May 23, 2013
Fracking protesters mussed up a little corner of perfectly coiffed National Harbor yesterday afternoon. As those attending the Spring Policy Conference of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) were allegedly preparing for dinner, 70 or so activists outside listened to some fiery speeches, marched up and down a sidewalk, and yelled and carried signs about the dangers of fracking. No governors were in view, although people with the DGA logo on name cards occasionally gave us a glance as they headed somewhere on the opposite sidewalk.
Much of the message was directed at Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O’Malley of Maryland — governors with presidential aspirations who have the natural gas industry knocking at the back door, protesters at the front door and the mess that is fracked Pennsylvania next door.
“Democratic governors should be representing us and not the oil and gas industry,” said Mark Schlosberg of Food & Water Watch, one of the organizers of the protest.
The protest came during a week of Senate hearings on natural gas supplies, exports, best practices and environmental effects. Also, the out-of-state speakers were at a Stop the Frack People’s Forum in DC earlier in the day.
“We can do it safely, but if we do it safely, it won’t be profitable,” said Fred Tutman of Patuxent Riverkeeper. He urged protesters to also look at the ripple effects of fracking, in particular the Cove Point plant that Dominion Resources Inc. is trying to turn into an export facility for liquefied natural gas. “This is a bridge fuel to no place in particular,” he said, but local communities will pay for it with their water.
For more than a year, Rod Brueske has battled commissioners in rural Boulder County, CO, over fracking wells near his organic farm. He lodged complaints after his family experienced nosebleeds and other health problems. Turns out wells were releasing excessive volatile organic compounds, violating air quality regulations, and the company had to pay a $15,000 fine. “They buy pickup trucks for less than that,” he said. Of his state’s governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, Brueske said, “We don’t have a governor in Colorado. We have an oil and gas man who is moonlighting as a governor.”
From Pennsylvania, land of the List of the Harmed, Craig Stevens, Tammy Manning and Ray Kemble brought warnings about well water contaminated with methane and fracking chemicals. Calling fracking “generational suicide,” Stevens said, “I will not stand by and watch my neighbors…be poisoned.” For now, Manning’s family uses a driller-provided “water buffalo” because her well water has had high levels of explosive methane since 2011, after fracking began nearby. She constantly fears that the gas companies will withdraw the replacement water because Pennsylvania officials claim the methane has nothing to do with fracking – even though she is near 10 wells, four of which had casing failures. Kemble used to work in the industry so was able to inquire about extensive repairs on the rig 500 feet from his house. He said one of the workers revealed: “We’ve got major casing failure. This casing’s been leaking since ’08,” when the well was drilled. Kemble said some of the 27 chemicals in his water are uranium, barium, silica, strontium and arsenic.
After the protest ended at 5:30 p.m., a few of us from CCIHC wandered around National Harbor to avoid rush-hour traffic. As we headed for the huge sculpture of “The Awakening” on the beach, a police officer stopped us from walking toward an adjacent boardwalk jutting into the water where others were clearly allowed to go. She said the area was reserved for a private event and not for protests. We assured her that the protest was over, and that we were just avoiding traffic. Our shirts were clearly a problem: We were walking protest signs. We also carried our cardboard signs. As we turned to leave the sculpture, we noticed the DGA sign. Turns out we were precariously close to the dock and boat where the governors were congregating. A few minutes later, another officer zoomed up to us on a Segway to ask our intentions. We again said the rally was over and we were just waiting to leave.
Here’s what the police couldn’t stop: A clerk in a store, people sitting on the off-limits (to us) boardwalk and people in the parking garage and on the street all asked about our shirts and fracking.
May 16, 2013
Federal regulators have denied Myersville residents a rehearing on the permit for a planned compressor station in their rural community.
Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community (MCRC) had asked for a rehearing on Dominion Transmission Inc.’s planned 16,000-horsepower compressor station for fracked natural gas, saying in part that the environmental review was insufficient and the process was inadequate and unfair. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), however, agreed with itself. On every issue.
In its 35-page ruling issued today, it disagreed with each of MCRC’s points, from concerns about the need for the compressor station and the size of the facility to the noise, danger, air pollutants, environmental assessment and effect on property values. In a ruling summary issued this morning, FERC said, “The order makes clear that the local laws and regulations upon which the Town bases its denial are preempted by the Natural Gas Act.”
