If you go to see the Sundance Award winning film, "Gasland" at the IFC Center in New York City, or if you saw it on HBO this past summer, watched it on PBS or saw it at last fall's Sundance Festival, then you're a concerned citizen exercising your right and duty to stay informed.
However if you saw the film in Pennsylvania, watch out. According to a leaked document from the State Department of Homeland Security, published by Pro Publica, since so-called "environmental extremists" pose an increasing threat to ... the energy sector," your seeing the film in Pennsylvania could get your name circulated to law enforcement officials eager to protect the gas drilling industry from ordinary citizens like you.
As reported by Rachel Maddow and in the Pennsylvania paper, the Patriot News, Homeland Security Director James Powers compared himself to Tommy Lee Jones' character in the film "The Fugitive," saying "My concern is public safety." However, the "intelligence" in the briefings includes lists of public meetings the state has determined anti-drilling activists plan to attend.
Yesterday the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Kathryn Klaber, a spokesman for the gas drillers' coalition implied that in attending state meetings, people from the affected communities were somehow endangering the drilling work sites. "Our industry's top priority and most important commitment is to provide our people with the best and safest workplace that we can, and as you'd expect, we take seriously any threats that seek to compromise that environment."
Even with gas drilling's mounting record of water contamination, air pollution, explosions and fires, up until now no one had ever claimed that its dangers were attributable not to the process itself, nor to a lack of appropriate federal regulations, but instead to ordinary citizens exercising their free right of assembly to watch a film, or attend a public hearing sponsored by government.
The gas drilling practice in use is called fracking. It appropriates millions of gallons of public water from rivers, streams and aquifers, and mixes that with millions of gallons of inflammable, highly toxic, undisclosed and unregulated chemicals. Drillers inject this frack fluid into the earth to release the highly pressurized gas and radiation, which shoot up with magnum force. After Pennsylvania welcomed what gas companies promised would be an economic bonanza, it's been hard pressed to manage the millions of gallons of toxic and radioactive waste water created by the fracking process.
It's well documented that in addition to the risks of toxic seepage into wells, aquifers and water supplies, and the near inevitable air pollution, drillers are unable to predict or manage all the possible effects of their mini-earthquakes and seismic activity in invisible geological strata deep within the earth. That's the likeliest reason that spills, explosions and fires have dogged drillers and thus homeowners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The state lacked the budget for an environmental staff sufficient to handle the endless stream of hazardous incidents.
But in the eyes of the PA government officials, and the Marcellus Shale Association, (a pro-drilling group), the danger is not the high intensity, volatile, industrial drilling practices. The danger to public safety was embodied by a group of ordinary citizens sitting in a darkened room watching a film.
In these days of belt-tightening and government cuts, Pennsylvania (like New York state) lacked both the regulations to require safe practices, and the Environmental staff to monitor them. Rather than hold accountable the deep-pocket industry enacting those hazards, it did find the resources to fund the Homeland Security Department, which targeted citizens concerned about the health and safety hazards in their communities.
As New York witnesses what drilling has wrought to its neighbor, New Yorkers face a crucial fork in the road in the upcoming election: accept a so-called economic bonanza that could contaminate not only New York's unfiltered water supply but also its democratic institutions, or turn out in force for candidates who make it clear that they value New York's water and democracy more than campaign contributions, which will leave them beholden to paymasters who seek to call movie goers terrorists. My advice? Go see "Gasland" while you still can.
Update: Late yesterday, PA Governor Ed Rendell, who in news reports was characterized as "appalled," canceled the $125,000 contract between the State's Homeland Security Department and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a Philadelphia firm that disseminated "wrongful and improper reports ... about environmental groups," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Neither Rendell nor former PA Governor Tom Ridge were aware of the contract, yet neither proposed firing the Homeland Security director who issued it. Ridge's firm recently received a $900,000 contract for him to serve as a spokesperson for the driller's group.
Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields questioned why the state "would use my tax dollars to contract with a private security company to spy on me and others with serious concerns related to the unsafe conditions... If this isn't a concerted effort by the government and the gas industry to dampen free speech, I don't know what is. It is shameful. It is un-American.''
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