By Sarah Bergen
The 2010 documentary Gasland by Josh Fox asks the disturbing question, “Can you light your water on fire?” and doesn’t stop challenging audiences until the credits roll. Rider students convened in Sweigart Auditorium on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 7:30 p.m. to watch the Oscar-nominated film that exposes the damage that hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” is inflicting on America and its citizens.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and a mixture of chemicals into a well in order to break apart the ground to extract natural gas. Fracking a single well requires 1 million to 8 million gallons of water and 80 to 300 tons of a mixture of 596 chemicals, according to Gasland.
After drilling the well and fracturing the ground, the natural gas surfaces in “produced water” along with a toxic mixture of waste water containing volatile organic compounds such as sulfur dioxide. Waste water is heated in order to evaporate these chemicals, resulting in toxic ozone clouds and acid rain.
The expansion of fracking began when the Bush administration passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempts oil and gas companies from revealing the chemicals used in the process. Furthermore, the bill excuses the process from the regulations laid out in the Safe Drinking Water Act and prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from intervening.
According to the film, our country is sitting on a “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” While the use of this reservoir has allowed natural gas prices to drop to historical lows, the horrid consequences on the environment and health of Americans is producing an ominous dark cloud above the entire country.
Fox began his cross-country voyage to investigate hydraulic fracturing when he was asked to lease his land in Pennsylvania for drilling.
He captured countless horrifying instances of the effects caused by hydraulic fracturing including tap water being set on fire, water turning black or brown because of pollutants and even wells combusting into flames. He also collected many complaints about health issues caused by the pollutants including intense headaches and body aches, loss of sense of smell and taste and even irreversible brain damage.
When these victims seek help and assistance, they are told that “there is no proof” and they should “get an attorney.” One victim said that trying to reason with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was “like talking to a tree.”
Fox argues that when it comes to drilling for natural gas, democracy does not seem to matter.
Not only are American citizens being plagued by horrid health effects, but the animals that end up on our dinner plates are contaminated as well. Fox visited Wyoming rancher John Fenton, who has 24 gas wells on his farm which caused his cows to breathe polluted air and drink toxic water. While fracking may not be directly affecting New Jersey yet, the consumption of toxic beef and milk is not unlikely.
The documentary says that fracking sites can be found in 28 states, two of which are close neighbors of Rider: New York and Pennsylvania. Sites in Pennsylvania already lie dangerously close to the Delaware Water Basin, which provides water to 15.6 million people in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. Oil and gas companies continue to seek permission to drill along the Delaware River, but a growing crowd is working to fight their efforts.
Jillian Spratt, junior environmental science major and an Eco-Rep at Rider, helped coordinate the showing of the documentary. She spoke about her personal experience at a fracking rally in Trenton last fall to protest drilling along the Delaware River. Fox was also a part of the effort.
“It is extremely scary to think that if drilling does occur in the Delaware River Basin, this problem will become an even more local one,” Spratt said. “This is where Mercer County and students of Rider University get their drinking water. Fracking is something everyone needs to be aware of, especially around here.”