Anyone wanting the benefit of a six-week course on the pros and cons of fracking in a mere 90 minutes will appreciate the documentary “Triple Divide,” the initial offering of this fall’s Salem’s Progressive Film Series.

Fracking is the conventional term for hydraulic fracturing, the process of forcing millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground at high pressure to release natural gas from shale rock.  Especially since 2006, production of natural gas by this method has boomed; natural gas extracted by fracking accounted for 10 percent of U.S. production in 2007 – By 2010 it had risen to 30 percent.

Fracking shows no sign of slowing and “Triple Divide” is especially timely for Salem, as Oregon’s Governor and several legislators are right now working on fracking plans and policies for the state.

The film’s title refers to an intersection of two continental divides, a phenomenon that occurs in four places in North America. The focus of the film is one such triple divide in northern Pennsylvania, an area that feeds three major rivers: The Susquehanna, the Genesee, and the Allegheny.

The rivers are important because one of the principal problems with fracking is the contamination of nearby water. The location in Pennsylvania is significant because it lies above the enormous Marcellus Shale, one of the country’s largest underground deposits of natural gas.

Numerous dangers caused by fracking are presented in the densely constructed film. Several landowners talk about the contamination of their water with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals shortly after fracking was done near their property.  We are shown the resulting jars of water, milky white or brown or, in one case, filled with sediment.

Many others are victims of a legal nightmare called “split estates,” in which someone owns his land but doesn’t own the mineral rights beneath it.  A homeowner talks about forested acreage that has been in his family for over 50 years, yet somehow an energy company has the right to build a huge natural gas operation on his land because, unbeknownst to him, they owned the mineral rights below the property.

Through the use of charts, animation and scientific experts, the film raises a series of questions about public health, safety, property rights and government responsibility and then answers them, generally in a way that will make the audience uncomfortable.

For example, we are introduced to a homeowner who can’t sleep in his home because the mine several hundred feet from his house is “flaring,” a procedure in which the mine shoots flames fifty feet in the air. The brightness penetrates his drawn curtains, and the roar of the flame can be heard through his walls. Flaring goes on 24 hours a day, and can last from a few days to over six months.

A recurring theme throughout all these stories is the lack of action by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is charged with regulating mining companies. In many cases, companies found guilty of violations face no apparent consequences.  Locations designated as “Exceptional Value” or “High Quality” water areas are required by the state to adopt strict requirements to maintain their status as such, yet the DEP continues to issue permits for drilling in these areas.

In the words of one homeowner, the DEP “has done a lousy job as an agency to protect the individual.”

One industry spokesperson is featured commenting throughout the film, but for the most part energy companies engaged in fracking declined to speak to the filmmakers.

Following the film, will be a discussion led by three speakers, including the film’s co-directors Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic, and Ted Gleichman, a natural gas expert from the Sierra Club.  The film makers are traveling the country showing their documentary and educating communities on the dangers of fracking. They will be in Oregon for three days, with showings in Salem Portland and Astoria.

The film’s barrage of interviews, statistics, drawings, maps, documentary footage and diagrams can require diligent concentration to follow at times, but the result should be rewarding and thought-provoking to those seeking more hard information about the fracking controversy.

Triple Divide

Salem Progressive Film Series

Guest speakers & audience discussion follow, with film makers leading the discussion


September 11, 7pm

Grand Theatre

191 High Street Downtown Salem