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Gas Stock Festival galvanizes anti-fracking activists

Published Aug 26, 2010 8:57 PM

An effort to educate people on the dangers of rapidly expanding drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale region brought more than 500 people to the Luzerne County Fairgrounds in northeastern Pennsylvania on Aug. 22. The Gas Stock Festival offered an all-day event with bands, information tables, vendors and a “soap box” section for speakers.

Julie Sautner and Craig Sautner
displaying contaminated water.
Betsey Piette, right.
WW photo: Berta Joubert-Ceci

This part of Pennsylvania is becoming the epicenter for expansion of natural gas drilling. Nearby Dimock in Susquehanna County is considered “ground zero.”

Organizers expressed hope that the event would also help galvanize opponents of the industry. Activists from as far away as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and upstate New York participated, “making the concert the first step in the formation of a statewide coalition,” said organizer Roxanne Pauline.

Pauline’s group, Northeast Pennsylvania Citizens in Action, initiated the event. She told Workers World: “The problems people are experiencing from hydraulic fracking are real, not made up. Dimock is the worst of it, the poster child for when things go wrong, but drilling is impacting people in rural areas in lots of ways. When people in the cities have to pay $10 for a bottle of water, they might get more concerned.”

Dimock made national news last November when 15 residents filed suit against Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas, charging that toxic chemical spills and methane gas from the industry’s frack wells contaminated their drinking water and sickened residents. Some plaintiffs had their water wells explode from methane gas build-up.

Dimock activists Julie Sautner and Craig Sautner brought a large jug containing yellowish-brown contaminated water from their well to the festival. Craig Sautner told Workers World about their ongoing struggle to secure a reliable source of water. They can’t drill another well but live too far to use municipal water lines.

The Sautners continue to experience health problems, including skin rashes, from the filtered water they use for showers and airborne fracking chemicals. “Several news people who came to our place to do interviews all got sick just being here a short time,” Sautner said. “Some got rashes from just being there an hour. A neighbor down the road with a gas pad less than 400 feet from his house gets constant nose bleeds.”

While their case is in litigation, the devastating impact of this disaster continues to affect their lives. “Our only son plans to leave home to get away from the problem. Our grandchildren can’t come to visit us,” Julie Sautner lamented. “We’ve been lied to, pushed around. Enough is enough. We need to push back.”

Her husband continued, “I get job offers but have to put them on hold because I can’t sell a house with dirty water. One day has turned into a week, turned into a month, turned into years. What does it take to get someone to listen to us?”

Yvonne Lucia, co-chair of New York Residents Against Drilling in the Binghamton, N.Y., area, lives five miles from the Pennsylvania border where test wells are being drilled. Lucia told WW, “I’m outraged about the corporate takeover of our lives. All the money that’s being used to subsidize these companies could have gone to green technologies.

“What’s driving this is that we live in an economically depressed area. A lot of industry here before is gone. We may see a huge influx of big money initially from fracking, but when it vanishes in a few years, we’re back to where we started with no sustainable economy.”

Her anti-corporate sentiments were echoed by Jack Ossomt from the Finger Lakes region in New York, where organizers quashed efforts to put in connecting lines to the 182-mile-long Millennium Pipeline, designed to carry gas from frack wells along the state’s southern tier.

“We saw the writing on the wall that it would lead to the expansion of drilling in this area, where extensive exploration is already going on. In several townships over 30 percent of the land is leased already, right near lakes from which hundreds of thousands of people draw drinking water,” Ossomt said.

“An economic study out of Cornell University estimates that over the next 10 years $392 billion of our area’s economy will come from tourism, agriculture and affiliated industries, with only $22 billion from the gas industry. This industry is not a boom for our communities, plus they shove off problems on local people to take care of that far exceed the ability of those communities.

“The root cause of all this is the power of corporations to be seen as a person. They go into court as a super person with tremendous financial resources to pay attorneys to take away our rights,” Ossomt concluded.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Phyllis Mundy from the 120th District called for a statewide moratorium against further drilling. Mundy voiced opposition to the gas industry’s push for enactment of a “pooling” law that would force Pennsylvania property owners to sell their below-ground natural gas rights for drilling if their neighbors were doing the same.

Mundy and other speakers also denounced the industry’s push for state officials to consider drilling to be “a use by right” in all zoning districts. This effort would undermine local bans on drilling or zoning restrictions enacted or being proposed in Pittsburgh and other cities.

Shireen Parsons with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has helped many municipalities draft local anti-fracking ordinances, warned against relying on legislators to curtail the industry.

In just the past year, three of Gov. Ed Rendell’s top staff left state jobs to work in governmental relations jobs for the gas industry. Earlier in August, two consulting firms owned by former governor Tom Ridge signed contracts to serve as strategic advisors to the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Two of Ridge’s former aides are also involved in lobbying on behalf of the industry.

Parsons urged those gathered to begin mobilizing mass opposition to the natural gas industry’s invasion of their communities.