With the documentary movie Gasland making its national debut on HBO just last week, the nation is now more aware of the environmental issues natural gas fracking poses. What you might not have heard is that many farmers in upstate New York fear the impact that natural gas drilling will have on our grasslands and water, and ultimately our livelihoods. It is an issue that could threaten New York City's food shed but many do not realize what is at stake.
Ken Jaffe, an upstate New York grass-fed beef farmer, is concerned about the devastating impact gas fracking could have on his farm. He penned an impassioned letter to the residents of New York City on the blog "Green State Fair" and advised:
You should understand that the industrialization and pollution of rural upstate New York will kill the production of organic and sustainable food in this region. The area of food production is almost all outside the NYC Watershed, and vulnerable. Massive amounts of toxins will be released into our aquifers and air. Many millions of gallons of these hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, including known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, are pumped into the ground during the drilling process, and released into the air from evaporation tanks.
The most frustrating part of all this is that upstate New York has been economically depressed for decades. It is in trouble, and the sectors that once supported us, like manufacturing and agriculture, have left or are so consolidated that they employ too few people. Who can begrudge communities for hoping that natural gas will give a must-needed economic boost? Promises of jobs and investment are a powerful lure in a place where young people flee, and the population continues to plummet because there are no jobs.
Yet, there is one bright spot in all this gloom: we are seeing a huge increase in our sustainable agriculture sector. We can thank local demand but also our superior pastureland and clean water. New farmers, both young and retired, are reclaiming fallow dairy pastures and raising grass-fed meats and organic produce. This has all been made possible by a passionate and renewed interest in local food and a belief that it is safer. All this progress and hope could be threatened by trusting our future to natural gas when the real future rests on our best asset: our water and superior grasslands, three million acres of which are currently unused. In fact, have so much pasture land we could locally raise grass-fed beef for all of New York City.
The BP spill, in all its horror, should serve as a lesson. Because the federal government has dismantled safeguards that would protect us from pollution, the risk seems to be at the expense of our land. Alarmingly, gas drilling, or fracking, is now exempt from federal pollution laws. As Jaffe explains:
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Pollution of water, air and food from the gas drilling industry is exempt from all federal pollution laws, thanks to Dick Cheney's 2005 Energy Policy Act and its ‘Halliburton Exemption.' Incredibly, gas drillers can pollute without regard to the basic protections in Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, or the Clear Air Act. For instance, it is legal for gas drilling to cause drinking water to contain high levels of carcinogens like benzene that violate the Safe Drinking Water Act because that law simply does not apply if gas drilling is the cause. The public and the environment have been essentially defenseless against gas drillers (who are often the same companies as the oil drillers). They have used the cover of this exemption to ruin the air, water, and landscape of large swaths of several western states, and are now moving east.
The gas companies have made sure to steer clear of New York City's watershed because they know how powerful New York City is politically. But what New York City has failed to see is that they are threatening its foodshed. It is time for us to realize that local sustainable farming is under attack and under great threat just when it has become a positive economic force in our state. Jaffe says it best:
The gas and oil industry is relying on your silence so that they will be unopposed. Their current plans are for 8-10 wells per square mile, pumping billions of gallons of toxic water into the ground. They will pollute the air and water of a large region that represents most of New York State's food shed, directly threatening the agricultural base that you rely upon for your food. This includes the western Catskills, and across the Finger Lakes to western New York. Most of Pennsylvania is also under the gun.
Watch the trailer for Gasland below, and then go here for a list of things you can do to make your voice heard.