two kinds of trespass

April 18, 2013

sandra comforting elijah

Sandra Steingraber comforts her son, Elijah.
//photo from Facebook page of Gas Free Seneca.

Our jails overflow with people who in some cases shouldn’t be there while other criminals sit in fancy offices, getting huge salaries to destroy our air, our water, our land, our climate and our bodies.  Sandra Steingraber joined the unjustly jailed yesterday. (Tim DeChristopher, about to be released from prison, is another.)  In our fight against the most powerful and moneyed industry the planet has ever known, 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said, “We have our own currency: creativity, courage and, if needed, our bodies.“ And so Sandra Steingraber has used this currency.

Sandra Steingraber — biologist, author, environmentalist, fractivist, mother of two, wife — was arrested March 18 along with 11 others — the Seneca Lake 12 — for an act of civil disobedience: blocking the entrance to Inergy Midstream’s planned compressor station and natural gas storage facility near Watkins Glen, N.Y., on the Finger Lakes. The area is known for Riesling grapes and wine, outdoor recreation and farming. The protest was against Inergy’s plans to store fracked natural gas, in the form of propane and butane, in abandoned salt caverns near and under Seneca Lake, the source of drinking water for 100,000 people — including Steingraber’s family. The charge was trespassing, although Steingraber maintains Inergy is trespassing: on our air, lungs, water, safety and security.

At the March rally, Steingraber said:  “It is wrong to bury explosive, toxic petroleum gases in underground chambers next to a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. It is wrong to build out the infrastructure for fracking at a time of climate emergency. It is right for me come to the shores of Seneca Lake, where my 11-year-old son was born, and say, with my voice and with my body, as a mother and biologist, that this facility is a threat to life and health.”

She and two others pleaded guilty to trespassing, and Reading Town Justice Raymond H. Berry  sentenced them to 15 days in the county clink after they declined to pay $375 fines. (Five protesters paid fines with the help of donations; the others have yet to appear in court.)

Let’s recall Susan B. Anthony, arrested for voting in 1873, still 47 years before women could vote. At her trial in Rochester, N.Y., she was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine. In one account of the trial, her reply to the judge was: “May it please your honor, I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”

I am in the middle of reading Steingraber’s book Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis for a second time. It has just been released in paperback, and I recommend it highly. Elijah is the name of her son. It is also the name of an assassinated abolitionist and writer from Illinois, the Rev. Elijah Lovejoy.

As she writes in the foreword, this is not a book about protecting children by shopping differently. It is about an environmental crisis that is actually two crises that “share a common cause,” she writes. One crisis is the damage to our planet (droughts, floods, bleached coral reefs, loss of plankton) because of a buildup of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. The other crisis is the damage to our bodies (cancer, asthma, autism, “abbreviated pregnancies, altered hormone levels and lower scores on cognitive tests”) brought on by the buildup of toxic chemicals in our body. Both come from our dependence on fossil fuels, she writes. “When we light them on fire, we threaten the global ecosystem. When we use them as feedstocks for making stuff, we create substances – pesticides, solvents, plastics – that can tinker with our subcellular machinery…”  (Today, the news is filled with images from the deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. The plant was storing 54,000 pounds of explosive and toxic anhydrous ammonia, which is made from natural gas and used to make fertilizer. A quote from Steingraber via Raising Elijah’s Facebook page: “We need emancipation from our terrible enslavement to fossil fuels in all their toxic forms.”)

Steingraber says of her mission in a Bill Moyers segment airing this weekend: “My job is to go out there and stop it, to tell my children, look, climate change is a serious problem, it’s a threat to your future. But Mom is on the job.” Steingraber is also scheduled to speak at UMBC April 29, only 11 days from now. So, check UMBC’s website for updates.

Below is Steingraber’s statement before her sentencing at the courthouse. Instead of letters to her in jail, Steingraber is asking for letters to the editor. According to Gas Free Seneca’s page on Facebook, Steingraber’s husband, artist Jeff de Castro, said this morning of their son: “Elijah was very sad last night, but woke up and wrote a Letter to the Editor first thing!”

