Lighting Tap Water on Fire

Gasland opens on September 15th at the IFC Center in New York City.

Learn more about Gasland screenings in your area.

When a natural gas mining company offered Josh Fox and his upstate New York neighbors $100,000 each for the right to drill for gas on their land, Fox thought he’d better examine what was going on before he signed away his property. The result is the powerful and eye opening documentary Gasland. Fox playfully derides his neighbors and historical precedents as “Pete Seegar and other banjo-playing freaks,” letting the audience know that he’s not predisposed to being a bleeding heart environmentalist, but a moment later Fox is there plucking the five-string, whiling away the time waiting on hold in an endless loop of phone calls to the mining companies. He is, after all, an otherwise light-hearted everyman artist, trying simply to get to the heart of the matter.

Throughout the film, Fox is the emotional divining rod, wandering and wavering throughout the US, picking up on tragic tales of people, animals and places contaminated beyond repair, pointing always toward the hazardous link between “clean” natural gas and dangerously polluted water. Explaining the problem, Fox says, “Let me start at the beginning: this is Dick Cheney.” In 2005, Cheney’s secretive Energy Commission designed a bill that was able to overturn parts of various decades-old environmental-protection legislation, allowing for a relatively new process of gas drilling, invented by Halliburton. Commonly referred to as “fracking,” in this new process, the mining companies inject a cornucopia of toxic chemicals deep into the ground and explode the rock beds. Companies across 38 states are doing this with almost no oversight or regulations, often operating within feet of homes, schools, streams, wells and aquifers. An EPA spokesmen describes the legislation as “Orwellian” and “Un-American.”

As Fox chases the companies’ operations across the country, he encounters cats and horses losing their hair in clumps, men and women with sudden painful illnesses, and houses where you can literally light the tap water on fire. Cowboys and roughnecks in the far west and deep south–certainly not your granola-eating tree-huggers–decry the situation with pathos, charm and a bit of mordant humor. The gas companies deny, deny, deny.

Fox is able to explain the process and the repercussions with an easy-going verve and a dire sense of urgency. With a swelling populist love for America, Fox gets the viewer to understand the problem and care deeply. Gasland begins as a personal query about Fox’s own land, then slips into documentary filmmaking as he encounters people with stories to tell, ends as activist rallying cry as he exposes one of America’s most dangerous environmental secrets. If audiences are given the opportunity to see these horrifying stories, amazingly wide-spread and consistent wherever natural gas is drilled, it shouldn’t be a secret for long. Look to get involved this summer (if not sooner) at Rooftop Films.

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