Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Community rallies to oppose natural gas drilling

Signs opposed to proposed drilling leases surrounded the Heflin Rec Center
HEFLIN - Around 200 people gathered Monday at the Heflin Recreation Center to learn about potential hazards involved with natural gas drilling in the Talladega National Forest. Federally proposed leases for the controversial method of drilling in the forest are scheduled for sale on June 14 and were opposed by an overwhelming majority of attendees. Also at the meeting were city, county, and state leaders concerned about negative impacts on an area which relies heavily on the conservation of natural resources. Organized by the Southern Environmental Law Center and supported by regional environmental groups against fracking, the public meeting provided educational material, featured documentary films, and provided a platform for residents to speak publicly.

According to Katie Ottenweller with the Southern Environmental Law Center, the group which formally petitioned the Bureau of Land Management on April 16 to prevent drilling leases, the SELC planned for the Monday meeting to be held just two days before the deadline for protests. “The window of protesting was so short,” Ottenweller said as she explained the scramble to organize a protest in less than two months. Janice Barrett with Wild South, a non-profit organization focused on protecting national forests in the South, described similar and successful protests in the past to protect the Bankhead National Forest from having historic Native American sites destroyed by timber leasing.

Informational material provided by local
conservation groups was available
for free to the public
Maps of local lease sites, brochures, yard signs, and petitions were provided upon entering the gymnasium by Wild South and local conservation group Friends of the Talladega National Forest. Also available was contact information for all local government representation. Those in attendance were urged to regularly petition their elected officials to prevent the drilling leases. A list of online resources also provided websites concerning individual stories of fallout caused by drilling, the economics of fracking, and news articles from across the country which describe other drilling operations.

Once the meeting began, the investigative documentary “Fracking Hell: The Untold Story” was screened for the audience and depicted a number of detrimental impacts in small Pennsylvania communities caused by natural gas drilling. The crowd sat in silence while the film showed popular clips of flammable drinking water caused by chemicals used in fracking which have seeped into water supplies. Other downsides to fracking shown in the film included increased truck traffic in quiet towns and visible scars on the once lush landscape.

Attendees of the Monday public meeting screened the
documentary "Fracking Hell: The Untold Story"
After the film, Cleburne County resident of 25 years Jake Mathews told the crowd that “this is not the kind of thing we want here.” Tammy Perry of Heflin’s Parks and Recreation Department agreed with Mr. Mathews and reminded the audience of her department’s focus on outdoor activities. About 10 people concerned with the health of the Talladega National Forest also spoke the the audience. While most in the crowd wanted to learn how to prevent drilling leases, some attendees of the meeting expressed a desire to learn more about the issue before making a decision. Only one gentleman openly welcomed any drilling, but claimed in anonymity to In the Field that he wanted to see “anything that can get me a job” come into the area before he gave this writer his phone number in hopes of finding work.

Also in attendance was Senator Gerald Dial who expressed by phone on Tuesday a desire to protect the “great natural resource” in his home district. Dial has been a lifelong resident of Clay County and understands the importance of the Talladega National Forest to people in the area. The senator and his colleagues plan to introduce a resolution to the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday which will publicly oppose any leasing of the federally-owned land. If approved, the resolution will be forwarded to Governor Robert Bentley for his signature. When asked about the economic impact of potential drilling, Senator Dial admitted it would provide a boost in employment and other factors but said “we don’t need jobs that deteriorate our lands.”

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