Big Oil vs. Small Towns: New York Fractivists Take a Stand

| 4/28/2014 9:00:00 AM

Helen Slottje 

Goldman Environmental Prize winner Helen Slottje is a former corporate lawyer who is single-handedly shutting down fracking in the state of New York.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is rising quickly as an alternative to rapidly depleting conventional sources of fuel, but the practice of extracting shale gas from sedimentary rocks is steeped in controversy. Opponents warn that it is destructive to the environment, and although some countries have banned fracking in response to these concerns, the practice is becoming increasingly common in the United States and several other nations. For environmentalists who oppose fracking, the fight against state governments and big oil corporations can be a daunting battle.

Helen Slottje, however, is more than willing to face the challenge. She and her husband, David Slottje, have been fighting fracking in New York City since 2009, when they worked on a case against an industry project in Chemung County. In 2010, they were able to successfully ban fracking in Ulysses, a small town in Tompkins County, and in 2011, Dryden followed suit. Their success is attributed to a loophole they discovered regarding the regulation of oil drilling in individual towns. Although the Environmental Conservation Law maintains that state law comes before local regulations regarding oil and gas drilling, the law is not clear on the definition of regulations. Rather than trying to regulate drilling, the Slottjes are working pro bono in New York towns to prohibit altogether any “high-impact industrial uses of land” such as fracking.

Helen Slottje is one of six recipients of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award for grassroots environmentalists in each of the six continental regions. As the United States winner, Slottje will receive international visibility and recognition for her persistence and success, as well as a grant of $150,000 to pursue her vision of a world without fracking.

Utne Reader spoke with Slottje about her efforts and the power of community activism. Below is a condensed transcript of our interview.

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