Ted Cady, secretary for MCRC, said in an email that the group “is frustrated with the FERC decision. It is not surprising that FERC denied our request along with the other 12 intervenors. . . .It is amazing that each and every argument we raised was rejected. FERC has never fully addressed why the compressor station is so large saying there’s no relationship to [export of liquefied natural gas] – but if LNG isn’t the reason for the overbuild, then what is the reason for it. Also, FERC’s assertion that ‘the system works’ is entirely untrue and not based on the facts given the numerous procedural flaws.”
He said MCRC has 60 days to decide whether to appeal this decision. The group also lacks a hearing date for Dominion’s suit against the town, Town Council and mayor. And it awaits a ruling from a case heard this week, when Myersville got its day in court. Well, Myersville got its 15 minutes in court.
Monday morning, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a lawyer for Dominion argued before a three-judge panel that Robert Summers and his Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) should not be allowed to hold up the $112 million compressor station in Myersville.
FERC issued a certificate for the compressor station in December but stipulated that Dominion had to get required local and state permits before moving ahead. MDE has said it won’t approve the air quality permit because Dominion doesn’t have the necessary local zoning. And Myersville won’t grant the local zoning in part because the town, nestled in a valley adjacent to I-70, is already out of compliance on federal air quality standards. The proposed compressor station — which would spew volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide and the like — would only push the town more out of compliance.
The court allots 30 minutes for each case, so each side got 15 minutes to make its point. The lawyer for MDE gave the lawyer for MCRC some of its time. With so much to say and so little time to say it, everyone talked very quickly. (I note this because I am not a lawyer and I was forced to relinquish my laptop at the courthouse door. So keeping up was a challenge, but I got the gist.)
If not for this “one final stumbling block” – MDE’s failure to approve an air quality permit – this compressor station could go forward, Dominion lawyer Christopher T. Handman argued.
Handman argued that Myersville’s zoning laws and the state’s air-quality enforcement efforts “certainly” couldn’t preempt the federal Natural Gas Act, otherwise utilities such as Dominion would have to consider local regulations on even the “right color brick.” Which was an odd example, because Dominion had offered to make the compressor station look like a barn to blend in with the countryside.
“FERC has considered and rejected all arguments of Myersville,” Handman said. The town was “holding things up,” he said, referring twice to the “radical nature” of Myersville’s appeal, which “puts local land-use regulations above FERC.”
He urged the court to give MDE direction and a deadline. Typically, states will say they need more time or manpower, Handman said, but MDE and its chief, Summers, “say they can’t go further.”
Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked what MDE should be considering. Handman said there “isn’t much left” because the Natural Gas Act preempts all local laws.
Griffith: “Have we been presented with all the land-use regulations that Myersville could rely on?”
Handman paused, then replied that the town had already raised whatever it could.
Roberta R. James, the lawyer representing MDE, said the state has been involved in regulating clean air for the federal government since 1967. Without this federal-state partnership, the Environmental Protection Agency “would have all the regulatory burden.”
“The department has no real dog in this fight,” she said. Instead, Dominion “need[s] to get something from this town.”
Carolyn Elefant, the lawyer for MCRC who specializes in energy and FERC cases, spoke with a passion otherwise absent from the roomful of fast-talking, case-name-dropping people in robes and suits. “This is a case about a gas company having made an imprudent decision to put a facility in a non-attainment [air quality] area,” she said. And now Dominion is “desperate because it needs a federal permit.”
Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh asked about the conflict with the Natural Gas law: “It seems a little odd that a small town can prevent a facility.”
Elefant replied that the federal statutes — the Clean Air Act and Natural Gas Act — coexist. In this case, she argued, Dominion has the FERC certificate, but the FERC certificate says Dominion has to get local permits, including the air quality permit required under the Clean Air Act. “Well, they haven’t gotten it. So they aren’t in compliance,” she argued. “If you’ve got a loop, the tie goes to [upholding] the statute” rather than to presuming preemption of local laws. She also cited a similar case, involving Islander East Pipeline Co., in which FERC issued a permit for the pipeline to carry gas across Long Island Sound, but the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection refused to issue a water-quality permit, saying the project threatened aquatic life and was inconsistent with Clean Water Act standards. The courts upheld Connecticut’s position.
At one point, Judge Griffith asked the attorney for Dominion, “Isn’t there another way to thread the needle?” After the hearing, Elefant and Cady, the MCRC secretary, said that question could indicate that the judges, instead of choosing between the National Gas Act, the Clean Air Act and municipal self-determination, will simply tell MDE to either grant or reject the air quality permit. At that point, MDE would have to stand with Myersville and clean air — or cave.
