Environment Interview: Helen Slottje, Ithaca lawyer, anti-fracking activist on her receipt of international award

ecopolitologist/via Flickr
April 28, 2014

Helen Slottje, a lawyer and anti-fracking activist from Ithaca, is being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize today. The Goldman Prize is given to activists worldwide who work to safeguard their community’s natural environment. Slottje is receiving the award for her work crafting local laws that restrict hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in towns across upstate. We spoke recently about the birth of that anti-fracking tactic and how it spread across New York.

Helen Slottje : So there’s going to be a train wreck, all these bad things are going to happen, what can a town do to minimize those things? Can you have a lighting ordinance, could you have a noise ordinance, could you have a dust ordinance? How would you enforce these against the gas company? So we started investigating that and looking into what’s the law say? And we look at this pre-emption statute that says local governments cannot regulate the industry. So the question is “what is regulating the industry?” What does that mean? On first blush it looks as if “regulating,” the industry is separate from land use decisions. That once you let the industry in, once you open your door as a town, then the DEC regulates them, but that you could just say, “No. We don’t want that in our town, it’s not consistent with other land uses in our town; we don’t have a place for that. We looked around and there’s nowhere that gas drilling well is going to look good. It’s not going to fit in.” And this was totally contrary to what everyone said. From what the lawyers said, what the industry said, from what the big environmental groups said. They were on record saying towns couldn’t do anything. So we were two people sitting in Ithaca saying, “well we think everyone else is wrong. We think you can ban this.” But we’re conservative people. We wanted to check every avenue to make sure we weren’t wrong.

Morning Edition : Like what?

HS : "Well I'm not going to tell you! Those are our big secrets! But we thought of some of the things they’re raising now. So we were looking at all these different things and growing increasingly confident that we sort of checked things off the list. And so we mentioned in this August 2010 meeting that we’re at with a number of activists, it was probably people through this Tompkins County Council of Governments group, that we’ve looked at this and people wanted updates on their dust ordinance and noise ordinance. . .We’re working on curtain number three which is “just say no.” So we mentioned that we’re not sure. We still haven’t figured out if you do it, what would it look like? But the people we’re talking to, this is the first good news they’ve heard. Everything has been doom and gloom; the train wreck is coming; there’s nothing you can do; move off the shale, but you can’t stop it. And here is somebody saying, “maybe you can stop it.” So they were just thrilled. That took until early January of 2011 to come up with the template of what this was going to look like. We gave a presentation in Ulysses about this, that was recorded and put on YouTube and went viral, and so we got calls from Sullivan County. And once we had Sullivan county people working on this, Tompkins county people working on this, and Otsego county people, then there was sort of enough momentum, in part because people wanted to believe, like this just made sense to people, of course “I can’t put a shed in my front yard, but I can put a drilling rig in my front yard?”

ME : Have you worked with?...

HS : We have probably worked with probably 75% of the towns that have done something in one form or another. Yes, just a tremendous amount of driving, working, drafting.

ME : Yeah, I saw your car out there – how many miles did you put on your car?

HS : A LOT. We probably put 75,000 miles a piece on two different cars.

ME : 75,000 miles?

HS : I think so. Over four years and some years were more than others.

ME : I read that in 2011 you had worked every single day that year on these bans and moratoria?

HS : Yeah, we took our first vacation this year in five years. And we took seven days off straight and only did a little teeny bit of work while we were away.

ME : Where’d you go?

HS : Puerto Rico (laughs), but that’s what I was talking about taking a breath you felt like any town you didn’t get done before the hammer dropped was, was a loss. We were doing it for free and there was a lot of interest and they take a lot of time. And oftentimes, we were so booked during the week, town boards started scheduling special meetings to meet with us on Saturdays and Sundays. David and I would originally go to these meetings together when we started doing this. Wound up that we would go separate directions, so on any given night, he might be travelling to Sullivan County two and a half hours one way. I’d be going out the Avon direction travelling two hours in the opposite direction, getting home at 12:00, 1:00 in the morning and you can’t just go straight to bed you have to kind of like chill.

ME : And talk through it too, I would think?

HS : Yeah, sort of catch up about what happened. “What happened in your town? Well here’s what happened in my town. Well you won’t believe what happened tonight!” Almost all the meetings during the week are at night, so you’d wake up and start drafting then preparing for that evenings meetings, then you’d travel another couple hours. Literally several hours every day one direction all over the state. So when we went somewhere nearby, it was a real treat to not have to travel an hour and a half to get someplace. We rarely stayed overnight anywhere, so you were making these long trips coming home, working, then traveling somewhere else the next day. It was GRUELING. But we just had to do it.

ME : Like you had said, when you’re worried it could be any day now, in the next couple weeks.

HS : Right. You can’t stop. You hope it’s going to be over soon, so something will happen so you can collect yourself and move on to the next phase of things. But it was really tough for three years feeling like any day now this could happen. It was grueling.

ME : What are your future plans?

HS : Hearing about the prize has just been tremendous and that in and of itself has been this opportunity for reflection. This milestone. Let’s recap! And we’re trying to figure that out because all of this requires funding. If you want to have something that is sustainable, and ongoing and that you can really plan for, that requires more than – currently, half the time when we raise money is the equivalent of bake sales or pass the hat. That works, that’s gotten us this far, but with lots of other support, but how do you figure out what the larger plan is? Are we going to find new partnerships because of this? I’ve tried to come up with some great “here’s our plan!” but. .it’s just very surreal to think about not only “is it real?," but what is the impact? How does it change things? Is it just a trip to San Francisco and then you come home?. So far, all we’ve ever done is  just looked at the next best thing everyday every week sort of “do the right thing!” So it’s hard to have this longer term, non-crisis mode...

ME : Yeah, It's like there are these few elements of what does this prize bring? Like monetarily it brings $150,000 to have more of an impact for the cause, and then there’s this recognition that brings legitimacy.

HS : Yeah, so it’s hard to know. The winner from South Africa last year – Jonathon Deal – was also a fracking activist. I’m looking forward to asking him, what did he do? How did it change things for him? And what could we do together as two winners on this same topic and connect with people on different topics that are really part of a systemic issue of people not having control and not getting to make decisions in their communities. It’s 2014 can we do better than incinerating things for energy? Is burning stuff the best we can do? We run around putting out fires, but are we going after the pyromaniac? And really address the root causes of the problem. So I’d like to do that. But HOW? Practically, how it works out with a step-by-step plan of who you’re going to work with, that I don’t know.

ME : Helen Slottje, thank you so much for talking with me today.

HS : This has been just terrific. I really appreciate it.