Drilling Debate in Cooperstown Turns Personal

Peter Applebome |The New York Times

The letter that arrived in Kim Jastremski’s mailbox on County Highway 52 suggested that she stop protesting the possibility of natural gas drilling. It seemed more of a threat than a request.

Computer-generated, unsigned and sent to about 10 other opponents of a practice known as fracking, it compared them to Nazis and said they were being watched while picking up their children at school in their minivans.

hydraulic fracturing process
Robert Nickelsberg | Getty Images

Jennifer Huntington’s abuse is more public, like comments online suggesting that people find out where her dairy sells its milk so that they can stop buying it, or the warning that her farm, which has a lease with a gas company, “will fall like a house of cards when your water is poisoned.”

She and other drilling proponents have also been called “sellout landowners that prostitute themselves for money.”

The debate over horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the injection of huge quantities of chemically treated water underground to free up natural gas, has become increasingly contentious across the Eastern United States, with dozens of communities passing or considering bans.

But that ill will often takes its most intimate form in small towns and rural areas like this one, best known as the home of baseball’s Hall of Fame, where fracking has emerged as the defining, non-negotiable political issue.

The dispute has pitted neighbor against neighbor, and has often set people who live in suburbs or villages against the farmers and landowners who live outside them. The discord is compounded by hard times on both sides and by communication online giving everyone instant access to limitless information confirming their point of view.

And if gas companies have the power and money, fracking opponents, who are concerned about ecological threats like the possible contamination of drinking water, often have the numbers and the intensity to dominate local discourse. “There’s no arguing with a person who is opposed to hydrofracking,” said Bill Michaels, a councilman in the Town of Otsego, which includes parts of Cooperstown.

After waiting to take a position, he eventually supported changes to the town’s land-use law that would prohibit fracking, but he still faces opposition from a slate of antifracking candidates. “There is no debate or conversation,” he added. “This is so important to so many people it’s pretty much hijacked everything else.”

The state plans to hold hearings in November before issuing final regulations on gas drilling, and the first gas wells drilled under the new rules could be possible next year.

As it turns out, despite the furor here, the Marcellus Shale, a vast rock formation under New York, Pennsylvania and other states, is so shallow near Cooperstown it is not clear how much gas would be available and what kind of drilling would take place here. And no one expects that fracking will ever come to Cooperstown itself.

Still, at the top of the Village of Cooperstown’s Web site is a statement recommending a statewide ban on gas drilling and fracking. Middlefield, the other town that includes parts of the Village of Cooperstown, was one of the first municipalities to ban gas drilling through changes to its master plan and zoning.

More than 30 antifracking candidates are running for office in Otsego County in November.

The dispute is also running like an electric current through everyday life. Ms. Jastremski, who five years ago moved back to family-owned land when her husband became an English professor at the State University of New York at Oneonta, thought she had found the perfect place to raise her two children, replete with chicken coops, bee hives and a vegetable garden.

But as she became aware of leases that would allow drilling for gas on various properties in the area, she became increasingly wrapped up in fracking politics. Now, she says, she stays up at night crying over what she sees as the possibility of polluted water, an industrialized landscape and having to leave her home as its value plummets. She said she understood the economic pressures facing some farmers, but could not excuse people who want drilling on their land.

“I think even if individuals here are not incredibly greedy, they are being sucked into a corporate greed that’s at work in our country,” she said. “They’re seeing dollar signs everywhere, and they’re not seeing the bigger picture that they’re harming their neighbors.”

Ms. Jastremski, 43, who has a Ph.D. in Slavic Studies and works as a technical writer, says she is uncomfortable with the discord surrounding the issue, like a clash she had at the gym with another mother who stood to gain from a gas lease, but feels she has no choice but to be vocal.

Ms. Huntington, 49, became a lightning rod when her Cooperstown Holstein Corporation, which includes a 379-acre farm with 500 head of dairy cattle, sued the Town of Middlefield seeking to overturn its drilling ban. The suit, filed in September, argues that only the state can ban fracking.

Before that, she decided her daughter should no longer attend the same middle school Ms. Huntington had attended as a girl. She said she acted partly because of antifracking activism in the schools, including a movement to ban fracking on school grounds, and the demographic changes that she said made a dairy farmer’s daughter feel out of place. “I knew as time went by it wasn’t going to be a comfortable place for her,” she said.

Like many farmers, she sees the drilling opponents as largely comfortable urbanites in an area increasingly home to retirees and second-home owners who know nothing about the economics of farming and little about the safety of drilling.

She cites the methane digester her family introduced in 1984, which used manure to produce natural gas that was used in part to heat the county nursing home, or the co-generation unit added to it seven years later that produced electricity for the farm.

“This land and my family are my life,” Ms. Huntington said. “We probably use three to four million gallons of water to feed my cows. I’m not going to spoil something I need to make my living and for future generations to come.”

Proponents of fracking say that many farmers are on the verge of losing their property.

A hydraulic fracturing site
Getty Images

“The term we use is pastoral poverty,” she said. “You have farmers trying to hold on to land that’s been in their family for 100 to 200 years. People like the landscape, but it’s people living in poverty who are maintaining what they like to look at.”

But many businesses fear an industrialized landscape that would be antithetical to the tourism Cooperstown depends on.

Opponents have suggested a boycott of businesses that do not oppose fracking, and have circulated reports via e-mail identifying cars or trucks possibly involved in gas leasing that have been seen at their neighbors’ residences. And some farmers say fracking could ruin them. Siobhan Griffin, an organic dairy farmer, cited a letter from the Park Slope Food Co-op in New York City saying its members would not shop from any area that allows fracking.

Many drilling proponents, meanwhile, say the professionals and retirees drawn to the area have become antigrowth fanatics, opposing a once-a-year music festival proposed in nearby Springfield, wind turbines proposed for Cherry Valley, even additional Little League fields.

Indeed, people on both sides say the ill will probably goes beyond fracking.

“At one time, people in Cooperstown could disagree, but it was never personal,” said Catherine Ellsworth, who writes a column in a local weekly newspaper and supports drilling. “Now it’s more like they want what they want, and that’s it. There’s no sense we’re in this together. But I guess that’s not just here. Society has changed, and Cooperstown has changed along with it.”