Last Saturday night, I was sitting in Bethel Cinema, waiting for Promised Land to start. I overheard the conversation of the couple in front of me and was surprised that neither of them seemed to know the topic of the movie: fracking. The woman leaned over and said, “Do you know what this movie’s even about?” He responded, “I don’t know, I’m just here to see Matt Damon. I assume it’s going to be like another Bourne Identity.”
I wasn’t at the theatre to see Matt Damon. I was there because I first learned about fracking when I attended an Occupy Wall Street rally at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. That introduction prompted me to choose fracking as a research topic in my Social Problems class at Western Connecticut State University last semester.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an environmentally destructive method of extracting natural gas from deep beneath the earth’s surface. First, a frack site is chosen and financial arrangements are made with property owners and contracts are signed. Promises of huge revenues are made by the gas companies, and land owners are assured that the process is safe. Preparations are made. Millions of gallons of water (usually between one and eight million) are trucked in, along with sand and between 80 to 300 tons of chemicals (including methanol and ethylene glycol), all of which is mixed together to create “frack fluid.” After the initial well is drilled, this mixture is injected under high pressure into it. This pressure fractures the shale, a sedimentary rock below the earth’s surface, opens fissures, and enables natural gas to flow out of the well and up the pipeline.
What happens to the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater? Only a small percentage, around 30 to 50 percent, of the wastewater is recovered. That wastewater is often stored in underground tanks, or put in open-air pits where the volatile organic compounds, such as toluene, benzene, xylene, and ethylbenzene can evaporate into the air. Some of the recovered wastewater is trucked to water treatment facilities, but it’s difficult, if impossible, to safely dispose of the chemicals used. The remaining 50 to 70 percent of the contaminated water is not recovered. It eventually leaches into wells and drinking water. There are many accounts of people turning on their faucets and actually being able to light their water on fire due to the flammable chemicals that fracking has added to the supply.
Fracking sites are often on farmland, and although the farmers are well compensated by the gas companies, they are often left with devastating byproducts from the drilling. Farmers have no alternative but to give their livestock the contaminated water, and they’re also forced to irrigate their crops with the same water, which leads to death of their animals and destruction of their crops. Their land is destroyed and unsellable.
There are many accounts of people turning on their faucets and actually being able to light their water on fire due to the flammable chemicals that fracking has added to the supply.
One of the chemicals in frack fluid is ethylbenzene. Although there is limited information on the developmental or reproductive effects of this chemical in humans, the EPA has reported that animal studies have shown the following developmental effects: “fetal resorptions, retardation of skeletal development, and an increased incidence of extra ribs in animals exposed to ethylbenzene via inhalation.” The EPA also reported that studies have shown that ethylbenzene causes “central nervous system toxicity, pulmonary effects, and effects on the liver, kidney and eyes, an increase of kidney and testicular tumors in male rats . . . [and] a suggestive increase in kidney tumors in female rats, lung tumors in male mice, and liver tumors in female mice.”
So why is fracking allowed to continue? Hydraulic fracturing has been used since the 1940s, often illegally and without permits. Since 2003, energy companies have been actively expanding exploration of natural gas and shale formations around the United States; especially in Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Utah, Wyoming, New York, and Maryland. A study conducted in 2004 by the EPA found that “hydraulic fracturing posed no threat to underground drinking water supplied.” After this report was published, hydraulic fracturing was expanded.
The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 ensured access to clean drinking water, free from both natural and man-made contaminants. In 2005, the Bush administration created a new energy bill. This bill included the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. In other words, nobody really knows what’s in the drinking water of “fracked” areas.
In the film Promised Land, Global Natural Gas salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon) arrives in a rural town with his sales partner, Sue Thomas (Frances McDormand). The town has been hit by hard economic times, and the company is certain that the residents will happily sign over the drilling rights to their properties. A respected high school chemistry teacher in the town (Hal Halbrook), with the help of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), an environmental advocate, form a grassroots campaign to raise questions about fracking. To reveal any more of the plot would spoil the experience for movie-goers.
I counted – there were 33 people in the theatre with me. Multiply that times theatre patrons all over the United States. Awareness of fracking is spreading. The couple in front of me now knows what it is; it’s up to them if they choose to do anything about it.
I left the theatre with mixed emotions. While I was happy that the presence of big Hollywood names like Matt Damon and Hal Holbrook will give voice to the topic of fracking, is it really possible for small towns to fight these global giants? As with any issue, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I won’t be giving up mine.