When the Sundance award-winning film, Gasland, begins nationwide broadcast on HBO this Monday, the curtain will rise on Act II of the health tragedy wrought by the insurgent fossil fuel race to profit. This exquisitely crafted documentary feels like America's Nuremberg, as ordinary heartland citizens rise up to indict gas giants, who, they claim, have been on the loose since 2005, when former Vice-President Dick Cheney crafted the so-called Halliburton Loophole.
The Halliburton Loophole expressly exempts oil and gas companies, from customary safety measures, health safeguards, regulatory oversights, penalties and liabilities that most Americans assume are in place to protect citizens, health and resources. As the film depicts, since 2005, the companies have ratcheted into high gear around the country, using a fuel collection practice, called "fracking" linked to drinking water contamination and health harm. Now they have their sights set on New York, with Albany lawmakers currently meeting behind closed doors to either grant or withhold permission to drill in New York, until after the EPA completes safety studies. In the next few days, the Albany decision could effect the health and water supplies of people in New York City, Philadelphia, New York State, New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania where two weeks ago an exploding gas well spewed forth 35,000 gallons of toxins for 16 hours. Moreover, film-maker Josh Fox says that if New York just says: no, it could start a nation-wide trend to halt unsafe fuel prospecting.
Fracking drills deep into the earth to bring forth gas (and radiation) mixing nearly 600 toxic, proprietary chemicals with millions of gallons of public water. Though natural gas is marketed as the "safe" energy source compared with coal, according to an Environmental Working Group report, one single well contains chemicals sufficient to "contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water." When film-maker Josh Fox tracks the hundreds of truckloads used to convey the process into (and out of) a region, the numbers reveal that nearly half of these chemicals are left behind to evaporate into the air, and seep into wells, aquifers, streams, and creeks that flow into rivers. Due to the exemption from Superfund Cleanup, no remediation is required of drillers.
According to people Fox interviewed in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Pennsylvania (states which have already submitted), those seduced by a promised sliver of massive profits, wake up to find that this environmental equivalent of unprotected sex, can all too often contaminate household drinking water, with carcinogens and neurotoxins (found by lab tests.)
In scene after scene of Gasland, families (in rural areas with once pristine water) turn on the kitchen tap. What comes out is darkened, opaque, smelly, chemical-laden water--that explodes into flames when ignited by a match. Yard high flames shoot up from streams and rivers. Many adults and children report health problems, such as persistent headaches, asthma, chronic pain, neurological illnesses, brain tumors and leukemia, which they attribute to drinking and bathing in post-fracking water. Animals lose hair, waste away, and die. In exchange for non-disclosure agreements, the gas companies now truck in drinking water to many households with contaminated water.
Nevertheless, in Gasland, the companies declare before Congress that unprotected fracking is safe. They deny any connection to these widespread problems because there is no "proof." And they have a point. For example, when a gas drill was installed near a rancher's property, his well water turned black overnight. But beyond this circumstantial evidence, without government agencies charged with oversight, what proof can the average citizen provide?
Just as in the Gulf crisis, some contend that proofs of safety should be required prior from industries using unsafe practices. Many assume that government regulatory policies and inspectors are in place to enforce rules that protect public resources and health. But they aren't. For example, New York, where drillers poise to install over 500 gas wells, has 16 inspectors and an environmental oversight agency, which government officials admit is riddled with conflicts of interest.
The Halliburton Loophole exempts oil and gas companies from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Act. In Albany, the Abbabbo-Engelbright bill number S7592, being voted on this week, imposes a moratorium on gas drilling until after a slated EPA study is done. Environmental groups urge calls to Albany now to ask Senator Malcolm Smith, the Senator President, is at 518-455-2701 or 212-298-5585 and Senate Majority Conference Leader John. L. Sampson is at 518-455-2788 and 718-649-7653 to support a one and/or a two year moratorium.
Since New York City's water supply is unfiltered, New York is at a crossroads: Trust the drillers or use protection? City residents, lulled by promises that the upstate reservoir areas will be drilling-free, "have no real assurance that this promise will hold," says NRDC attorney, Kate Sindig. Unless the state-wide ban passes before Albany's immanent six-month recess, fracking will proceed. Sindig predicts that "they will begin drilling in areas outside the reservoir watershed, and then make their move into the watershed. Once they are here, it will be hard to contain them. New York City residents should be very worried."
With this major decision pending, Gasland is a cliff-hanger for everyone alarmed by the erosion of protections seen in the Gulf crisis. Will New Yorkers, (many of whom are unaware of the vote) be the next to succumb? or the first to put the brakes on the industries exempted by the Halliburton Loophole?
Wednesday Update: Concerned New Yorkers can call State Senate Rules Committee members to ask then support the Addabo Bill # S7592A which asks for a Moratorium on High Volume Horizontal Slick Water Hydrofracking until 120 days after the EPA (federal) study is complete. (See contact info in comments below)
Stay tuned. Watch Gasland preview.
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