–elisabeth hoffman

Sandra Steingraber’s statement:

Your Honor, I am not a lawyer. I am a biologist and a human being. I am also a mother of a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old. I bring all these identities to your courtroom tonight.

I am guilty of an act of trespass. On March 18, I willfully stood on private property owned by the Inergy company and blocked access to a compressor station site that is being constructed in order to prepare explosive hydrocarbon gases, propane and butane, for storage in abandoned salt caverns that are located beside and beneath Seneca Lake.

In my field of environmental health, the word trespass has meaning. Toxic trespass refers to involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant. It is a contamination without consent. It is my belief, as a biologist, that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass. Inergy has been out of compliance with EPA regulations every quarter for the past three years. In spite of this, Inergy applied for, and has received, from the state of New York a permit to discharge, every day, an additional 44,000 pounds of chloride into Seneca Lake. That’s 22 tons a day. That’s 8000 tons a year. Seneca Lake is a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. Those industrial discharges trespass into the bodies of those who drink it.

Additionally, Inergy’s planned 60-foot flare stack will release hazardous air pollutants, including ozone precursors, as will the fleets of diesel trucks hauling propane. This kind of air pollution is linked to heart attack and stroke risk, preterm birth, and asthma in children. Thus does Inergy trespass into our air and lungs. I see this as a real danger to my 11-year-old son, who has a history of asthma. We live 15 miles to the east—directly downwind—from this facility.

Inergy’s plans to industrialize the lakeshore will bring 24/7 light and noise pollution into a tranquil community. These forms of trespass also have health consequences, including increased risk for breast cancer and elevated blood pressure.

And because Inergy is building out infrastructure for the storage and transportation of greenhouse gases obtained by fracturing shale, Inergy trespasses into our climate and contributes to its ongoing destablization at a time when the best science show us that we need to be rapidly moving away from fossil fuels of all kinds.

Lastly, the risk of catastrophic accidents from the storage of liquefied petroleum gases in salt caverns is real. It has happened in at least 10 previous occasions. The 14-acre sinkhole in Belle Rose, Louisiana, which is now making headlines, was caused by a collapsed salt cavern. It sent crude oil gushing up into surface water and natural gas into groundwater.

As a biologist, I have submitted expert comments and petitions about Inergy’s application for permits to both the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. However, I am hampered in my efforts to judge the structural soundness of the salt caverns because the company that owns them insists that the scientific research that documents the history of these caverns—at least one of which sits on a fault line—is a trade secret.

Your honor, how can geological history become proprietary information? Without access to data, how can any member of the public evaluate the risks we are being compelled to endure by the repurposing of salt caverns into giant underground cigarette lighters?

In closing, my actions were taken to protest the trespass of Inergy into our air, water, bodies, safety, and security. My small, peaceful act of trespass was intended to prevent a much larger, and possibly violent one.

The people of Bellrose, Lousiana, are now facing relocation after the catastrophic collapse of the salt cavern there. Family homes are being abandoned. And the signs on the front lawns of the empty houses read, “No trespassing.”

To bring attention to such hazards for the Finger Lakes–and for the act of protecting water, which is life itself–I trespassed. It was an act of civil disobedience. For that, and because I have deep respect for the rule of law, which Inergy company does not, I am willing to go to jail.

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One Response to “two kinds of trespass”

  1. I’m reminded of a couple of stanzas from Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd:

    Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
    I’ve seen lots of funny men;
    Some will rob you with a six-gun,
    And some with a fountain pen.

    And as through your life you travel,
    Yes, as through your life you roam,
    You won’t never see an outlaw
    Drive a family from their home.

    Sandra Steingraber may be an “outlaw” but it’s not her that’s driving us all from our homes. She’s not the criminal. Like Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, Steingraber is standing up for us in the face of oppression by corporate and government indifference (or worse).

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