Many of us have seen the footage: as tap water streams from a kitchen faucet, it explodes into flame. The explanation is that well water has been contaminated by toxic residue from the natural gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. “fracking.” Those disturbed and intrigued by this image will find a December evening at Salem’s Progressive Film Series, including a 2010 Academy Award-Nominated documentary and expert speakers, an excellent place to learn more.
The film to be shown is Gasland (104 minutes, Written and Directed by Josh Fox), an entertaining work by a young Pennsylvania theater producer and playwright. Mr. Fox’s tale begins when he receives a letter offering nearly $100,000 to lease his land for gas drilling. He is tempted, but has heard frightening stories about fracking. He investigates with a journey across the United States to meet citizens who’ve had energy companies drill near their homes.
The stories he hears are chillingly similar and often horrific. Over a dozen families report serious illness, ruination of well water and environmental degradation of various kinds. Cloudy tap water is analyzed, revealing a plethora of toxic chemicals (benzene, formaldehyde, barium, arsenic and lead among them). People develop new and chronic illnesses. Animals lose hair, or sicken and die.
But beyond the influx of filthy, bubbling, foul-smelling tap water, Gasland bears witness to an even darker experience shared by these families: they have found their appeals to energy companies and government regulatory agencies largely fruitless. Gas personnel dissemble, deny, defy and treat ordinary citizens with belligerence, leaving victims intimidated and overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness.
The film explains the fracking process so clearly that anyone can understand it. Expert environmental chemists and an EPA employee weigh in, and the exemptions fracking companies enjoy from major federal laws such as the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act are detailed. And lest the majority of viewers feel unaffected, Gasland illustrates the astonishing degree to which our public lands – millions of acres owned by all of us – have been despoiled by thousands upon thousands of gas wells, due mainly to the rewriting of environmental regulations by Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force under the George W. Bush administration.
The well-constructed and absorbing film takes a reasonable tone as Mr. Fox, who serves as narrator, attempts to suppress any expression of his own anger, usually successfully. He is also a banjo player, and as we tour the country we are given occasional musical interludes, some of which jarringly contrast with an unsightly and scarred drilling landscape.
Although Mr. Fox repeatedly asks for input from gas companies so he can present both sides of the story, with very few exceptions he receives no cooperation. As a result the issue is presented almost entirely from the point of view of the victims of the process.
After the film Dr. Michael E. Campana will speak and take questions. Dr. Campana is President of the American Water Resources Association, and a research hydrologist and geologist who blogs on fracking, among other water-related issues, and who is conversant with what he calls “the alphabet soup of organic and inorganic chemicals” released in the process. Also speaking will be Olivia Schmidt, an Oregon activist for environmental justice, who will augment the discussion with personal accounts of the political aspects of energy development.
Many thousands of gas wells using fracking have already been drilled in the United States. As the numbers continue to climb, Gasland and the speakers involved in this Progressive Film Series event present a timely and cogent introduction to the national debate. As Dr. Campana said earlier this week, “The more fracking we do, and the more wells we drill for fracking, the greater the possibility of a serious problem.” A more accurate understanding of both the process and what individuals can do to influence it are only two of the benefits of this exceptional evening.
Progressive Film Series
Dec. 8, 7:00 pm
Historic Grand Theater
191 High St. NE