As the crowd, which numbered over 1000 people, filed past New York State’s Capitol building in Albany, it seemed for a brief moment that Gov. Andrew Cuomo might hear the mob shouting his name and lean out from one of the ornate windows that overlook the Empire State plaza to acknowledge their presence. He didn’t, but it’s going to be hard to ignore this group of protestors for much longer.
The throng of families, retired school teachers, scientists, business owners, politicians, citizen activists, and grass roots organizers began their event in Albany’s Riverfront Park on Monday (Aug. 27). They gathered to rally for a cause that, despite their various backgrounds, has connected them all: clean drinking water that they say is threatened by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as it is commonly called. By many accounts this was the largest grassroots-led rally seen in Albany in recent years, and all of the protestors called on the Governor for a state-wide ban on hydrofracking, like the one recently passed in Vermont.
Linda Schneekloth travelled from Buffalo to participate. She said, “I am totally opposed to fracking. It’s time for fossil fuels to be over.” She added that fracking is a dangerous process that poses many health risks and that it is like “chemical warfare.”
Author Bill McKibben brought the crowd to their feet after his speech. Like others, he made the issue a personal one for Cuomo. “This is one of those decisions we’ll remember not just for the next few years,” McKibben said. “It’s one of those decisions that will be recorded in geological time.” Many references were made throughout the event to a pending presidential run for the Governor, and it was also noted by one speaker that contaminating New York State’s fresh water sources seemed to be a bad campaign strategy.
“Surely Governor Cuomo, in his wisdom, being the tough-minded and independent thinker that he is, with an eye on his future and this issue,” said actress and Sullivan County resident Debra Winger, “and who is sitting in the lap of his legacy, the issue is right in the lap of his legacy if you get my gist. He will be the one that presses the reset button.”
After other speakers extolled the dangers of fracking, including irreparable pollution to groundwater and the introduction of toxic chemicals to the environment, the group marched through downtown Albany and past the Capitol building before ending in the West Capitol Park where more people made speeches. Along the way, a group performed a piece of street theater depicting Cuomo as a confused, bumbling politician more than willing to accept cash in lieu of science when it came to fracking. The piece ended when a group of actors tore down a drill and replaced it with wind turbines.
Erica Rogers, originally from New York City, watched the group march up State Street on the last leg to the Capitol. She shook her head in disbelief. “I’ve never seen a crowd this big in Albany before,” she said. “It’s shocking to me.” Rogers knew what the protest was about and was visibly upset by the cause. “It’s about fracking; about people poisoning our water. I feel crazy right now. I need water to survive, everybody needs water to survive.”
It was obvious from the intensity and emotion of the demonstration that the pressure was on, and for good reason. When the Department of Environmental Conservation concludes a four-year-study this year, Cuomo is expected to announce his official stance on fracking Marcellus shale for natural gas, possibly by allowing the controversial drilling method in New York’s southern tier. This region is made up of seven counties that border northern Pennsylvania and anti-fracking protestors refer to the area as the “sacrifice zone.”
Ruth Young lives in Chemung County, which lies in that zone. Her speech was titled, “You can do better than this, Governor Cuomo,” and it discussed the troubles that the cities and towns in the sacrifice zone had already seen. Young lives in the village of Horseheads, around a mile away from Schlumberger Limited, an oilfield services company that provides assistance and materials to drilling sites in Pennsylvania’s northern tier. “The local political types see nothing but big dollar signs when they hear, ‘drill baby, drill,’” said Young. “They fail to see the silica dust blown by the prevailing westerlies toward the elementary school, the childcare center, and the residential areas. Silica dust is as hazardous as asbestos and it’s been a part of our environment in the village of Horseheads for four years already.”
It often takes more than a few protests, or one large protest, to get the attention of those in political power. Those who rallied in Albany this week realize that. As of Monday, 3200 people had signed a pledge to resist fracking in New York State by any non-violent means necessary. It was a sentiment echoed repeatedly throughout the protest. Abram Loeb, from Afton, NY, was arrested last spring in Albany when he and other protestors staged a non-violent protest for a ban on fracking. He said that he would be willing to risk arrest again, if need be. “I think [Cuomo] is going to hear us, we’ve got quite a crowd here,” said Loeb. “People will be out blocking the roads if he allows fracking.”
The protestors at the West Capitol Park booed and jeered when Gasland creator Josh Fox offered them a drink of water taken from a fracking site. The container was transparent and it was clear that the brown liquid inside was heavily polluted. Before ending his speech by dialing Cuomo’s office and putting the call on speakerphone, Fox made a vow to the attentive swarm. He said, “If they allow this to happen, I’m putting myself between the rig and the pad.” The crowd went wild.