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The anti-fracking movement in New York state turned up the star power Tuesday with a rally in the Capitol and concert at the Empire State Plaza.
New Yorkers Against Fracking held a rally at the grand stone staircase inside the Capitol before a concert at The Egg, a 982-seat performing arts center in the state Capitol complex. The coalition called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for gas in the Marcellus Shale region of southern New York.
Actors Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo hosted the concert that featured Natalie Merchant, John Sebastian, Joan Osborne and a number of other performers.
Ruffalo, who has a home in Callicoon in upstate New York, is active in the coalition of 100 environmental, health care, political and other organizations. The group staged the rally and concert to draw attention to health, environmental and social problems related to shale gas development.
Opponents say fracking, which blasts chemically treated water into a well to crack shale and release gas, could contaminate water supplies with toxic chemicals and radiation. They cite numerous cases of health problems such as headaches, nosebleeds and rashes in humans, and reproductive problems in livestock in areas of the country with heavy gas-drilling activity. The industry says fracking has been used safely for decades and has provided a cleaner alternative to coal.
A new study released Tuesday by the University of Buffalo's new shale gas institute concluded that state regulators in Pennsylvania have improved oversight of the industry over the last four years and that New York's regulations will prevent major environmental impacts. Environmental groups dismissed the university-funded report as too simplistic and noted the authors' ties with industry.
New York hasn't allowed shale gas fracking since it started an environmental review four years ago. That review is in its final stages, and the Cuomo administration is expected to decide sometime this year whether to start issuing permits to drill.
A growing number of celebrities are speaking out against fracking. Many of them have homes or relatives in upstate New York. Actor Alec Baldwin, whose mother lives in Syracuse, is hosting an anti-fracking event in that city on June 2 featuring a screening of Josh Fox's critically acclaimed documentary "Gasland." Leo, who won an Academy Award for her supporting role in the 2010 film "The Fighter," lives in Stone Ridge in Ulster County.
Other actors who have spoken out against fracking include Ethan Hawke, Sandra Bernhard, Amy Ryan, Zoe Saldana, Fran Drescher, Debra Winger, and Nadia Dajani. Tuesday's concert will be recorded by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney.
While celebrities help get the message to a broad audience, people who have been working at the grassroots level to keep shale gas development out of New York say the movement isn't led by stars but by a broad spectrum of residents who fear rural landscapes will be transformed into an unhealthy industrial zone.
"The grassroots are tens of thousands of people using their vacation days to go to rallies, spending their savings to get the word out, and going door-to-door getting thousands of signatures on petitions," said Sue Rapp of Vestal Residents for Safe Energy, a local group in Broome County. "The entrance of celebrities just amplifies our voice."
Their criticism has also been countered by local landowners who stand to gain from drilling leases.