Heroic Endeavor: NRDC Community Fracking Defense Project

“The Woodlands water has been contaminated by fracking,” came the outrage-tinged voice of my dad in a phone call a couple months ago. “So we're collecting drinking water for them.” The Woodlands, a rural community in western Pennsylvania’s Butler County, is a place where hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is pervasive and the likely cause of a significant number of residents' well water now made unsafe and unusable to the point of sickness.

Abandoned by the state of Pennsylvania and drilling company Rex Energy after the state’s testing found no evidence of groundwater contamination, distressed residents (whose well water is discolored and reeks, and whose families have suffered rashes and other ailments) had nowhere else to turn for clean water but their community. That’s when a group of area churches, including the Presbyterian church where my dad is a pastor, joined together to supply jugs and bottles of clean drinking water to affected families.

The story of enduring terrible conditions in the Woodlands is sadly familiar for other communities in shale country when fracking comes to town, and is precisely why the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) created the Community Fracking Defense Project. The project will “provide legal and policy assistance to towns and local governments seeking added control or protections from hydraulic fracturing in their communities.” The project will operate in five states – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina – with actions tailored to the particulars of the local municipalities and communities in which fracking is happening or planned.

According to Kate Sinding, senior attorney at the NRDC New York office, the Community Fracking Defense Project couldn’t have come sooner:

For too long, communities around the country have had little defense against the oil and gas companies that sweep into their neighborhoods and start fracking without regard for the impacts on the people who live there. If a city or town decides it doesn’t want fracking, or wants to restrict it, their voice should be heard and respected.

With the current boom in US oil and natural gas extraction due almost exclusively to the relatively new fracking technology, the rules and regulations governing the industry haven’t kept up and vary greatly state-by-state. Differences extend even further to the local municipal governments, not to mention local geology. That is why NRDC, as Kate Sinding writes, is wise to officially adopt the strategy of “working with our local partners to evaluate the lay of the land and identify the opportunities that are most promising, effective and potentially precedential in each of these states.”

By working with local partners, NRDC gives voice to communities that want the oil and gas industry to be held accountable for fracking since states often fail to uphold and enforce their own laws, as disclosed in a recent Earthworks report, “Breaking All the Rules.” Whether a community has worked for a ban on fracking or the imposition of stricter regulation, the opportunity to gain the NRDC’s expertise and reach is invaluable. And to give communities wary of fracking some hope, a successful model seems to be emerging in New York State as a moratorium continues unabated, much to the surprise (and chagrin) of the industry. The combination of direct action and local municipal zoning and ordinances model has, for the foreseeable future, put fracking on ice.

Stories about losing one’s drinking water, suffering from health problems or losing the value of a home have proliferated with the fracking wells in places as diverse as the Woodlands, Dish, Texas, Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania. With the launch of the NRDC Community Fracking Defense Project, communities now have some much needed outside support to bolster their efforts.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

We can’t forget to mention the great work of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP), “a nonprofit environmental health organization created to assist and support Washington County residents who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities.” Their website provides invaluable resources for those in dire and immediate trouble in the vicinity of active shale extraction and can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

And already garnering Oscar buzz, the forthcoming Participant Media film called Promised Land, stars Matt Damon as oil and gas landman who faces local opposition and is scheduled for release on December 28th, 2012.

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