Local anti-fracking activist wins world’s largest environmental prize

local-anti-fracking-activist-wins-worlds-largest-environmental-prize
Helen Slottje. (Goldman Prize)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

ALBANY—The world's largest environmental prize has been awarded to an Ithaca-based lawyer who has helped organize fracking bans in dozens of New York communities.

For winning the Goldman Prize, the lawyer, Helen Slottje, will receive $175,000 award and an unprecedented level of international attention.

Slottje, a despised figure among gas industry officials, has helped enact fracking bans in 172 communities across New York in the last five years. Even if the state's five-year moratorium on hydraulic hydrofracking were to be lifted tomorrow, Slottje's work could cause a major issue for energy companies here.

In an interview with Capital, Slottje said she'll use the prestige and money that comes with the award to raise global awareness of her campaign.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

“Fracking is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society, an oligarchy, a complete separation of people making decision and those whose lives they affect,” she said.

Slottje, 46, also plans to take the California bar exam, since anti-fracking activists have gained ground in that state, in preparation for taking on a greater role there. A ban this week in Beverly Hills clearly borrowed directly from Slottje's work, even though she was not contacted for that case.

And she says she'll put more of her legal work online so that communities can use her local control argument in their own legal battles.

Slottje waded into the fracking battle almost by accident. She and her husband David, with whom she does much of her work, were corporate lawyers when they moved from Boston to Ithaca. She attended a community meeting where activists described the risks of fracking and was so shocked by the images and by the proliferation of leases across New York that she turned it into a call to arms. She was soon traveling the state, to town halls and demonstrations, to volunteer her legal services.

Her opponents say she has turned community members against each other, and that she has encouraged outsiders to exercise influence on small towns across New York that need jobs and tax revenue.

Slottje said she's done the opposite, by giving communities more of a say than multi-billion dollar energy companies.

”We're going to do whatever we think is going to help the voice of the people,” she said.

Last year's Goldman winners include an environmentalist from Iraq who restored marshes destroyed by Saddam Hussein, a Colombian who organized that country's waste pickers to make part recycling part of the country's waste management and a man who organized a successful ban on fracking in South Africa's desert region. The award is only handed out to a few people each year and is the largest prize for grassroots environmental organizing in the world.

“By bringing decision-making power back to the municipal level, Slottje enabled small towns to effectively respond to advances by powerful, moneyed energy companies,” prize adminstrators said in a statement.

The Goldman prize was established in 1989 and “recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk,” according to its website. It is given to those who create change in their communities.

In June, the legality of all of the local fracking bans in New York will essentially be tested when two of the earliest ones are defended in the state's highest court.

The two cases—one in Dryden, outside of Ithaca, and the other in Ostego County's Middlefield—are now before the state Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. Oral arguments have been scheduled for June and a decision could come later this year. The outcome of those cases will likely have significant implications for moratoriums enacted throughout New York because they deal with the right of towns to override state law. Oral arguments are scheduled for June and a decision is expected in the fall.

The fracking opposition in Dryden received funding from the Park Foundation, which has given millions to support anti-fracking efforts.

Opponents dropped a prominent legal case for a ban in Binghamton after the newly elected mayor expressed his support for expansion of the energy industry, a shift from the former mayor, who welcomed a ban.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not indicated when or whether the state will lift the nearly six-year moratorium on high-volume hydraulic hydrofracking, or whether the state will even provide any indications on the matter before Election Day. 

CORRECTION: This article has been changed from the original version to reflect the fact that cash award is now $175,000, not $150,000.