THE BLOG
05/01/2014 10:47 am ET Updated 5 days ago

How One Woman Made Fracking Get Out of Town (All Over Upstate New York)

By Mary X. Dennis, OnEarth

When Helen Slottje was a high-powered corporate attorney in Boston in the 1990s, she never thought of herself as an environmental crusader. But within a decade she'd become a champion for New Yorkers who don't want fracking in their towns. On Monday, Slottje's work in upstate communities earned her the Goldman Environmental Prize. She is one of six winners across the globe to snag the world's largest monetary award for grassroots environmentalists.

Slottje and her husband David, also a lawyer, traded in their fast-paced lives in 1999 for low-key, country living in Ithaca, a liberal--half-cow, half-college--town in upstate New York. (It's my hometown, too.) "We went from being meat eaters to vegetarians, from not really any religion at all to meditating ... We drank the Kool-Aid," says Slottje. Little did the couple know that what lies below their new hometown--the Marcellus shale formation and its vast deposits of natural gas--would soon bring their legal training back into demand.

Fracking blasts millions of gallons of water, sand, and undisclosed chemicals underground, fracturing bedrock to release trapped gas. The drilling practice first appeared on Slottje's radar in 2007 when she was visiting the sprawling acres of cows and corn that surround Ithaca. There she met many people who had signed leases that allowed companies to frack on their property. At the time, company men were busy knocking on doors, obtaining drilling rights for a fraction of what they were worth.

"People thought they were doing the American, patriotic thing, that it was this great new technology, [that] you wouldn't even know they were there," says Slottje.

But as reports of contaminated groundwater and community disruption began to trickle in from neighboring Pennsylvania, health and environmental concerns over the drilling practice grew. In 2008, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo placed a temporary moratorium on fracking. And public debate exploded.

"You could imagine those pictures of the drill rigs, and the waste pits, and the pipelines swathes, and the huge equipment traveling down narrow rural roads," says Slottje. "In your mind, you could just place that on Ithaca."

The following summer the couple had planned to just relax and work on their golf game. But after Slottje attended her first meeting of "fracktivists," plans changed. The ex-lawyer had morphed into a gorge-tromping, om-chanting Ithacan, but her spirit animal was still a cutthroat corporate shark--and it was coming out for a swim.

Slottje was volunteering with a local legal group when she zoomed in on a statute stating that a town can't regulate the oil and gas industry. "Everyone had read that to mean that you couldn't do anything," she says, but she and David pounced on it. "We were like, well, what does the word 'regulate' mean?" Then the couple discovered that a zoning law, or a land-use prohibition, isn't considered a regulation of industry. Based on a law known as home rule, towns are free to decide their own zoning. Jackpot.

By the fall of 2010, the town of Ulysses was the first to pass a home rule ban on fracking. Dryden, Ithaca, Middlefield, and Caroline followed soon after. Word spread quickly, and soon towns were lining up for the Slottjes' help. Because each town needed unique reasons for instituting a ban, they needed lawyers able to draft the rule. The couple founded the Community Environmental Defense Council and began travelling through upstate like the Jonny Appleseeds of environmental law, a trail of fracking bans sprouting in their wake.

The Slottjes went to board meetings in different towns each night of the work week. Their weekends were then spent sussing out legal strategies for those towns. The next week was the same. And then the next, and the one after that.

Last August, some help arrived when NRDC (which publishes OnEarth) started its Community Fracking Defense Fund, which has helped towns in several states pass local fracking bans. It was a relief, Slottje recalls, to have someone else to pick up their overload of clients. "We've consistently coordinated with the Slottjes, exchanged legal theories and strategy and referred clients to one another," says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in NRDC's New York program. "Certainly their work has been an extremely important model for us."

The oil and gas industry, of course, fought back. Anschutz Exploration Corporation, a company that had invested millions in leases in Dryden, contested the town's zoning ordinance in February 2012. The case didn't just challenge the Dryden ban; Anshutz wanted to shut down any town's right to ban fracking, through any means. The court sided with the town. Another drilling company, Norse, then appealed the ruling to a higher, mid-level appellate court. It, too, ruled in favor of Dryden. So far ... Dryden: 2. Frackers: 0.

Now home rule's fate lies in the hands of the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, with a decision expected in August. The ruling could solidify the 180-some local moratoria and bans currently in place across the state--even if Governor Cuomo decides to legalize fracking statewide next April.

The outlook is optimistic, and such a big win in New York could bring victories nationwide. Calls have been coming in to the Slottjes from attorneys in Florida, Wisconsin, California, and Texas, asking for advice, and the duo are always up to give it.

But despite her Goldman win and the power she's given back to so many small towns, Slottje admits that there's a downside to her fight against fracking: her golf game is really suffering.