While driving through eastern Ohio yesterday, I stopped for a stroll along the Cayuhoga. In the language of the First Americans, the name meant “crooked river.” For other Americans born centuries later, the name would come to mean “the river that caught on fire from pollution.”
The famous Cayuhoga fire of 1969 was blamed on heavy oil slicks, and was one of several that afflicted the river during more than a century of unregulated industrial waste dumping. The image of the river burning has been credited with a surge in the environmental movement and the political support needed to pass the Clean Water Act.
Fast-forward to September 2013, as Ohioans turn out in the hundreds to watch different images of rivers threatened and rivers defended—this time in the form of Triple Divide, a documentary about the damage caused by shale gas development.
Written and directed by Joshua Pribanic and Melissa Troutman, journalists and founders of Public Herald, the film is based on two years of investigative research. With original graphics and expert interviews, the film explains technologies and policies that are driving the shale boom. But Triple Divide is ultimately a deeply personal look at how the living on the frontlines of gas development changes your life forever.
The filmmakers expose the failure of regulators to oversee gas operations and enforce their own rules, in large part using documents from the files of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Triple Divide shows how this rampant problem (found in all oil and gas states) isn’t a simple administrative matter. Lax regulation and oversight enables dangerous practices and lets operators get away with harming health, property, and the environment. This damage is manifest in specific ways, like buried waste pits, cleared forests, denial of the results of water tests, and wells and flares running around the clock.
Triple Divide raises the specter of yet another industry gone wild, leaving behind a devastating toxic legacy. But as the turnout and audience questions at screenings in Ohio and other states show, if history is indeed repeating itself, then public engagement and resolve will also grow—and ultimately, environmental protection will triumph over waste and greed.