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Cantarow writes: "In 2012 I first reported on an amazing movement - a grassroots effort in New York State to ban fracking. By that year hundreds of grassroots leaders had fanned out across the state to oppose a drilling process that explodes gas of shale beds to produce what the fossil-fuel industry calls 'natural gas.'"

Anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber is featured in a new documentary, 'Unfractured.' (photo: University of Pittsburgh)
Anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber is featured in a new documentary, 'Unfractured.' (photo: University of Pittsburgh)


By Ellen Cantarow, Reader Supported News

09 November 17


n 2012 I first reported on an amazing movement — a grassroots effort in New York State to ban fracking. By that year hundreds of grassroots leaders had fanned out across the state to oppose a drilling process that explodes gas of shale beds to produce what the fossil-fuel industry calls “natural gas.” One of my interviewees called fracking “the tsunami issue of New York [that] washes across the entire landscape.” Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, termed the movement “the biggest since abolition and women’s rights in New York.”

Awarded $100,00 by the Heinz Foundation for her work against fracking, Steingraber gave the money to the anti-fracking community. Describing that community, one upstate activist told me, “There are so many people working quietly behind the scenes. They’re not in the news, they’re not doing it to get their names in the paper. It’s just the right thing to do.” Her efforts and those of others around the state produced a wave of town zoning ordinances that banned fracking. It was an ingenious strategy, one that took advantage of a state law making town ordinances decisive over state rulings, and it propelled New York State into world acclaim as the cutting edge that successfully opposed the largest industry the world had ever known.

I considered writing a book on the anti-fracking resistance. It had started in Texas and had spread through states including New York. How, then, to portray it? How much to cover? Which spokespeople to highlight? There was Steingraber; there were also Kelly Branigan, the activist I just quoted, as well as a veterinarian in Cooperstown named Julie Huntsman, two former oil corporation executives, Lou Allstadt and Chip Northrup, and many more.

Who to feature and how to focus must have been the initial problem for Chanda Chevannes, Canadian director and producer of an excellent feature-length documentary, “Unfractured,” which will premiere in the US and other countries this coming November 11. (See for details about the New York premiere.) The risk of spreading your range across a number of activists in an article is a proliferation of quotes that will lose the reader’s interest. The risk in a film is having a bunch of talking heads that soon lose the viewers’ interest. Chevannes resolved that problem by focusing on Sandra Steingraber. A preliminary scene shows her speaking in front of the State House in Albany: “Governor Cuomo, we are already on the road, and we are not stopping until we get there. Here is the map!” she declares, arms outstretched. “Join us!” she says, as an overflow crowd applauds. “My name is Sandra Steingraber. And I am unfractured!”

I know of no one in the resistance who would disagree that if a single activist should take center stage in a film about the movement, it would be Steingraber. She is a scientist, an engaging writer — author of Living Downstream, a personal account of her experiences of bladder cancer, contracted in childhood from polluted water, and of Raising Elijah, about the urgency of raising children in an environmentally decaying world. She is also a spellbinding orator. Part of her charisma owes to the fact that she’s a real wordsmith, and part owes to her inclusion of facts about herself — her own illness; that of her husband, Jeff, felled by a series of strokes just as Steingraber was mounting her battle against fracking — and making these part of her political discourse.

“Unfractured” cuts skillfully between Steingraber’s public talks and her personal life. The introduction, a presentation of Steingraber’s speech in Albany, fades into the intimacy of snow falling in Trumansburg, New York, where she lives with her family, the semi-darkness of her house where she dresses and then pours coffee, and her exit with her son, Elijah, to the hospital where Jeff is lying in rehab, electrodes still attached to his body. In the hospital darkness she embraces him and then Elijah. “I’m glad you’re with mom so she’s not alone,” says Jeff. Mother and son then exit and proceed to a rally. “Somehow this monstrous thing, this primitive brutal beast of a thing called fracking which is now all over the world, started here, in my country, and somehow we were all not paying attention, and now it’s come to my doorstep ... [to] hold off the occupying army at our border, and we’re going to have to make sacrifices, including some really personal ones,” Steingraber intones on the bus to the rally, writing a speech we’ll hear her give later. On the bus she talks to an activist colleague about her visit to Jeff — her distress over his confusion about words. No personal detail seems too small to share.

