Though he's frequently called an activist, Joe Levine would much rather be known as a family man who's simply concerned about the environment and, more specifically, preserving his children's access to drinking water.
"Water is precious, it's the next gold," said Levine, a father of two. "It's becoming rarer and rarer for citizens to have access to pure water."
The 56-year-old architect is the co-founder of Citizens For Water, a non-profit organization "committed to protecting and preserving America's water resources today and for all future generations," according to its website. More specifically, the coalition -- which is comprised of business leaders, industry specialists and scientists -- focuses on educating citizens about hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," a controversial fossil fuel-extracting procedure which can allegedly have serious environmental and health impacts. Though Levine says there are between 50 and 60 grassroots groups focused on the dangers of fracking, the New York City-based Citizens for Water aims to act as an umbrella organization that will support those local groups through large fundraising drives, grant writing and other efforts.
The fracking process involves injecting toxic chemicals and water into the ground to break up rocks and expedite the release of natural gas. Though industry officials have denied claims that drilling chemicals pose a threat to drinking water aquifers, Levine and the Citizens for Water team have argued otherwise -- and believe that urban areas, including New York City, may also be in danger.
"People who live in less densely populated areas…they're just screaming into the wilderness. These people have no voice at all," Levine said. "The risks that hydraulic fracturing poses are catastrophic…it's a situation that touches on every aspect of the human condition, and New York City has a vested interest in protecting its water supply."
Though Citizens for Water is a new organization, Levine's passion for the cause certainly is not: in 2008, he co-founded Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS), another grassroots non-profit organization. DCS is based in Pennsylvania's Damascus township, where Levine owns a home, and specifically focuses on fracking in the upper Delaware River basin. "It was something that the media hadn't taken on yet, so the industry had complete control," said Levine, before explaining that residents in nearby Hickory, Pa. were among the first exposed to gas drilling on the East Coast and had already experienced health impacts. "The whole situation just sounded like such a nightmare, and the more I found out, the more I [understood] that was, in fact, the case. This wasn't even about producing energy, it was about making money."
Levine's cause has also attracted some high-profile supporters, including Academy Award-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo, who has lobbied before Congress and the New York Legislature against hydraulic fracturing. Those early DCS meetings partly inspired filmmaker Josh Fox to produce "Gasland," his Sundance Award-winning documentary about the dangers of fracking. (Both Ruffalo and Fox also serve on the Citizens for Water team).
In addition, plans for a large-scale Citizens for Water fundraising concert, which would include a mix of high-profile performers and local artists, are underway for the fall. Even so, Levine isn't planning to rest on his laurels, and is vowing to continue the fight.
"I wanted to get the word out about this, and I feel pretty good having done that," he said. "People have considered it brave … but at a certain point, when you're bullied, you've just got to stand up and say you're not going to take it anymore."
For more information on Citizens for Water, click here.