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Gasland director Josh Fox talks fracking, chemicals, cancer, and lies

Anti-fracking film screens at the Creative Alliance Aug. 18

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

Flaming tap water, as seen in Gasland


The Creative Alliance at the Patterson, Thursday, Aug. 18 at 7 p.m., free.

A Q&A follows with a panel. Anti-fracking advocate and Maryland state Del. Heather Mizeur; Stephen Cleghorn, a farmer and affected resident; Temple University civil and environmental engineering professor Michel Boufadel; and Lower Susquehanna River Keeper Guy Alsentzer will answer questions. More at

Josh Fox lives on his family’s land in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, in a home that happens to sit atop the enormous, natural gas-rich geological formation the Marcellus Shale. (The Marcellus extends all through the Appalachians, including a portion of western Maryland.) One spring day in 2008, Fox received a letter from a natural gas company offering him $100,000 to lease his land for gas drilling. This piece of mail led Fox on a cross-country investigation culminating in an Oscar-nominated documentary film titled Gasland.

The 2010 film explores the environmental and public-health effects of a natural gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Despite the gravity of the content, the film is playful. Throughout, Fox plays banjo and delivers a laconic voice-over, with comments such as: “As a detective, I was totally out of my league.” One family that doesn’t want to be identified is filmed from the knees down, in their socks, and Fox creates a funny montage of himself making phone call after phone call to gas industry execs with no interest in talking. The film is freewheeling and personal, but it is also dense with data. It points out, for instance, that at least 596 chemicals are used in fracking, yet the industry is generally exempt from revealing chemicals that are considered proprietary, “like the special sauce for a Big Mac,” as one scientist in the film puts it. The film also explores how the natural gas industry came to be exempt from numerous federal environmental and public-health laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Fox’s camera captures apocalyptic stuff: tap water that can be lit on fire; pets with extreme, inexplicable hair loss; streams that bubble like tonic water. And those who live near drilling sites across the country tell him story after story—of loss of smell, of brain lesions, of cancer. While the evidence is largely anecdotal, repetition is damning, and scientists, politicians, and an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whistleblower strengthen the argument. Whether or not you believe that all the horrors Fox uncovers are due to fracking, the film makes a very good case that the burden of proof should lie with the natural gas industry, not with American citizens. Gasland is a call to action.

City Paper recently spoke with Fox by phone.

City Paper : Before starting on this project, were you an aspiring filmmaker in search of a story or an angry citizen in search of a medium?

Josh Fox: I don’t think I was either. I’m a theater director. . . . I’ve [directed] one previous feature film and about 30 different plays in New York and worldwide. But I’ve never made a documentary before. So this was something that was very personal, obviously, the story in the film. But it turned out to be that a documentary was sort of the best way to portray what was happening, so I took a crack at it.

CP: The film reads as your own discovery of what was happening with the natural gas industry. How much did you know before you started?

JF: Not much. It’s pretty much as it is in the film. The proposal came, and that’s just sort of the way this works. Nobody really understands what’s happening when these lease proposals start coming. The natural gas industry is not very forthcoming about what their process is or the effects. In fact, they outright lie about what they are and they capitalize on the ignorance of people. . . . The main thing that the film tries to get across is the massive industrialization process, the massive upheaval of life. It’s very hard to picture that on the front end of it, because one moment you’re living in a town or you’re living in a city or you’re living in a rural setting and the next minute you are—literally almost the next minute, within a year—you’re living in an industrial zone, which is toxic and contaminated.

CP: Was there a particular moment in making the film when you realized you were onto something big?

JF: When I first encountered this issue, it was almost mindboggling to think that this was even a proposal, to propose a massive industrial development in the Delaware River Basin and in the New York City watershed, which is the water source for 16 million people. And then as you get to the places where this has happened, especially considering the Western Slope of Colorado, that’s the headwaters for the drinking water for the whole Southwest. And you realize that that’s being wagered against the profits of gas companies and it’s very scary. This is the kind of thing that you don’t think will happen in America.

CP: As you know, the natural gas industry and some government regulators have come out and said that Gasland is inaccurate.

JF: Which government regulators?

CP: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is one I’ve heard about.

JF: This is one thing that’s really shocking: In their own reports, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission confirm the findings of the film. And yet, that regulatory body is so poised to be pro-industry that it’s shocking. . . . In the beginning of the process, the gas companies lie. They come to your doorstep and say, “This is all going to be fine.” And they know very well that it’s not going to be. And so it’s not surprising that that lie perpetuates all the way down the line, whether it’s The New York Times reporting or it’s me or it’s citizens. This is a page taken out of the cigarette companies’ book. We take for granted right now that cigarettes cause cancer, but for 40 years, the industry lied. The industry went out there and perpetuated myths that cancer was naturally occurring—the same language is used by the gas industry. This is “naturally occurring” water contamination.

CP: I was going to ask you about that. The industry has said that some water problems presented in the film—like people being able to set their tap water on fire—were actually due to naturally occurring methane.

JF: Well, that’s been disproven time and time again. Their only defense is to say that this water contamination was there before we started drilling. It’s utterly absurd. It’s the same kind of absurdity as the cigarette companies saying that lung cancer is naturally occurring.

CP: Have you had any positive response from the EPA or other government regulators?

JF: The EPA’s been screening the film, regional EPA, federal EPA. They’ve been screening the film in Congress, at the Department of Justice. All of the regulators are shocked, but they also feel very disheartened in that their hands are tied, because they don’t have laws to enforce. The Safe Drinking Water Act should pertain to the gas industry. They’re exempt. The Clean Water Act, they’re exempt. The Clean Air Act, they’re exempt. The Superfund law, they’re exempt. All of these basic fundamental American public-health protection laws, they have found a way to get exempt from them through orders of Congress. I showed the film to the entire Department of Justice environmental wing at their annual retreat and they gave it a standing ovation . . . but the lawyers who enforce our environmental laws on behalf of DOJ have said time and time again, we have no laws to enforce. And that is the problem. This is going to take an act of Congress or a presidential executive order or governors’ orders.

CP: The film makes the point that the natural gas industry is allowed to keep some of the chemicals it uses secret, for proprietary reasons. But Gasland makes clear that we already know of numerous toxins that it uses. How will it make a difference if the industry is forced to reveal them all?

JF: The issue is not about all the chemicals that they use—we do have lists. The issue is about well by well, what are they putting into the ground? And having a record. Because when a landowner says, “You’ve contaminated my well, I’ve got [a particular chemical] in my well,” the gas company can come in and say, “Well, we didn’t use that chemical in that well. We used something else.” And because there’s no record, the burden of proof is on the landowner in that case. Not only to prove what’s in the well to begin with, which is difficult and costly, but also then to prove that the gas company used it, and then to prove a migratory pathway. This is something that an ordinary citizen can’t do.

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