John Fenton is a reluctant film star but the gently spoken man in a ten-gallon hat packed out Bangalow’s A&I Hall last night.
John ‘starred’ in Josh Fox’s ground-breaking documentary Gasland, and came to spread the same message to our region: do everything you can to prevent your farms, forests and homes being turned into an industrial wasteland.
He was in Bangalow last night and will be appearing in Casino tonight as a guest of the Greens.
But he was at pains to say his message was non-political and it was important to forge relationships across the political divide if the scourge of unconventional gas was to be halted.
‘We were asleep for a long time,’ he told the crowd. ‘This issue has woken us up and brought us back together as a community.’
And he warned that while community action has halted it in places like New York state, many areas are still open for business.
This includes a broad swathe of prime food-growing area in California that stretches across the San Andreas fault, where 20,000 gas wells are planned.
Meanwhile a gasfield in Texas is experiencing ‘waves of earthquakes as a result of fracking,’ he said.
John’s experience of tight sands gas in tiny community of Pavillion, Wyoming, is anything but academic.
His home is surrounded by gas wells which, when they are being fracked (up to 14 times a day, 24/7), spew a toxic fog around his home.
‘The first time it happened I drove up the road to complain to the gas company but they just pointed to their workers, who were working in the same smog without any protection.’
John and his family and friends have all experienced the effects of gas toxicity and groundwater pollution on their health.
One of the most moving moments of the meeting was when a member of the audience commented that he ‘looked pretty healthy’.
With that, he removed his hat and revealed a coloured balding patch in an otherwise healthy head of hair.
‘My hair, eyebrows and eyelashes all fell out,’ he said.
‘My son, who is 15, has been having seizures since he was three years old.
‘I need to move but my property is worth zero – less than zero now. You couldn’t give it away and I wouldn’t want to subject anyone else to what we’ve been through.’
John said gas workers have one of the highest on-the-job death rates in the US but in areas of high unemployment and relatively low socioeconomic status it’s still tempting to work for the gas companies.
‘Where else can you earn $50 an hour without a college education.’
But he added there was often a terrible price to pay.
‘I’ve worked for a gas company myself but I quickly realised it how much I was paying for it.’
‘If you are injured at work on a gas site they will put you in a company car and drive you to a hospital in another county where they pay for your treatment with cash, then drive you home. That way they escape having it recorded.’
He added that many workers, often young people, are exposed to toxic chemicals without even being told what they are.
‘One young member of our family was working on a gas rig for six months with fracking chemicals leaking out of the top and dripping on his head.’
‘When you try to find out what’s in the solution they will tell you it’s proprietary information and can’t be revealed.’
Companies suppress complaints
But the reaction of the fracking fluids and the chemicals present in the coal seams can create some even more worrying combinations.
‘When we had our well tested there was one chemical present that they couldn’t tell us what it was [because] it was so rare. Who knows what this stuff does to you?’
There have been literally hundreds of cases where groundwater is contaminated but the gas companies first deny liability and if they do give you compensation it’s only after they’ve made you sign a confidentiality agreement, so very few of these cases ever go public.
After a neighbour who had drunk contaminated groundwater ‘cleaned up’ by a reverse osmosis filter supplied by the company developed a serious condition of neuropathy and fits, a local group took the matter to the EPA.
He said the woman, who was once a financial adviser, ‘now has trouble stringing sentences together’.
‘Their draft report said the contamination was related to fracking – and it was the first time any report had ever admitted a link.
‘The reverse osmosis actually concentrated some of the fracking chemicals in the water.’
But he said the state government and the industry ‘went after the EPA’ following the report, ‘and after two-and-a-half years of investigation the investigation was was turned over to the state, and is now being funded by the company’.
In the face of growing resistance in the US, gas companies are adopting more desperate measures, John said.
They are now undertaking ‘petroleum education’ classes in local schools, he said.
In response, he said, ‘it’s important to help kids understand. We bring them to our property and show them how plants grow from seeds and need clean water to grow.’
Asked by a community activist in the room how he managed to retain hope despite the terrible things that had happened to his family and community, John said, ‘Even though it’s hard, I can’t look my kids in the face if I don’t do something’.
He added, ‘I wouldn’t know what was really important if I hadn’t gone through this’.
John Fenton will bring his Warning from Wyoming to Casino tonight at the RSM from 7pm. Admission is by donation.