Editor’s Note: Measure E to ban hydraulic fracturing in Butte County had passed with 71.5 percent of the vote, according to election results on June 8. This story was written during spring semester at Chico State.
By Maria Miyashiro
Melinda Vasquez knocks on a door at the sea-green apartment complex. She is greeted by a woman, who notifies her Chihuahua she’s “going to spank your butt” if the dog doesn’t stop barking. The dog quiets down.
Vasquez begins her inquiry: Whether her neighbor is familiar with the Yes-on-Measure-E campaign to ban fracking, a question she’s asked dozens of times at doors in the Memorial Neighborhood of Chico just in the last hour.
The woman says she’s familiar with the measure. “It’s about dope,” she says confidently. It’s not. Vasquez patiently explains that Measure E would ban fracking, the process used to fracture rock formations under high pressure to reach hard-to-access pockets of gas or oil.
Vasquez soon seems to have the woman convinced of the importance of a fracking ban, and leaves her with three fliers: one for herself, one for her “neighbor that’s laying down,” and one for her children, all of whom – Vasquez warns — could be affected by toxins and carcinogens that are sometimes found in drinking and agricultural water when frack fluids leach into water supplies.
The woman waves her off. “Good luck on your petition… our petition,” the convert says.
On some days Vasquez’s objective is to get as many signs supporting yes on Measure E on front lawns as possible, but on a late Sunday afternoon in early May, the goal, she says, is to “ignite a conversation.”
“This is an issue that we can’t get distracted from,” Vasquez says.
Vasquez is one of the volunteers involved in Frack-Free Butte County, an organization dedicated to passing Measure E on the June 7 ballot to ban fracking on Butte County gas wells. The grassroots group hopes that with awareness, volunteers and donations, county residents will vote to prohibit any fracking in the area.
Perhaps surprisingly, no official opposition has been entered in the county clerk’s ballot information guide.
But Butte County District 3 Supervisor Maureen Kirk , who supports a ban on fracking, says “there’s lots of opposition. Plenty. This is not going to pass easily.” One of the opponents is Kirk’s fellow board member, District 2 Supervisor Larry Wahl.
Wahl has long opposed a fracking ban. Wahl said the local geology won’t enable fracking and a ban would be “nonsensical.” In a recent interview, Wahl also said that Measure E’s passage would encourage fracking opponents to go to larger counties and push for fracking bans elsewhere. Fracking, he said, helps keep the country “free from foreign dependence on fossil fuels.”
Ban proponents say that fracking-induced earthquakes, methane pollution and human health problems triggered by exposure to carcinogens have plagued other towns where fracking has been underway.
Frack-Free Butte County volunteers like Vasquez have been calling voters and going door-to-door to provide information about the measure. Vasquez notes that about half the people she contacts know what fracking is, and warns that “an unaware public doesn’t vote.”
Fracking opponents point out that fracking would probably require large amounts of water in an area that is already drought-ridden. Furthermore, the county’s groundwater could be contaminated with the toxic wastewater.
Thus, the grassroots campaign utilizes billboards, such as the one on Third and Mangrove in Chico, urging voters to “Protect Our Water.”
However, “while the oil companies have billions,” Vasquez says to her neighbors, “this is just you and me.” Donations go toward increasing public awareness, but the information that produces awareness is expensive — the price of just one billboard is $1,000.
If a billboard hasn’t caught your eye, you may have heard of one of the campaign events. On a Saturday in mid-May, fracking ban proponents held a screening of Josh Fox’s “How to Let Go of the World.” Fox, who wrote and directed the “Gasland” films, and Tim DeChristopher, an environmental activist, were at the screening for a question-and-answer session. This was made possible through the sponsorship of Vote Yes on E and Butte Environmental Council.
The local movement to ban fracking was ignited when former chair of the local Yahi Sierra Club, Dave Garcia, held a party for a viewing of the documentary “Gasland” in 2010.
He saw in the film how the Cuyahoga River in Ohio had caught fire in 1969 due to fracking-related contamination and thought of the potential threats that water contamination could pose to the Sacramento River – which is a major source of drinking water for both the Northern and Southern state, a primary source of agriculture water, and home to the Chinook salmon.
Garcia decided he wanted to work toward not only “preventing fracking in the county, but also in the United States.” As a result he founded Frack-Free Butte County in 2011.
“Fracking is insidious,” Garcia says on a Sunday in early May in an interview in a downtown Chico coffee shop. “It contaminates our air and water.”
In April 2014, the Butte County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to draft an ordinance to ban fracking. (Wahl cast the only opposing vote.) But in February 2015, three supervisors reversed their position.
Garcia believes the supervisors who changed their minds were pressured politically.
Garcia isn’t too certain that oil and gas companies won’t ever come to Butte County to frack old gas wells. He notes that companies would have to use “vertical drilling because of the strata” rather than the horizontal-drilling technology that is usually associated with fracking. But he points out that vertical drilling doesn’t preclude hydraulic fracturing.
“You can deduce they’ll use up the richer deposits and come after Butte County,” Garcia stated.
Garcia notes that “new factors are coming into play.” The June 2016 election includes “Bernie and marijuana,” Garcia says, predicting high voter turnout. With added voters, Garcia says he’s certain that on June 7 most who cast ballots will vote yes on Measure E.
Vasquez is hopeful as well. “If we all put our piece into the well of greatness, we can make the well bigger,” Vasquez says. “There is no return if we poison the well.”
Maria Miyashiro is a Chico State student studying Nutrition and Food Science. When her writing and learning are not geared toward food, they’re focused on the environment. You can find more of her work on her blog.