This morning I was making challah for the Sabbath. The water I mixed with the yeast came straight from the tap. Thankfully, today my water is clean and free of chemical contaminants. But I’m worried that this may change.
My water comes from upstate New York, where gas companies are eager to begin drilling for natural gas to power the energy needs of a growing population. New York City’s watershed lies over the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that stretches from New York, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, to West Virginia. Until recently, gas companies did not have the technology to extract the gas in the Marcellus shale, because it is trapped in small pockets in layers of rock. But now a new and dangerous process called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking or fracking, has made it possible to release gas. The state is expected to lift its ban on fracking in certain areas of the state, according to The New York Times today.
Why is there so much pressure to drill in the Marcellus Shale? I bake my challah in an electric oven, but natural gas is used to generate that electricity. Demand for natural gas is growing (it already makes up 25% of America’s energy) because it is an alternative to coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, and to imported oil.
Fracking poses risks to land and air, but most of all to water. Each time a well is fracked it takes millions of gallons of water. The water is pumped into the ground under pressure. This fractures the rock to release the gas. About half of the water is recaptured; the other half flows away.
Each stage of this process poses threats to the environment. First, the quantities of water required put stress on local wells and water bodies. It takes 2 million to 9 million gallons to frack one well in the Marcellus Shale, and each well is fracked up to 12 times. Second, the water pumped into the ground is mixed with sand and chemicals. It must be treated before it is released back into the watershed, but there are few treatment facilities. Furthermore most treatment facilities are not designed to remove the contaminants introduced by fracking, some of which are unknown because the gas industry has refused to release full information about what is in fracking waste-water. Finally, water that is not recaptured may pollute the water on the ground and surface.
People near to fracking sites are subject to the most risk. But even though I live farther away, I’m scared, too. I buy the flour for my challah at the farmers market. It comes from Farmer Ground in the Finger Lakes Region. More than 40 farms that supply New York City’s Greenmarkets lie above the Marcellus Shale. I am also concerned about the dozens of Jewish summer camps located in the Catskills and the Poconos. What will happen if their wells are contaminated? In fact, fracking threatens the water of 15 million people along the East Coast because the Marcellus Shale underlies much of the Delaware River watershed, the major source of water for New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey.
The risk is real, as I learned from watching Gasland, a documentary about fracking that includes scenes of people setting contaminated water on fire. Yet despite the dangers, fracking is barely regulated. In 2005, under pressure from the gas industry, Congress voted to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. Other environmental laws also exclude gas drilling from their regulations.
The Sabbath table on which I place my fresh-baked challah recalls the altar of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The challah takes the place of the showbread, loaves that were baked by the priests and displayed in the temple. These rituals remind me to appreciate that the meal before me is a gift of God, the earth, and the many people whose work has transformed soil and rain into food. The ritual I find most meaningful is washing my hands as the priests did before they performed a sacrifice. As I raise my hands to recite a blessing I remember that not only the challah, but everything else I will eat and drink, contains water.
To safeguard the water we drink we have to find another source of energy. Drilling has already begun in Pennsylvania and other states. In New York a grassroots movement has resulted in a temporary ban on fracking that has slowed down the gas companies, but this, the groups say, is only a temporary solution. Fossil fuels, including natural gasses, must be replaced by renewable solar and wind energy.
After Shabbat, I’ll be getting back to political organizing to stop fracking, protect our water, and demand clean energy.
Dr. Mirele B Goldsmith is a New York-based environmental psychologist and activist. She created the Tikkun Mayim, a ceremony for repair of our relationship with water, available at www.GreenStridesConsulting.com. She is also a member of the board of Hazon.