Cady and Ann Nau, vice president of MCRC, said in emails after the hearing that Elefant had been “eloquent” in articulating their position. “If the Court were to side with DTI, it would undercut federal authority granted to the states in implementing the Clean Air Act,” Nau wrote. “DTI continues to attempt to portray us as radical because we continue to challenge their attempts to railroad state and local rights and to protect our community.”
Cady wrote: “DTI claims we are radical in our interpretation of the federal statutes where it is DTI that is taking the radical and rare step of filing suits against the Town and MDE. There are numerous faults with this process and suit.”
“The judges,” Cady wrote, “have a difficult decision and could take either position. Hopefully we will get a decision in our favor within the next couple of months. In one regard, we have been successful to get to this point since this started two years ago. We continue to battle a seriously flawed governmental process and a multi-billion dollar company which has stacked the deck against local citizens and their local zoning to ensure our rural community survives.”
The compressor station battle has also sucked Myersville into Pennsylvania’s —and the nation’s — fracking frenzy. Although Maryland is still deciding whether to allow fracking and under what circumstances, fracked gas from rural communities in Pennsylvania would flow through the Myersville compressor station on the way to customers in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast but also — if Dominion gets its way — overseas, via tankers, from the Cove Point LNG facility on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in Lusby, Md. Dominion has asked for FERC’s seal of approval to turn the existing LNG import terminal into an export plant.
Also: Myersville is mentioned in grist.org.
May 2, 2013
During two Mondays in April, I witnessed policymakers carefully scripting the undoing of Western Maryland.
Some would say they are determining best practices for fracking in the state, but that’s not how it looks from the audience.
The state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, which Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed two years ago, is examining what regulations could be put in place to make fracking safe. Or wait, maybe regulations to reduce the risks of fracking. Or to figure out the acceptable risks of fracking. Or the unacceptable risks.
In February 2012, the commission — operating without a budget but with money found under couch cushions at the state Department of the Environment (MDE) — hired Dr. Keith Eshleman, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory, to review methods around the country and come up with a list of best practices for fracking in the state. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore, a UMCES assistant professor, produced a 173-page report that includes 121 “best management practices.”
Over the last two Mondays in April, the commission discussed that report as well as an early outline of best practices that MDE and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are developing based on the Eshleman report. “All [of Eshleman’s] recommendations are going to be considered,” said Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser with MDE. The departments will accept, modify or reject the recommendations after considering practicality, feasibility, ability to implement, she said. The report will be released in May, and the public will have 30 days to comment.
But even before Eshleman could explain his report, tension surfaced. Actually, tension is a strong undercurrent at all of these meetings. One faction of this commission would have been content to start fracking a couple years ago because it trusts industry to pretty much get this right. This faction, which includes a representative of Chevron, a state senator and a Garrett County commissioner, seems to view all this talk, talk, talk as a lot of foot-dragging. The other, perhaps outnumbered faction frequently voices concern for the region’s rivers, air quality, trout, forests, water wells, soil, tourism. Think swimming, hiking, camping, kayaking, sledding. Think water for drinking and growing food, clean air for breathing, uncontaminated soil, stable climate.
At this first meeting about best management practices, commissioner Paul Roberts, who grows grapes and makes wine at Deep Creek Cellars in Garrett, wanted some clarification from Kenney: “Is the state willing to conclude we can’t do this, even if regulations are in place?” he asked. Kenney said that the decision about fracking was “independent of the regulations” and that departments would not issue permits if fracking were found to be unsafe.
Commission member Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said he was concerned about failure rates for the wells’ cement casings — estimated in recent Cornell University studies to range, in the first year alone, from 5 to 9 percent, or 1 in 12. Those casings are the barrier between the aquifer and the toxic fluid used for drilling. They also prevent methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from escaping the well bore. Such failure rates, for “anything else in our lives, [are] very large,” he said. Weber, who was a scientist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, also asked how the state would determine what exactly is an “unacceptable risk,” a criterion mentioned in the governor’s executive order. “I’m completely in the dark about how that goes on” at DNR and MDE, Weber said.
After a bit more discussion about whether studies on health, economics and traffic could be complete by 2014 and what this or the next governor might do, commission member Sen. George Edwards said, “My understanding is that the purpose of this commission is to come up with the golden rule for drilling.” The commission should not be concerned about whether this or the next governor wants drilling, he said. “We need to keep on track what this commission is supposed to do.” He said technology constantly evolves, so the commission needs to come up with the best available practices and update them over time. After that, monitoring is key. “And if something happens, you can cut it off quick enough to prevent a bunch of impacts,” he said.
