Three panelists fielded questions from a full house at Staples Auditorium at Hendrix College on Tuesday night,

The panel included Jamie Gates, representing the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, Calvin Tillman, mayor of DISH, Texas, a North Texas gasfield town, and Josh Fox, the academy-award nominated director and producer of GASLAND, a documentary about the ills of natural gas drilling.

There was an empty seat on the dais, representing the energy company that has built a multi-million dollar headquarters on the edge of Hendrix Village.

Katherine Dennis and Emily Canon, co-organizers of Hendrix Environmental Concerns Committee, said an invitation to Chesapeake Energy to participate in the discussion was declined.

Moderating the often unruly crowd was Warwick Sabin, publisher of the Oxford American.

Once the opening statements were made by the panelists, lines formed at the microphones. And by 9 o’clock, when the discussion was to end, there were people still waiting to speak.

The organizers thanked everyone for coming but said the questioning could continue as long as the panelists would stay.

Fox said coming to Arkansas, even at a time when there had been the strongest earthquake in 35 years, was a pleasure, especially after the "month of madness" leading up to the Academy Awards. 

He said when he began meeting with those who were hurt by gas drilling on their property and "an industry run amok," he felt he had found the real America.

"I was expecting to find misery among the polluted streams, the illnesses, the proximity of pressure stations," Fox said. "But every time I arrived, someone would say: Let’s play the banjo.

"Kindness was repeated everywhere I went: Clinton, Fayetteville, Little Rock."

Tillman told the audience that he is moving out of Dish, the town so named when Dish Network offered free Dish service for 10 years if the town, then named Clark, would change its name.

"It was a difficult decision to move," Tillman said. "My sweat helped frame that community.

"I’m not opposed to gas drilling, but I am opposed to being poisoned and my children being poisoned."

Gates said he hoped there would continue to be conversations about the state’s energy future and what’s going to happen to Conway economically.

"Sometimes volatile conversation is our biggest industry," Gates said.

(Becky Harris can be reached at 505-1234 or becky.harris@thecabin.net)