RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Think clean air and water are among your basic rights? They are, but you may have to fight for them, according to an organization helping towns and cities adopt local ordinances to prevent natural gas drilling in their area.
Unconventional natural gas drilling activities, including the toxic fracking process, are under fire as reports of well blowouts, wastewater treatment problems, toxic air pollution, and drinking-water pollution garner stronger citizen opposition to the practice. In fact, the New York Attorney General filed a lawsuit this week to prevent drilling in the Delaware River watershed before the state can finish a study aiming to find out if this type of natural gas drilling is safe. So far, most independent science being published finds that fracking is a potential threat to human health.
Although much of the recent news about natural gas drilling involves the gas-containing Marcellus Shale formation located on the East Coast, and the Barnett formation in Texas, 37 U.S. states harbor rich deposits of natural gas. Since natural gas drilling activity ramped up in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia in the last few years, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has been inundated with calls from desperate parents and community members seeking to keep the industrial activity out of their backyards. "This is a civil rights movement, and the only way we're going to change the unjust laws is by challenging them," says Ben Price, projects director of CELDF. "We can't regulate our way out. We can't protect our communities by regulating how fast they're destroyed."
The city of Pittsburgh is among the municipalities that have so far adopted anti-fracking ordinances drafted by CELDF. And while these ordinances may wind up being tested in court, Price says they are necessary in turning the current broken system on its head. "Just like with slavery or women's rights, it will take a long time, but I think the fact that we're in such deep trouble with the environment, there's more power in it right now," explains documentary filmmaker Anneke Campbell, coauthor of Be the Change: How to Get What You Want in Your Community (Gibbs Smith, 2009).
CELDF's work isn't limited to protecting communities from fracking. In fact, it's drafted ordinances in the past to help local municipalities keep human sewage sludge and aerial pesticide spraying outside municipal borders. CELDF's general theory is that the current regulatory system does not protect the health of people and the environment, but rather issues permits that allow activities that make us sick. The group hopes its community-based rights ordinances put the power back into local communities' hands, not the state's. "These communities don't have a fracking problem, they have a democracy problem," says Price. "Fracking is a symptom of a disease. We wouldn't have that symptom if it weren't for the underlying disease—the stripping of the rights of the people to govern themselves and make decisions for their own communities."