In the hydro-fracking debate, the Onondaga Nation is taking a spiritual and cultural stance against the controversial natural gas drilling method.
The Onondaga Nation “views hydro-fracking as an obscenity on the land,” said Jack Ramsden, a Syracuse environmentalist and member of the grassroots group Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation. This viewpoint on hydro-fracking is directly connected to the Onondaga Nation’s cultural beliefs and spirituality, he said. “The Creator taught the Nation that they have to live in harmony with all creatures, all beings, and all things on earth,” Ramsden said.
Hydro-fracking is a means of extracting natural gas from shale. It is a process of pumping water, other chemical fluid compounds and sand into a well at a high pressure to fracture the shale. The most prominent shale source of natural gas around Central New York is the Marcellus Shale, a layer found under much of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and in the Finger Lakes Region of New York.
Right now, hydro-fracking is not permitted in New York because the state is still evaluating the health and environmental effects. Opponents of hydro-fracking argue that it endangers clean water, is not a renewable energy source and keeps the country depended on fossil fuels. Supporters maintain hydro-fracking will bolster the local and state economy through job creation; provide a cheaper, cleaner fuel; and lead to a future of energy independence from foreign sources.
For their part, the Onondagas object to hydro-fracking and cite their arguments in their 2005 Land Rights Action in which the nation tried to reclaim its historic homelands. “The people are one with the land, and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations,” according to the Onondaga Nation’s website.
But in 2010 the Supreme Court rejected the nation’s claim.
Still, Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath maintains that hydro-fracking is “an environmental disaster.” The Haudenosaunee – the Six Iroquois Nations, including the Onondaga – are concerned about water and air pollution, water destruction, and the effect forest destruction would have on animal populations, he said.
The hydro-fracking process has raised concerns about water quality for those, like the Onondaga Nation and many other residents, who depend on creeks, streams, and wells for clean water.
The Syracuse Peace Council has joined forces with attorney Joe Heath and the Onondaga Nation to create a grassroots campaign called Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, or “NOON.” The group collaborates with the Onondaga Nation in its efforts to preserve the history, culture and environment. Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation advocate with the Nation through speaking engagements, presentations and other grassroots efforts.
For the natural gas industry, the main benefit is financial, said Syracuse University professor Don Siegel, a leading hydro-geologist and hydro-fracking advocate. Corporations and others will reap the benefits. “Money will go to the communities and to those leasing their land to the companies,” Siegel said. He cited Elmira, N.Y. as a town where the economy has improved because of the influx of workers from job sites in neighboring Bradford County, Pa.
Elmira, he said, has had many benefits, he said. “They have very nice infrastructure, there are good roads, and are schools being built. You have income, wealth, and prosperity brought to the local area from having this industry,” Siegel.
But those arguments of economic and infrastructure improvements for the region aren’t good enough for the Onondaga Nation, said its attorney, Joe Heath. “We need jobs here, but this is not the way to do it,” he said. “We can’t do this on the backs of our grandchildren.”
(Jess Marshalek is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)