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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/26/11

Catskill Mountainkeeper Reports on PA Fracking

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My guest today is Ramsay Adams, Executive Director of Catskill Mountainkeeper. Welcome to OpEdNews, Ramsay. What is the mission of your organization? 

photo credit: Dylan Hershkowitz

Catskill Mountainkeeper is a grassroots member based not for profit organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing the greater Catskill Region in New York State. We are dedicated to creating a flourishing sustainable economy in the Catskills and preserving and protecting the area's long-term health. We address issues of water integrity for the Delaware and Susquehanna River Systems, the defense of the vast woodlands that encompass the Catskill Forest Preserve and the New York City Watershed as well as farmland protection. We promote "smart" development that balances the economic needs and concerns of the Catskill regions' citizens and the protection of our abundant but exceedingly vulnerable natural resources.   Mountainkeeper has over 10,000 e-activist members.

You issued a press release about a recent fracking 'incident' in Pennsylvania. Can you tell our readers what happened?

Late Tuesday night, April 19th, a major blowout occurred during a fracking procedure at a Chesapeake-owned natural gas well in northern Pennsylvania, spilling thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water into a nearby stream. The response time from Chesapeake was abysmal, with the company allowing twelve hours to elapse before they were able to establish the presence of a well-control service at the site of the spill. Despite efforts of crew members, the well continued to go uncapped for over a day, leaking hugely saline and toxic fracking fluids over the containments toward Towanda Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

Seven families were evacuated from the area, and area farmers were discouraged against allowing livestock to drink from surface water.

The spill, which was most likely caused by an equipment malfunction, occurred on the eve of the one-year anniversary of BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, once again reiterating the point that drilling simply isn't safe.

The DEP is in the process of undergoing an investigation of the incident and has already determined that Chesapeake has violated various rules and regulations incorporated under the Clean Streams Law,the Oil and Gas Act, and the Solid Waste Management Act. The investigation has also revealed pollution of nearby waterways and illegal dumping of waste - from fracking fluids - on surrounding land.

Catskill Mountainkeeper filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request with EPA Region 3 on Thursday, April 21, for the release of further information. PA's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) followed suit on Friday, sending a notice of violation to Chesapeake Energy and demanding the disclosure of additional information - including a list of all materials used in that site's fracking fluid, as well as the root cause of the blowout - within five business days.

Chesapeake has suspended their well completion operations statewide until further notice.

"Chesapeake has suspended their well completion operations statewide until further notice." Isn't that a case of closing the barn door after the horse has already escaped? Now what? Will the water in that stream ever be drinkable again?

Chesapeake was right to suspend fracking operations in the wake of last week's blowout, but they will never be able to wholly reverse the effects of such a spill.  For this reason, it is imperative that we strengthen the safeguards we rely on to protect irreplaceable watershed, habitat, livestock and wildlife from this irresponsible and potentially ruinous practice.

This blowout released thousands of gallons of fracking fluid containing unknown quantities of toxic, carcinogenic and even radioactive materials into a nearby stream.  These pollutants were allowed to flow, unchecked, downstream into Towanda Creek and, from there, to the Susquehanna River, the mother channel of the Chesapeake Bay.   We quite simply don't know when, or if, these waters will ever be safe or how much damage the poison from this blowout will do to plant, animal and human life along the way.

In other areas where large spills have occurred, such as Dimock, PA, we are already seeing some of the environmental impacts.  Massive fish kills, livestock, rabbit, bird and other wildlife deaths have already been observed in these areas, and local residents have discovered that they are suddenly capable of literally setting their tap water on fire.  I think it's fairly safe to say that these sorts of environmental repercussions aren't likely to be reversed anytime soon.

We can't undo the damage that's been done.  We can, though, learn from our mistakes so we don't continue to roll the dice on the futures of our waters and health.

Our environment is too precious for that kind of gamble.  We must stop relying on this industry to police itself and embrace our responsibility to put in place the safeguards we need and the enforcement authority that's required to keep essential protections effective.

I agree. But how effective can we citizens be against big-pocketed, well-connected corporations that don't share our concerns?

It does seem hard, at times, to make ourselves heard.  And the power and influence of large corporations can make our voices seem small.

But that doesn't mean that we as citizens of this country and stewards of this land can throw our hands up in defeat and turn our backs on the task at hand.  That's not who we are as Americans.

Time and again, in ways large and small, we've stood up to demand what's right.  What's right for our country, for our future, for our children.

It's time we stood up against dangerous, destructive, irresponsible drilling practices that threaten all that.  It begins by reminding ourselves that corporations like Chesapeake exist for one reason: to earn a profit.  Without that, they can't survive.  And they can earn a profit only one way: by providing the public with something we need.

We must ask ourselves how badly we need natural gas.  Is it bad enough to put workers, fresh water and irreplaceable habitat and wildlife at risk?  If not, we need to let Chesapeake and its shareholders know that it's not.  We need to be prepared to send that message in a way that it's heard.  We need to be prepared, as Americans, to stand up and demand what's right.

When we do that, we'll find, as we have since the opening moments of our history, that our voices are anything but small.  We will be heard.  And we will prevail.

I like the way you think, Ramsay. Anything else you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

This sorry chapter closes on an enduring note: the magnitude of this blowout has focused public attention on the rapid growth of fracking and the growing risks this dangerous, destructive and unsustainable process poses to our workers, waters and wildlife.  This has led to three important developments.

First, news coverage of this disaster has raised community awareness of these risks.  Second, government investigators have uncovered unacceptable weaknesses, lapses and gaps in both industry practices and public oversight.  And, third, the industry itself has been put on notice, with the issuance of an unprecedented $1.1 million fine against Chesapeake, that the people of Pennsylvania will not stand idly by and watch their waters poisoned and their future put at risk by irresponsible industry practices.

What's important going forward is that all of us remain engaged - our state, federal and local governments, the industry itself and, most of all, the public at large.  It was largely the outcry of community members, activist groups and environmental organizations, after all, that prompted state authorities to act, hitting Chesapeake with its largest fine to date in Pennsylvania.  What this affirms, above all, is the power wielded by ordinary citizens when we stand up to demand accountability - from polluters and policy makers alike.

When we think of Pennsylvania, Americans everywhere recall our nation's beginnings, the charters of democracy we live by still, and the words made immortal in the opening lines of our Constitution, endowing "We, the people" with the authority to control our national destiny.  We must insist on the protections needed to prevent our waters and lands from being ravaged.  We must require our elected officials to enforce the laws we pass.  And we must stand up, at times, and demand accountability for any company, large or small, that seeks to profit from the natural resources that constitute our common legacy.  That's the great lesson we've learned this time.  That's what we must carry forward from here.

Well put, Ramsay. Thank you so much for talking with me. Good luck to you and Catskill Mountainkeeper!

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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