October 5, 2011

Fracking Hits Home in Upstate New York

The Town of Caroline, NY, is a quiet rural town in the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York, on the divide of the Chesapeake and St. Lawerence watersheds. I grew up here. Caroline is my hometown and where I've served as an elected Town Councilmember for six years, building a vision for energy independence for our community.

My first encounter with hydraulic fracturing was four years ago. One sunny day, I was riding my bicycle to a Council meeting, and as I approached the bottom of my dirt road, on the next road I saw a caravan of huge white trucks, all with out-of-state plates and completely unmarked, driving slowly down the shoulder of the road.

I got an ominous feeling. I thought, “it looks like a Halliburton multinational corporate invasion of my town.”

A couple of the largest trucks – massive rigs -- had large horizontal disks underneath, and I guessed they were doing seismic testing. “Why are they interested in the geology in Caroline?”

The answer came in the mail less than a year later, in the form of gas drilling leases. They targeted the largest landowners first and then their neighbors. Neighbors found all the land around them leased, and many said, “I might as well sign.” Soon we learned that 55% of Caroline’s land was leased.

We started hearing stories from other communities, disturbing accounts of a new technique called “hydraulic fracturing.” We heard about water contamination, strange illnesses, and water that could be set on fire. We were told the industry was exempted from the Clean Water and Air acts, and that the State had taken away the home-rule authority of towns, and there was nothing our town could do to stop it from coming to Caroline. Citizens began to despair.

Yet, despite all the odds, a small group of citizens chose not to give up. They formed a group called ROUSE (Residents Opposed to Unsafe Shale-gas Extraction), and starting this Spring, organized dozens of citizens to go door-to-door, collecting signatures petitioning the town draft a ban on fracking.

After months of door-to-door organizing, on September 6, they presented the petition to the Town Council, signed by over half of registered voters in the town -- the largest petition in Caroline’s history -- requesting a ban on hydrofracking gas drilling.

Last night, on October 4, over 200 citizens crowded into the Brooktondale Community Center to witness the Town Council’s vote on the historic resolution. I was so moved by the dozens of citizens eloquently calling for a ban and to protect their community. Although we did not win last night’s vote, we have the opportunity at the ballot box on November 8 to elect representatives who will advocate for the health and safety of our citizens.

Before I cast my vote, I made the following statement:

Statement to the Caroline Town Board by Councilmember Dominic Frongillo

Tuesday October 4, 2011

Caroline, New York

I grew up at the bottom of dusty dirt Bailor Road in Caroline. My parents taught me the importance of stewarding our land as we walked along the road picking up the cans and bottles that other people threw out their car windows.

At Caroline Elementary School, our class would walk behind the school to the banks of Six Mile Creek, where we caught crayfish, and I was taught to value clean water.

When I was away at school, I watched Caroline put together its Comprehensive Plan, which gave everyone the opportunity to shape the future vision for the town -- literally written by citizens.

When I graduated from school, I was getting ready to go overseas to join the Peace Corps. One night -- it was right here in this room -- I was asked not to leave, but to serve my town; that I was needed here. I chose to stay, and I am so grateful to be serving our town with all of you.

We are gathered tonight to affirm that we are one town, that we choose the future not just as individuals but as a community.

This is Caroline. We are small quiet town, we know our neighbors, we value both our independence and our community.

Two hundred years ago, Caroline was a rural agricultural town with a vibrant local economy. We were self-reliant. Creameries and mills were powered by the waters of Six Mile Creek.

Times have changed. We are losing our young people to bigger cities. Farmers are nearing retirement with no one to take their place. Residents are facing rising food costs, healthcare costs, taxes, and energy costs. Food pantry attendance has tripled in the last three years.

We are a rural town. We work hard. We volunteer, we give our time. When called, we serve. We don't ask much – just that we can go to bed at night without worrying about the health and safety of our kids. We don’t expect government to solve all our problems. But also we know it isn’t enough for just some of us to proposer; that with our value of independence, there comes a deep sense of common responsibility. It’s a deeply held belief that we as a community are responsible to help out our neighbors when in need that makes our town work.

There are those who say we are divided community -- that there are old-timers and newcomers, a rich Caroline and a poor Caroline, a rural Caroline and an urban Caroline. But I say there are not multiple Caroline’s, we’re one town. There are old-timers in town that want to pass on a clean environment for future generations. There are newcomers in town who volunteer their time with the church and food pantry.

We are not going to let outside forces divide this community; we are not going to let the gas companies or anyone else drive a wedge and pit poor versus rich, newcomers versus old-timers. We are stronger united, as one town, standing as one community, facing our increasing uncertain future together.

Tonight we face an issue causing us to reflect deeply on who we are as a town.

Over this several month process we have seen democracy in action. We have heard many voices, and we are mindful of those who are not present. I am grateful to citizens who have eloquently articulated what is at stake on all sides of this issue and what we must consider in our deliberations.

Eight years ago, we started a four-year process to draft our first Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Town Board, in which we articulated the vision we wanted for our town. We held 11 public meetings and conducted a town-wide survey, and – overwhelmingly -- people said they love our town the way it is, and that we, as a government, should take steps to protect it.

Our Plan was literally written by citizens. Volunteers on three workgroups from broad cross-section of our community compiled all the input to write our Plan. Here’s what we expressed in the vision we want for our town 20 years from now: a safe, affordable place to call home, a vibrant local economy with locally-owned small businesses that enhance our rural town, clean water and air, healthy forests and farmland, and a revitalized farming community for future generations.

