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Fracking Runs Afoul of Hometown U.S.A.

It's easy to understand why leaders and citizens in Cooperstown, NY, rose up to protect their town against fracking—and towns across America are following suit.

Filled with nostalgia for hot days and salty sweet Cracker Jacks, each year hundreds of thousands of baseball fans make the pilgrimage to this tiny village in the northern Catskill Mountains to celebrate America's oldest past time.

But Cooperstown's draw goes beyond Doubleday Field and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Its rustic yet sophisticated charm lures city dwellers and out-of-state homesteaders craving fresh air, rural landscapes and down-home attractions. Spend a day in Cooperstown and it's easy to see why novelist James Fenimore Cooper immortalized it in The Leatherstocking Tales.

America's hometown, however, is under siege from an energy industry that threatens its very character and livelihood. And, it's not alone. The extreme form of gas extraction known as fracking is spreading to towns across the U.S., with more than 200,000 wells drilled in just under a decade. With it, the boom brings uncertainties about tainted water, poisoned animals and destroyed landscapes.

The oil and gas takeover of main street communities is cheered on by the usual crowds, including pro-industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which favor short-term private gain over the long-term interests of communities. The national groups' views, however, can clash with their local counterparts, such as the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce, which see and feel fracking's real-life impacts. They know fracking threatens their neighborhoods, and support bans against the practice. When it comes to politics and baseball, the locals always root for the home team.

Fracking Comes to Cooperstown

Two years ago as he sipped coffee on a crisp fall morning, Eric Carr, a high school counselor in Cooperstown, was startled to see people in pickup trucks and ATVs parked on his gravel road. He learned that they were a seismic testing agency hired by a Canadian oil and gas exploration company. The land surrounding his dream home had been leased for fracking.

"I knew about fracking, but up until then I had no idea it would come here," he said. "I thought, 'Holy cow, if we have to move, we could lose everything.'"

That same day, Carr alerted his neighbors about the industrial menace closing in. He and his fellow residents began canvassing the neighborhood and formed an anti-fracking group. Nonetheless, all he could do was stand by as workers set off explosives that shook his porch. As the drilling prospects around his house were mapped over the next several weeks, the large plumes of smoke from explosions seemed like ominous warnings of things to come if the fracking industry was allowed to sink wells near his backyard. He worried not only about his own future, but about generations to come that would be saddled with fracking's long-term environmental and health impacts.

From Rural Backyards to Main Street Businesses

That same year, one bright Sunday in August, Larry Bennett saw firsthand the disruption that a heavy industry like fracking brings to a rural area. As he milled about a fine art gallery in Montrose, Penn., the tranquility of the afternoon was shattered by a steady parade of huge, noisy drilling trucks down Main Street. Later that day while driving home on two-lane back roads, he passed numerous tanker trucks hauling toxic waste fluid and two huge staging areas plunked in the middle of the pristine countryside.

Bennett, who serves as the communications director for Cooperstown's Brewery Ommegang, a longtime staple of Cooperstown, soon began to research fracking. He was particularly concerned about the industrial operation's effects on the area's natural beauty and tranquil environment, which attract thousands of tourists per year. According to a 2010 economic impact study, tourism in central New York is a $1.7 billion industry, supporting more than 31,000 jobs.

Fracking requires a heavy industrial buildup, complete with giant well pads containing multiple wells, miles of trucks rumbling down gravel roads, and noisy equipment that runs all night. Fracking sites, which are significant sources of volatile organic compounds, also taint local air quality by increasing ozone levels.

And then there's the issue of water. Each fracking job requires millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and hydrochloric acid. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing in central Wyoming. And in 2012, new research found that natural fluids beneath Pennsylvania's gas fields are likely seeping into the state's drinking water, a finding that contradicts the industry's insistence that injected materials won't migrate out of deeply buried deep rock layers.

"Ommegang's strongest beer contains 90 percent water, so if the water were contaminated, we would be forced to move," says Bennett. "Without water, we're out of business."

Three months later, Ommegang came out against fracking within the town's borders. It was followed by other organizations like the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Cooperstown's Chamber of Commerce, which were concerned that fracking would "irreparably damage the essential qualities that make the Cooperstown area an excellent place to live, raise families, farm and work."

"The essence of this area is its rural, nineteenth century landscapes," explains Ellen Pope, executive director of Otsego 2000, a nonprofit organization that supports a fracking ban. "Industrial shale gas extraction would completely destroy this region's biggest assets."

An Issue That Runs Beyond Red or Blue

In 2011, concerns over the environmental, health and business impacts of fracking, combined with a lack of federal guidance on the issue, led the towns of Middlefield and Otsego, which together encompass the Village of Cooperstown, to pass the first local fracking bans by limiting industrial activities within the town's borders.

The effect of the bans rippled across many other communities that surround upstate New York's iconic Lake Otsego, known as "Glimmerglass" in Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Since then, New York's local bans have been duplicated across the country as hundreds of citizens limited or banned fracking in their area by invoking the traditional power of communities to regulate land use and protect the local character.

The belief in "home rule" is a sentiment that crosses typical party lines, enabling staunch conservatives and even former oil and gas executives to find common ground with tree-hugging environmentalists.

"You don't have to be a paranoid liberal to feel unsettled by fracking. The rules have been written by and for the industry and designed to circumvent our rights," says Bennett of Ommegang. "That's what has brought people together."

So far, the law is on their side. In 2012, two separate New York courts ruled in favor of a town's right to ban industrial gas development, including fracking. Earthjustice is currently representing the town of Dryden, NY on appeal and is working with Middlefield's attorneys to coordinate the clients' efforts. (Editor's Note: On June 30, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that the towns of Dryden and Middlefield can use local zoning laws to ban heavy industry, including oil and gas operations, within municipal borders.)

"These are not the only cases recognizing the traditional right of localities to regulate land use," says Earthjustice managing attorney Deborah Goldberg. "Recently, a Pennsylvania court also ruled that municipalities in that state could not be stripped of their zoning power. The industry may have all the money, but the law is on our side."

Written by Jessica A. Knoblauch. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Fall 2012 issue.

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