Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
The last time Josh Fox was in Arkansas he was just starting off an adventure that would take him through 25 states, filming a documentary on the negative impact of natural gas exploration and a new drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Now, he's back to show and talk about the finished product, "Gasland," which won the special jury prize for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
For those of you who've already seen the film on HBO, or even for those who haven't, Fox's appearances in Fayetteville and Little Rock on Thursday and Friday will include new footage, shot here in Arkansas, that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
"It was one of the hardest things I had to do, to cut the Arkansas section out of the movie," Fox says. "It was really terrible. It could have been a six-hour movie. And we had to do something but it was always our intention to restore that segment on the DVD and then subsequently, when our deal allows us to, to put more of that online."
Fox started off shooting and interviewing folks in Booneville. Andy Cheshier, a member of the group Citizens Against Resource Exploitation (CARE), heard Fox was shooting a film on gas drilling and contacted him about coming to Arkansas.
"He was only supposed to stay one day, but he ended up staying an extra two because there was so much to see and so much to do," Cheshier says. "It was just everyday people living in the country. Some of them were farmers that had cattle that had died. Some of them had water problems, there were lots and lots of water problems. There was a lady that had a lot of health problems when they started drilling by her house. Anybody that wanted to go on camera we talked to them and got a lot of good stuff."
Fox was set to show the film in Arkansas later in the fall, but decided to come a little earlier after getting a call from Rep. Vic Snyder's office. The congressman had seen the documentary at a screening in the Rayburn Building in Washington. Someone from Snyder's office contacted the Clinton School of Public Service about hosting the event in Little Rock.
Fox, whose family has land on the upper Delaware River basin on the border of Pennsylvania and New York, started doing research on fracking after he was offered $100,000 by a gas company to lease his land — an offer he ultimately refused. Fracking is a process in which millions of gallons of water, combined with numerous chemicals (drillers don't like to identify them), are pumped into the ground at very high pressure, fracturing shale formations and releasing natural gas.
Fox interviewed people from all over the country who live near gas drilling operations and have had significant problems arise with their ground water, the use of their land and even their health. During a stop in Pennsylvania, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, one man actually lit his tap water on fire.
"The situation in Arkansas was pretty dire," Fox says. "These people were just surrounded by drilling. They had water problems, they had significant air problems. The serious contamination that I saw was remarkably distressing. One thing that was so clear was the remarkable amount of frustration with ADEQ and any response from state and local government, especially local government. They were very upset and they were saying they felt that their county officials had been bought off."
Even with the extra footage he'll show this week, there were still some things Fox wasn't able to catch on tape. Like his account of a man whose dog was kidnapped by workers on a gas drilling pad on his property.
"There was a whiskey party going on down at the drill site," Fox says, "and they were screaming at him all night and they screamed at him, 'Hey, we've got your dog.' So then he went down there and they pulled a gun on him and stuck it in his stomach. And they said, 'This is what the foreman told us to do to deal with disgruntled landowners like you.' "
Aside from the critical acclaim the film has garnered, local environmentalists feel it validates work they've been doing. Donna Adolph, a middle-school teacher from Bee Branch, started a blog in March called Arkansans for Gas Drilling Accountability after large trucks started spraying her road with a petroleum-based substance. She thinks "Gasland" is a great educational tool.
"I think it's a masterpiece," Adolph says. "The heads of these corporations, their bonuses are based on the bottom line. So for them to put the investment into doing this right, they just don't have the motivation. And the only way they're going to get it is if we make them do it. The only way we can do that is educate our population on what's going on, why it's toxic and what alternatives we have to make it better."
According to Fox, the stories he heard in Arkansas set the tone for the entire film. He will be on hand when the film is shown at the University of Arkansas Continuing Education Center in Fayetteville on Thursday, Aug. 19, at 7 p.m. and at the Clinton School of Public Service on Friday, Aug. 20, at 6 p.m. Contact the Clinton School for reservations.