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New Yorkers form powerful movement against fracking

Earlier this month, New Yorkers won a nine-month moratorium from the state Senate on the dangerous and highly-polluting drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The inspiring story of civic action that led to this decision is told by Maura Stephens in a recently published piece by Yes! Magazine.

Many fighting this battle had never before been involved in political issues. But after seeing the impacts of fracking around the country or in their own daily lives, they got active.

They organized and attended forums, panels, meetings, and rallies—sometimes alongside public figures like actor Mark Ruffalo and singer-songwriter Pete Seeger. Day after day, thousands of people called state senate and assembly offices to pressure for the moratorium. Achieving it was a first-round victory beyond expectations—a small but important win.

With their air, water, land, properties, communities, and health on the line, residents have made the campaign a priority, often sacrificing family time, leisure time, and sleep to keep abreast of developments and share information. “The petrochemical-industrial complex is stealing our land and our health,” says New York resident and architect Joe Levine. “Life as we know it will change forever if we don’t stop them.”

Levine has a home near the New York State border in Damascus, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Jane Cyphers, and their two daughters. The family has turned over their lives to this issue since they were first approached by gas companies wanting to lease their land. They soon realized that their beloved Delaware River would be imperiled by drilling. Levine cofounded Damascus Citizens, a grassroots group made up of people who are fighting to keep the Delaware safe from fracking. Their influence, and the experiences of the town of Dimock, Pennyslvania, inspired Josh Fox to make the documentary Gasland.

Sullivan County, New York, resident Larysa Dyrszka, a retired pediatrician, has also taken on the role of state-level activist for the first time.

“Nobody thought drilling would really come here, to a populated area, with technology that couldn’t ensure against harmful effects to our drinking water and health,” says Dyrszka. “Little did we know it was already happening in Texas and Colorado and in other populated areas.”

Together with her friends and neighbors, Dyrszka started SACRED—Sullivan Area Citizens for Responsible Energy Development. On January 25, Dyrszka joined hundreds of New Yorkers from all corners of the state to lobby their representatives in Albany—many, like Dyrszka, for the first time.

“I was hooked,” Dyrszka says. “Now, whenever Roger [Downs, of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter] or Katharine [Nadeau, of EANY] or any fellow foot-soldier groups suggest a lobby day, I’m there.”

For months, Dyrszka and her fellow activists continued building relationships by phone, e-mail, and in person with legislative staff, sending them scientific, health, legal, economic, and other information on fracking.

Those involved in the organizing, however, also credit the release of the powerful anti-fracking documentary Gasland with influencing the moratorium decision.

Filmmaker Josh Fox brought his award-winning Gasland to many New York cinemas in early summer. Fox, who’d traveled to 24 states to document the heartbreaking human stories behind the industry hype about a “safe, clean fuel,” has appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and other national shows. Gasland has been showing on HBO since debuting there in June. Its scene of a man lighting the water coming from his kitchen tap on fire has become iconic of fracking’s dangers to drinking water. Everywhere it shows, more people join the antifracking movement.

Having recently watched this film, I can attest to its action-stirring message. The devastating effects fracking has incurred on many rural American communities—from explosions to undrinkable water and disease—leaves little doubt that the fight must go on until a permanent moratorium is installed. Thankfully, the movement to do this seems to be growing.

n September, the New York Assembly will vote a similar moratorium bill. Activists are working to ensure it gets to the floor for a vote. Another focus is on educating outgoing Governor David Paterson, whom they expect to sign the moratorium bills (he had threatened to veto, but that’s now unlikely, given the huge majority Senate passage).The incoming governor will be the focus of attention post-election. Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins has called for a total ban on the practice. Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Rick Lazio say they are in favor of “safe” drilling. Activists are already showing up at Cuomo’s statewide rallies to let him know that fracking isn’t safe.

Antifracking advocates believe their multifaceted approach—based on educating themselves, the public, and legislators—will work. They’re optimistic that their concerns about their health, homes, and drinking water won’t be ignored.

“Cooperation from around the state made us succeed in the Senate,” says Dyrszka. “None of us are being paid. Nobody’s offering us money, now or in the future. We’re just fighting for our lives, and that ‘s why we’re winning these little battles.”