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Mark Ruffalo would like to continue enjoying a clean glass of water in New York. But he sees a controversial way of extracting natural gas from shale presenting a problem. The Oscar-nominated actor lives two hours north of the city in Sullivan County, near the Delaware River. Its watershed provides 50 percent of the city’s water, but 50,000 drill sites are proposed there, all of which would use hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” to tap natural-gas reserves. Only exploratory wells exist because there’s a moratorium in New York, but it expires July 1. Ruffalo says if this happens, a clean glass of water in Manhattan could go the way of beaver trapping on the Hudson.
“Upstate and downstate have been considered different universes, but what could happen upstate is going to have severe consequences in New York City,” says the 43-year-old actor. Fracking — the subject of last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland — creates fractures in shale rock that help release the fossil fuel. It’s done with a mixture of water, sand and about 250 mostly undisclosed but largely toxic chemicals. The gas industry says when done right, there’s no threat to the underground water table or the city dwellers downstream.
A broad coalition of opponents thinks otherwise. Ruffalo’s Sullivan County neighbors Debra Winger and Michelle Williams have lent their names and energies to the cause, Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has co-sponsored a bill in the Senate to regulate fracking, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for more study of the process.
“There is an entire portfolio of bad impacts,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which works to protect clean water globally. Fracking can cause methane migration — “People literally can turn on their faucets, and you can light them up,” Kennedy says — and contamination of groundwater with such carcinogens as formaldehyde and benzene. Any spills from trucks that remove toxic waste from the wells could also contaminate the drinking water of millions of people.
Ruffalo became an activist after visiting Dimock, Penn., last year with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill Mountainkeeper. “I was floored by the way people who had let frack wells be drilled on their land were living,” he says. “They can’t drink their well water. They can’t shower in it. Their homes are all but worthless.” A key point in this, Ruffalo adds, is the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which allowed the fracking liquid’s formula to be considered proprietary and exempt from disclosure under water-protection statutes. “If your water gets polluted, the companies say you have to prove they did it,” he says. “And the only proof is naming the chemicals they’re using, which they don’t have to release.”
The actor has been on what he calls “an educational tour” — speaking at colleges, to the state Legislature and “whoever will have me” on radio and TV. At the Oscars, he wore and asked other actors to wear the blue water-droplet pins that have become the anti-fracking symbol. He’d like to see a peer review of the method, an extension of the moratorium and the closing of the loophole that exempts the process from clean-water legislation. Says Winger: “Mark has been such a great public face. He’s very good about holding up bottles of dirty water, stomping his feet and educating people.”
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