I recently watched Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, which received a Special Jury Prize earlier this year when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Beautifully directed and narrated, the film is a compelling and disturbing exposé on the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a natural gas drilling technique popular in the United States which relies on the injection of large volumes of chemical cocktails into the earth. Fox argues that portions of these chemicals are finding their way into water sources across the country, with terrible consequences for public health and livelihoods.

Water from a kitchen sink catches fire in Dimock, Pennsylvania

Early in the film, Fox travels to Dimock, Pennsylvania, to meet families who are suffering from a variety of health issues and who are able to light their kitchen tap water on fire. He narrates the following:

I was starting to compile a list of the things that happened in Dimock: water trouble, health problems, hazardous explosive conditions inside the house, destruction of land, lack of confidence in state regulatory commissions, a feeling of having been deceived, a feeling of powerlessness, dead or sick animals, the difficulty of obtaining good information about gas drilling, and the idea that there is a cover up taking place.

In other words, a total loss of normal life.

Who knows if they’re right? I don’t. It’s all speculation… but these citizens certainly felt as if they had been wronged and that there was no one for them to complain to.

Later, as he treks through Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Texas and discovers further water and health anomalies, Fox becomes increasingly certain that fracking is creating environmental health hazards, and I can’t say I disagree.

While my colleagues and I at EarthRights International do not generally work on domestic energy policy issues, it’s hard for anyone who cares about human rights and the environment to watch Gasland and not feel deep concern about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the health of the US water supply and the people who depend on it. This struck a particularly strong chord with me in light of Michelle’s post last week, about the UN General Assemblies recent Resolution recognizing “safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water” as a fundamental human right.

Not surprisingly, natural gas proponents have dissected the film and rolled out a litany of rebuttals. While the criticisms do highlight Cox’s occasional sloppiness with the facts – he’s an artist, after all, not a scientist or a policy analyst – they also read to me as a series of “gotchas” which fail to address the broader issues: that hydraulic fracturing enjoys lax national regulations, that the American people are largely unaware that natural gas “drilling” involves the intensive injection of chemicals into the earth, that the status quo requires citizens to prove their water was polluted by an energy company rather than requiring the company to prove that their practices are clean, and that there is some weird, creepy stuff happening in the water at Dimock and other fracking sites around the country.

Drinking water is a human right, the prospect of widespread water contamination in the United States is very frightening, and this issue deserves deeper examination. You can learn more about fracking on the Gasland website, and also contact your elected officials to support the FRAC act, which would remove fracking’s exemption (a.k.a. “the Halliburton loophole”) from the Safe Water Drinking Act. You can see Gasland at a screening in your area, periodically on HBO, or on HBO on Demand.

Fox isn’t the only documentary filmmaker drawn to these issues. Debra Anderson’s 2009 documentary Split Estate, which I have not yet seen, also examines links between fracking and environmental contamination, but with a narrower focus on ranchers and homeowners in the Rocky Mountains.