The second most amazing thing about Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary “Gasland” is that it got made at all. The approach can only be described as amateur-verité. The financing, the everything, really—DIY. He deserves a heap of kudos for this triumph of beginner’s mind; of one individual’s dawning awareness of a seemingly amorphous problem transformed into a kitchen sink triumph. Fox understands story. Taking the tactic of “who do you believe: them or your lying eyes?” to its logical extreme, he presented his views with the simple truth of burning tap water and touched a nation.
Fox, a grassroots theater director with no formal documentary film experience prior to “Gasland,” has screened the film extensively for the nation’s environmental community. In an interview this week with the Baltimore City Paper’s Angela Appleton, Fox laid out the central issue he unveiled in the film:
The EPA’s been screening the film, regional EPA, federal EPA. They’ve been screening the film in Congress, at the Department of Justice. All of the regulators are shocked, but they also feel very disheartened in that their hands are tied, because they don’t have laws to enforce. The Safe Drinking Water Act should pertain to the gas industry. They’re exempt. The Clean Water Act, they’re exempt. The Clean Air Act, they’re exempt. The Superfund law, they’re exempt. All of these basic fundamental American public-health protection laws, they have found a way to get exempt from them through orders of Congress. I showed the film to the entire Department of Justice environmental wing at their annual retreat and they gave it a standing ovation . . . but the lawyers who enforce our environmental laws on behalf of DOJ have said time and time again, we have no laws to enforce. And that is the problem. This is going to take an act of Congress or a presidential executive order or governors’ orders.
A standing ovation from the DOJ environmental wing is worth exactly…nothing, it turns out. “Gasland” highlighted a 2005 legal maneuver that the mainstream media seems to have missed entirely. That naughty bit, “the Cheney clause,” exempted gas industry from all the laws noted above as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. This exemption may prove to be one of the most dangerous environmental exemptions ever considered now that we are in the throes of a phenomenal gas gold rush. It’s like exempting the cigarette industry from tobacco legislation.
The “Gasland” interview with Dr. Theo Colborn, who offered an analysis of some of the 596 chemicals associated with fracking—hydrological fracturing—stands as one of the highlights of the film—along with lighting faucet streams on fire, of course. Those chemicals, identified by certified, independent labs, have been the subject of some of the most furious industry denials related to the film. Even these chemicals comprise just 50 percent of the estimated number of products used in fracking. And, according to Colborn, every one of the chemicals already identified are toxic in some measure at one threshold or another. Industry shills, shown in the film in a pointless and depressing U.S. House subcommittee hearing for U.S Representative Diana DeGette’s well-intentioned and ill-fated FRAC Act, would have you believe that nothing more injurious than, say, vinegar, is being poured down those wells to facilitate the “mini-earthquakes” that unlock the gas.
But the stuff released underground, migrating gas and byproduct deposits commingling with ground water, and the so-called produced water; liquid waste laced with the 596 chemicals mentioned above, is truly scary, is making people sick, and may lead to future cancer clusters and neurological illness rates that are off the scale.
Why haven’t we seen these effects earlier? We have to some degree. But outpatient medical clinics rarely look very far afield in treating mysterious neuropathies that lack evident causation. That, and the fact that the number of active wells is increasing in some regions at a rate of 300 percent a year according to the EPA.
Without wrapping fracking into the environmental coverage offered by The Clean Water Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund law, we’re stuck in no man’s land as far as protection goes—and the nation’s top environmental regulators know it. In an era in which states are desperate for income no matter the cost, free-range fracking is a perfect kind of lottery for big royalty bucks at little cost to the states—unless you factor in the aggregated health costs of a couple generations of people whose water will, over time, kill them if they drink it.
As Fox puts it, with no less eloquence than some of the great whistleblowers of our time, people like Ralph Nader and Wendell Berry:
This is a page taken out of the cigarette companies’ book. We take for granted right now that cigarettes cause cancer, but for 40 years, the industry lied. The industry went out there and perpetuated myths that cancer was naturally occurring—the same language is used by the gas industry. This is “naturally occurring” water contamination.
What Fox has on his side—our side—is direct observation and logic. Will this little documentary light the fire that will right the wrong? No. But it may have lit the fire that grows over time if a sufficient number of people take a page out of the Tea Party manual and start showing up at legislative town hall-type gatherings to vent their outrage. And you know what? Many of the rural people who have been most severely impacted sound otherwise like Republicans or Reagan Democrats to me. They look almost identical to some of their rural Tea Party counterparts except that they are sicker. They are rugged individualists betrayed.
Without such action, direct action, we can expect no action on the part of any government entity. It’s all part of the Cheney-Halliburton legacy, potentially one of the more shameful episodes of oblivious mass-scale poisoning since the industrial revolution began. For that to be so, all we need is for New York to capitulate to gas interests and open the New York City drinking water watershed on the upper Hudson to fracking. And that prohibition remains ever so precarious and under assault by a lobby without a conscience.
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Ga"Gasland" screens for free at the Creative Alliance, Baltimore on August 18, 2011.