how proposed gas drilling could endanger NYC drinking water.
Josh Fox has watched more than one man light his tap water on fire. He has seen the faucets of six separate homes sputter and ignite into flames. He has filmed the phenomenon, rewound the scene, and played it backwards in slow motion. And on April 30, the director stood between a blue curtain and a Park Avenue crowd, projecting the sensation, projecting his fear for the foreseeable future—the sacrifice of New York City drinking water for more natural gas drilling upstate.
Energy companies are now eyeing the gas-rich reserves sprawled beneath the city’s watershed. But to extract the natural gas, chemicals must be injected into the ground—chemicals not being disclosed to the public, chemicals federally exempt from disclosure. When 36-year-old Fox heard his unfiltered drinking water could be polluted, he could not sleep. The Brooklyn-based filmmaker drove his Toyota and his camera out West to meet those living as neighbors to natural gas, those with enough methane in their water to light their water on fire.
“I didn’t start out to be this much of an extremist,” said Fox, who, driving through 24 states in a month, interviewed a man who has lost his sense of smell, a woman with unidentifiable brain lesions, and a scientist who has compiled a list of 345 chemicals found in accidental drilling explosions.
After recording these stories, his dread of future drilling near his childhood home in Milanville, Pennsylvania intensified. “When you are living in an area where your water’s contaminated, when you’re sick, when your animals are dying, you are inevitably afraid to go near water,” Fox said. “You don’t know if it’s safe to take a shower.”
Last July, Governor David Paterson signed a bill to facilitate further natural gas drilling upstate. The governor simultaneously ordered the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to update an environmental study, assessing the impacts of new drilling technology. An email from the DEC stressed the new law “DOES NOT RELAX EN-VIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS whatsoever.” [sic]
Awaiting the agency’s study, expected to be released for public review this spring, New York City Council Environmental Protection Committee Chair James Gennaro has called for a ban on all gas drilling near any drinking water source. Right now, the proposed ban seems to be stuck in political limbo.
If legislation continues to favor industry, documentarian Fox feels the clips he’s editing may become a backyard reality New Yorkers can’t drink away. “Once the water’s contaminated at the source, it’s permanent and irreparable,” said Fox, co-founder of NY-H2O, a city-based advocacy group dedicated to protecting New York’s water resources. “That’s the most disturbing thing. Hundreds, thousands of years of contamination, when we’ll use the gas up in a few short years. The cost will far outweigh the windfall profit these energy companies will make.”
Greenpoint resident Dorothy Swick wonders if underground contamination has already happened. The 73-year-old bookkeeper bought a home on the border of New York and Pennsylvania nine years ago, where she plans to enjoy much of her retirement with her dog Rocky and her garden of daisies. While the gas industry may not be extracting from the shale underlying the watershed yet, Swick sees a lot of drilling going on, but no one to answer her questions. Because the action’s going on upstate, she worries no one’s paying attention, no one’s making the connection, no one’s thinking about where their water comes from.
“People have a tendency not to believe you, because a lot of people don’t want to be bothered. Water contamination? People think ‘Oh, that can’t happen, the government will take care of it.’ Yeah right,” Swick scoffs and questions the intention of the extraction industry, “Where do these people live where they don’t have to worry about the water?”
Deborah Fasser, spokesperson for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, lives near Albany. She says industry workers live in New York, work in New York, drink the same tap water as the city, and abide by the stringent environmental standards of the state. She also says all “additives” used in future extractions will be revealed to the DEC and feels many drilling fears are unfounded.
“You guys in the city are different because you don’t have this there, they’re not drilling for natural gas in your area, you don’t see it every day,” said Fasser, emphasizing natural gas has been drilled in New York for roughly 100 years. “There are 13,000 active well sites in New York State. Here, it’s a known entity.”
But activists are not looking at well sites practicing time-worn drilling techniques. They’re looking at the 2005 Energy Bill passed by Congress—the bill lending the oil and gas industry exemption from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act, enabling more invasive extraction by means of chemical injection.
Architect Joe Levine points to aerial photographs of such drilling sites in Colorado and Pennsylvania as proof of what industry intends to do. He points to Google-earth images of fading forests to show how industry peels back the land. He designates such sites “sacrificial industrial zones.”
“Think industrial zone, that’s what it means, living in an industrial zone. It means you won’t live there,” said Levine, co-founder of NY-H2O and co-founder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a township group formed to protect the upper Delaware River basin in Pennsylvania. “It won’t be an agricultural zone. It won’t supply the farmers markets or the restaurants. Industry has only one goal—economics. They’re extracting money, not extracting gas. We’re eating ourselves up, it’s like cannibalism.”
As Fox works on his documentary-in-progress, he keeps learning more numbers—a $30 billion filtration plant will be needed if drilling contaminates the city’s drinking water. He keeps hearing more details—not all chemicals can be filtered out, filtration costs will fall to the taxpayers, not the energy extractors.
“I’m hoping we get a little bit of East-Coast-Hell-No attitude, some let’s-go-get-arrested-and-stop-this-action,” Fox said to his audience members, who had leaned their shoulders forward, scratched their foreheads, run their hands through their hair, and rubbed the backs of their necks while watching segments of his film. The director still has bad dreams, but he sleeps because, “It’s different when you feel like you’re doing everything you can—that’s the cure. There’s only one cure for the anxiety this provokes, to be as active as possible.”
To watch clips from Josh Fox’s documentary , visit waterunderattack.com
To find out more about water at risk, visit nyh2o.org.