Fighting Fracking in the Hudson Valley: Actor Mark Ruffalo Leads the Movement to Stop Hydraulic Fracturing for New York’s Natural Gas
Could high-volume hydraulic fracturing be used to mine natural gas in the Valley? Some area residents — including a famous actor — are working to ensure that never happens
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Not on our watch: Anti-fracking activists Jill Weiner and Bruce Ferguson stand in a Sullivan County farm field. Gas companies have offered Pennsylvania farmers an average of $5,000 per acre for drilling rights on their land — a sum many cash-strapped growers find difficult to turn down. Farmhearts, an organization in which Ferguson and Mark Ruffalo are both active, is working to help New York farmers keep their land for agricultural purposes
Photograph by Michael Nelson
From actor to activist
Before Ruffalo began filming You Can Count on Me in Delaware County 16 years ago, he was a restless 27-year-old actor living in Los Angeles, on the heels of a stellar New York stage performance of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. He was good-looking, and life in the big cities was as fast as the rise of his career. As filming of the movie progressed, however, he quickly became enamored of the rolling hills and crystal clear streams of the lower Catskills. It reminded him of his childhood spent in Wisconsin and Virginia.
With the $5,000 he had in the bank, Ruffalo purchased a cabin in Sullivan County; several years ago, when he and his wife, actress Sunrise Coigney, had become the parents of three small children, they moved to a 47-acre dairy farm just a quick ride up the hill from Callicoon (population 222 as of 2007). He drives his kids to school. He frequents places like the Café Devine for morning coffee. He knows farmers by their first names. When Sunrise broke her leg a few years ago, his neighbors suddenly appeared at the front door with food.
It was a simple e-mail he received three years ago from Bruce Ferguson, a member of the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, that changed everything for Ruffalo. “I’d read that Bruce was protesting a zoning law to allow fracking in the area,” he says. “Naturally, I wanted to know if it was headed to Delaware Valley, then was it safe?” So he set about educating himself. He read a 2004 online report by the Environmental Protection Agency concluding that there was little chance hydraulic fracking could contaminate drinking water, a study Ruffalo calls “bogus.” He continued flying through the Internet: there was a story about a woman in Wisconsin who was suffering from lesions on her brain, which he believes may have been caused by her living close to a fracking well. He wrote an impassioned letter to State Senator John J. Bonacic, representative for District 42. “It was the first time I’d ever written to a politician in my life,” Ruffalo said.
Then he was asked to take a one-day journey. On a sweltering afternoon in late June of last year, Ruffalo joined New York State-based environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on a road trip to Dimock. There, he inspected contaminated drinking wells. He saw the aftermath of exploding wells and chemical spills. He spoke with townspeople, whose stories of decreased property values and health concerns seemed to support the claim that Cabot Oil and Gas, the company responsible for the drilling, had denied responsibility for the environmental mess, and further, that state regulators were slow to enforce regulations. On the very same day as Ruffalo’s visit, a blowout at another Pennsylvania natural gas well shot a mixture of gas and polluted water 75 feet into the air.
“I swear, the residents we spoke to out there looked at Robert Kennedy, Jr. as Moses leading them to the Promised Land,” Ruffalo says. “These people had no one supporting them. The EPA had no power, and every safeguard to protect them was gone. I kept thinking to myself, ‘This is America. Things like this should not be happening.’ ”
During his three-hour ride back to Callicoon, Ruffalo thought of his children. He thought about the impact that a similar catastrophe would have on his community. He envisioned the gas companies continuing their eastward march over the Delaware River like an encroaching plague. “I just thought, ‘Man, this is real, it’s here now, and it’s coming to my home,’ ” he said. “The only thing that’s different is that I have a voice that happens to reach a little farther than the others who are passionate about this.”
Ruffalo has gone back to Albany five more times to lobby with several anti-fracking groups. He has visited college campuses. He has screened the controversial Gasland, which served as the first alert of the issue for millions of Americans. A week before the Academy Awards, when he should have been campaigning on talk shows for his Oscar-nominated role in The Kids Are Alright, he went to Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to close oil and gas industry loopholes.
“He is perfectly willing to become the face of this movement, and he makes himself very available. He is really just like any other neighbor, except that people know who he is,” says Bruce Ferguson.
“He’s superhuman,” adds Clare Donohue, a volunteer for www.un-naturalgas.org. “He’s like, ‘Just let me know what you need me to do, and I’ll do it.’ ”