Gas drilling on the scale being proposed would fundamentally alter the character of our town. It’s not compatible with the Town of Caroline we know and it’s the opposite direction we chose for our town.

Allowing this scale of industrial activity in our community would not only violate the letter of the law which requires that our land-use policy is based on our Comprehensive Plan, it would violate the spirit of the vision we expressed -- and betray the four-year community process that invited every citizen in shaping what we wanted our community to be like. And the petition before the Town Board confirms this.

Allowing gas drilling, when we had an opportunity to act in congruence with our community’s plan is the height of irresponsibility and the height of disrespect to our participatory democratic process -- when we said citizens in our community had a voice in shaping our future.

I want to respond to some who claim that fracking will make us energy independent – it’s not true; that’s just gas industry propaganda.

We're not going to use the gas drilled here; it will be sold overseas and shipped to countries that are banning fracking but still allowing their companies to come in and drill in our backyard.

We don’t need this gas. In Alaska, oil companies are flaring off gas, burning it off, instead of recapturing it when they drill for oil.

The benefits of the sale of this methane gas beneath us go to enrich faraway, already-subsidized corporate shareholders – they don’t care about our energy independence or and they don’t care about being patriotic.

Let’s face it. We live in a dirty energy economy. And the impacts of 150 years of fossil fuel burning are now hitting home with 100-year storms now happening every 5 years, and record drought, floods, storms, and tornados happening right here.

When I first learned about climate change and how it was threatening my hometown, I traveled to Indonesia, to Denmark, to the United Nations. And there I learned that we are part of a much larger story; that around the world, dirty energy extraction is disrupting communities, corrupting our political and economic institutions, deteriorating our atmosphere, and putting our children’s lives at risk.

Tonight, let’s start changing the story, in Caroline. Here, now.

Let's develop real energy independence for our community that benefits everyone.

Let build a clean energy economy that is by Caroline residents, for Caroline residents.

Let's create energy efficiency in homes. Let's develop our own energy resources that are clean and renewable, like the wind, sun, heat from the ground, small hydro --- returning to power homes and businesses from the waters of Six Mile Creek--, and biomass with our abundant grasses and shrubs. Let’s develop whole, new clean energy industries.

Many of you have not heard that -- as the proposal submitted to the Regional Economic Development Council by Cornell Cooperative Extension -- in the Southern Tier alone, upgrading homes and businesses for energy efficiency would leverage over $1.2 Billion in private capital, promote the growth of over 150 energy efficiency contracting businesses, create more than 4,000 jobs and provide savings for nearly every household in the region with cumulative savings of over $150 million per year staying in our pockets.

It’s up to local government to protect us.The gas companies have been given exemptions at every level: international, federal, state. Local government is the only collective venue left strong enough for citizens to protect themselves.

Contrary to what some tonight have said, we have a responsibility to our citizens to protect the health and welfare of our community.

We are responsible as a Town Board for representing everyone. The five of us sitting at this table represent and must be advocates for everyone who is affected by our decisions, even if they are not present today – and this includes children and future generations.

When one-half of registered voters in Caroline request the Town board to do something, it is our responsibility to make a courageous attempt to honor their request and to be their advocate and try every available option.

This resolution tonight is not a ban on drilling – it’s to simply investigate whether it’s possible. We haven’t even done the research. Let’s pay an attorney. Let’s pay multiple attorneys.

We face uncertainty. We don't know what the state’s final regulations will be around preemption in ECL 23-0303, or if Dryden’s law will hold in court, or if Caroline ourselves would be sued.

What we do know is we have received a petition signed by half of registered voters in this community -- with 71% of people approached signing -- requesting we be their advocate.

Just as the impacts of household decisions can extend beyond borders of private property, the impacts of our town policy extend beyond the town’s borders.

Caroline is the watershed for the City of Ithaca. Other towns bordering the watershed -- Danby, Dryden, and the Town of Ithaca -- have all banned. If the bans hold up in court, and Caroline allows fracking, and despite have “safe operators,” a chemical spill contaminates our water…

Do you really think that the Town of Caroline would not be sued by the City of Ithaca, Ithaca College, Cornell University, Cayuga Medical Center, or all who draw their water in streams and lakes fed by Six Mile Creek for failing to take every reasonable measure to protect their water supply when we had the chance?

If we are to risk, I would risk that we placed the health of our citizens over avoiding lawsuits from foreign corporation. I would risk that we placed the concern for the downstream effects of our actions over the potential for trickle-down money to some in our community. I would risk that we placed the potential for future generations of our farmers to till healthy soil over the potential for future generations of farmers to ask why no one buys food produced in their contaminated soils. I would risk we advocate for our citizen’s right to choose their future over decisions by ceding home rule to Albany. Lastly, if I were to risk, I would risk that we used this moment to recommit to our vision for community we are proud to leave for the next 20 and for the next 200 years.

In the end, that’s what this vote is in about: an opportunity to recommit what is most important to us as a community.

This resolution calls on us as elected leaders to do our due diligence; to seek the best legal advice from as many attorneys as necessary to protect the health and welfare of our citizens.

And this resolution is about hope.
Hope that every farmer for another seven generations can earn a decent living on their land.
Hope that our kids can play outside without fear.
Hope that we create work that contributes to our community.
Hope that a shy kid from the woods can be given the opportunity to serve his community.
Hope that we can meet whatever challenges come our way.

On behalf of past, present, and future Caroline citizens, I cast my vote for investigating every available means to protect our town, our water, air, community, roads, housing values, safety, farmland, rural hillsides, local economy, and our democracy.

Dominic Frongillo is the youngest elected Councilmember in the Town of Caroline, New York.