It is made clear within the first twelve minutes of the film that the aim of the anti-fracking movement is to press Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking from the state permanently. “When all eyes in the state turn to Albany,” declares a regional director of Food & Water Watch, “and turn to Governor Cuomo in his State of the State, we’re here to remind him that we won’t accept fracking.... We won’t stop until Governor Cuomo protects our health, and our environment, by keeping fracking out of the state.” Steingraber follows, addressing the crowd, “This morning, before dawn, I said goodbye to my sweetheart in room 438 of the medical center. It wasn’t easy to leave his side, and when I lay down beside him on the narrow hospital bed, I had to be mindful of all the monitor cables and all the various leads. My otherwise healthy, middle-aged husband is an artist and a jazz musician and a teacher, and he’s now a stroke patient ... as my husband fights to regain his speech, I’m here today speaking for both of us. Because the best thing I can do to safeguard my family’s health and the public health of all New Yorkers is to join the call for a ban on hydrofracking.”

The film alternates between Steingraber and her husband, once home, in their private life with their daughter and eldest child (she stands in for Steingraber while she’s away), their son, and Steingraber’s activist work. We are taken to Romania, where a farmer-labor struggle is underway against fracking by Chevron corporation. The rest of the film focuses on Seneca Lake, where Crestwood, a Texas-based corporation, sought to make disused salt caverns by the water into storage places for fracked gas, turning the entire lake region into a Northeast gas hub. We are propelled between local protests and Steingraber’s addresses, her declaration that she wants to show “how Seneca Lake can become an iconic American story to inspire people around the world,” her arrest, and those of other activists.

Crestwood finally backed off. And propelled by a negative report on fracking by New York’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, Governor Cuomo finally made fracking illegal in the state. Weeping with joy, Steingraber declares, “Usually when you win, you’re on the battlefield when it happens.... I felt something come onto me ... the years and years of how hard it was ... it would have been terrible to be so absent from [my family] and tell them that we had lost.” Finally Steingraber declares, “David slew the lion with a slingshot made out of science, love, and grass[roots] political power. We are all makers of the story. And friends, we are unfractured!” Concluding legends inform us that the ban on fracking was announced December 17, 2014, a victory “made possible by thousands of grassroots political activists.” We are also told that Romania finally banned fracking.

A couple of reservations: We don’t learn about one of the movement’s most arresting victories, the town-by-town ban on fracking that proceeded the state’s overall ban. Nor does the film highlight the importance of other figures indispensable in creating the movement’s forward motion. Two of these are Cornell’s Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth, whose 2011 groundbreaking study established fracking as a greater contributor to global warming than coal-mining.

Still, this documentary should be seen by all political activists working to stem climate change. It should remind us all that if New York State can win the battle against fracking, it should be possible for a united movement to win victories against the Trump regime in its collusion with the fossil-fuel industry and its terrifying denial of climate change.

Ellen Cantarow has been writing about fracking for Tom Dispatch and other publications since 2012. She has written on Israel, Palestine, and other topics for Mother Jones, The Village Voice, and other outlets since 1979. your social media marketing partner


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+5 # tedrey 2017-11-09 18:48
Victory always seems so distant and unlikely that reminders like this that it is possible are priceless.
+6 # ddd-rrr 2017-11-09 19:06
Thanks to Ellen Cantarow for this article, and to RSN for publishing it! The story
of fracking, and of those who successfully opposed it, is an important one.
And, it is one that can inspire others to fight successfully against the
ill intentions of large corporations and their political supporters.
+6 # dotlady 2017-11-09 19:23
Well said. But while the amazing Steingraber and so many dedicated others helped bring about the ban, the struggle goes on. Fracking infrastructure continues to claw its way through the farmlands, wetlands, forests and meadows of Orange County with ever more pipelines and huge generating plants every few miles that spew toxics night and day. The state has the constitutional right to protect the safety of its water for residents through the state Department of Environmental Conservation, but this right is being smashed by the uncontrollable gas industry and its enabler, the Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission, an arm of the industry. Where is Governor Cuomo now?
+1 # draypoker 2017-12-07 09:34
All new energy investment from now on should be in technology that doesn't emit CO2. Forget new oil drilling or coal mining. Don't increase them, and plan to phase them out.

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