“She changed the paradigm of human interaction with the oil and gas industry. As citizens we have the right to say no.”
Telling personal stories
The oil and gas boom has been underway for a number of years in many locations across North America, and there are now a lot of stories about individuals and families whose lives have been personally affected. This post is part of a regular weekly series of those stories on this blog to help you envision what could happen if drilling expands along the Beartooth Front, and what is possible to keep that from happening.
This personal story is different from the others we have presented. It is not the story of someone whose property or health was affected by drilling, but of a grass roots activist whose dedication changed the future for more than 170 towns in New York.
The lesson to be learned is that it is possible for individuals to stand up to the oil and gas industry and use the law to reclaim control over the future of their communities.
You can see other personal stories in this series by clicking here. Note that you can find more by clicking “Older Posts” at the bottom of the page.
Helen Slottje, Ithaca, New York
Helen Slottje is the deserving winner of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, which annually honors grassroots environmental heroes across the globe. She was awarded $175,000, the largest award in the world for environmental activists.
Her story is inspiring. She was working as a commercial attorney at a large Boston law firm when she met her husband David, a colleague at the firm. Slottje left her corporate practice and moved to Ithaca, New York, where David had moved to join a family business. They fell in love with the rustic, small-town charm of the Finger Lakes region and decided to stay for good.
One spring day in 2009, Slottje saw an ad in the local paper announcing a meeting about gas drilling organized by a local community group. She remembered seeing gas leases on every single property when she was helping her brother-in-law find a home in Ithaca. Her curiosity piqued, she went to the meeting—and left horrified at the pictures she had seen.
Once pristine landscapes were scarred by construction, drilling equipment and waste pits. Families were left to deal with dirty water and air, suffering health problems as a result. Horror turned to resolve, and Slottje decided to stay in Ithaca to see this fight through.
Slottje’s first project as a volunteer was to build a legal case against a large industrial complex being built by a fracking company at a vacant former military storage facility in the nearby town of Horseheads. While the case ultimately went the industry’s way, Slottje gained insight into the importance of local zoning and land use laws to limit the adverse impacts of one property’s use on others. Further research led Slottje to conclude that in much the same way as local laws determine how much light and noise is permissible from activities in town, individual townships could use zoning laws to outright ban fracking within their borders.
Slottje first discussed this idea with a gas drilling task force in the town of Ulysses and, with her husband David, helped the group develop a local law to ban fracking. When community members learned of the task force’s work, they supported the committee by drafting a petition to ban fracking, and residents interested in signing it began flooding town hall with phone calls. Word spread to neighboring towns, and soon enough, citizens in towns around the state began to develop similar petitions of their own. Over the next several months, Slottje drove hundreds of miles from one town to the next, providing hundreds of hours of pro bono legal help at community meetings.
While most local citizens and town boards embraced this strategy, the gas industry openly ridiculed and threatened Slottje. Pro-industry individuals verbally assaulted her, followed her to her car late at night after community meetings, and attempted to intimidate her.
When Dryden’s town board unanimously passed a law banning fracking in 2011, the gas industry sued the town. The industry lost the battle in trial court, and following an unsuccessful appeal, the case is now before the state’s highest court.
More than 170 towns and cities throughout New York have passed local laws prohibiting fracking based on Slottje’s innovative legal framework. Many more, inspired by successes of small towns winning over powerful corporations, are working on bans—and informing grassroots organizations in states like California, Texas and Colorado where communities are also grappling with ways to regulate fracking.
Slottje said she’ll use the prestige and money that comes with the award to raise global awareness of her campaign. She believes
“Fracking is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society, an oligarchy, a complete separation of people making decisions and those whose lives they affect.”
Slottje, 46, also plans to take the California bar exam, since anti-fracking activists have gained ground in that state, in preparation for taking on a greater role there. A ban this week in Beverly Hills clearly borrowed directly from Slottje’s work, even though she was not contacted for that case.
And she says she’ll put more of her legal work online so that communities can use her local control argument in their own legal battles.
This short video provides a summary of what she accomplished, and gives us this inspirational quote:
“She changed the paradigm of human interaction with the oil and gas industry. As citizens we have the right to say no. “
The lesson for Montana
This is a powerful lesson for us in Stillwater and Carbon Counties. The conventional wisdom is that Montana law enables the oil and gas industry to do whatever they want, and communities are powerless to stop them. We have discussed this power over and over, and it is formidable.
But what Slottje discovered in New York is also true in Montana. Local communities have the right to stand up and say no. We need to organize at the grass roots level and work with our County Commissioners and Water Conservation Boards to protect landowner rights and preserve the Beartooth Front.