Commission Chairman David Vanko, a Towson University dean and professor of geology, said he had read about Ohio truckers dumping fracking waste: “It’s those bald-faced breaking of the rules we want to deal with.”
Commission member Harry Weiss, a Pennsylvania attorney, said “there’s never enough money for enforcement.”
The questions about what the commission is supposed to do and what constitutes “unacceptable risks” were not addressed further.
For the record, the governor’s executive order creating the commission charged it with figuring out “WHETHER [my bold, italics, capitalization] and how gas production from the Marcellus shale in Maryland can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” Whether the state will drill is a question only the outnumbered faction consistently raises.
A number of environmental and health organizations, including Food & Water Watch and Environment Maryland, wrote O’Malley last week to raise alarms about the direction the commission seems to be headed: “We suggest a different approach: that you provide clear direction for the Advisory Commission and lead the way to a future where fracking is never allowed in our state, so there are no harms to mitigate in the first place.” Chesapeake Climate Action Network is circulating an on-line petition, urging the governor to assess the risks of fracking before writing the regulations.
Also last week, MDE Secretary Robert M. Summers posted a letter to the public on the commission website in response to “many emails” from people who have been told that the commission assumes that fracking is inevitable. “This is not true,” he wrote. “No decision has been made about whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed in Maryland, and MDE is proceeding methodically and cautiously to develop stringent regulations that will protect Marylanders in the event hydraulic fracturing is allowed.”
At his presentation, Eshleman emphasized that he would not recommend whether drilling should go forward. Nor did his report deal with climate forcing, public health or economics, which are supposed to be covered in future reports. (The governor included $1.5 million in the budget to cover these studies and monitoring of water in Western Maryland). His task, he said, was only to suggest best management practices. But Eshleman’s report includes several warnings about fracking in Maryland. For example, it notes that “the lack of comprehensive, data-driven studies of the impacts of [fracking] … present a significant impediment to recommending best practices on the basis of this criterion alone.”
The report also says:
“We believe that it is inevitable that there will be negative impacts from [fracking] in western Maryland (and perhaps beyond the state’s borders) and that a significant portion of these ‘costs’ will be borne by local communities. Heavy truck traffic on local roads, noise and odors emanating from drilling sites, conflicts with outdoor recreation, diminished tourism, reduced biodiversity, and deterioration of air and water quality are some examples of the types of impacts that are likely even under the best of circumstances. While difficult to quantify in economic terms, these ‘costs’ will ideally be greatly outweighed by the benefits of increased economic activity—otherwise it is very difficult to make a case that [fracking] should occur at all.” [again, my bold, italic]
The report recommends, among other practices, drilling in dense clusters, so as to minimize land disruption. This would require “forced pooling,” which the state doesn’t have the power to enforce. Under forced pooling, gas companies could force landowners into leasing gas rights in certain areas so as to contain harm. The report recommends two years of pre-drilling monitoring at each site to determine water quality and map such things as rare and endangered species. It recommends a slow ramping up of drilling “to allow a new regulatory structure and experience in inspection and enforcement to evolve over time.” It also proposes a voluntary comprehensive drilling plan, or CDP, for each site, to encourage “channeling this industrial activity into those areas where fewer of the most sensitive resources are ‘in harm’s way’ and where new infrastructure needs (e.g., roads, pipelines) are lower.” Drillers should not drill near abandoned wells, mapped voids, steep slopes, wetlands, floodplains, conservation areas. The report also includes recommended setbacks (such as 300 feet from the edge of the disturbed area to streams, rivers, wetlands, trails, parks, scenic byways…; 1,000 feet from the borehole to an occupied building). For reference, a football field is 360 feet.
The report also recommended ongoing reclamation. In Pennsylvania, “I saw no evidence of any reclamation going on at all,” Eshleman said. And yet: “I don’t want anyone to think there will be rapid return of the land to something that it looked like prior to any drilling,” he said. The marketing for drilling, he said, is that the company fracks and then restores the land to what it was, but that is misleading. “We saw an industrialization over an existing rural [community],” he said, “and it might be there for 20 or 30 or 40 years” so the company can refrack the wells for the Marcellus or Utica shales.
Feeling reassured yet?
The state agencies’ plan for regulations is still in the form of a preliminary outline — which was displayed but not released to anyone in the audience. But one proposed regulation would require companies to submit a Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plan (CGDP) that would include compressor stations, roads, pipelines, wastewater treatment. Drillers would have to work with a “stakeholder’s group” of local government, park managers, NGOs and property owners, and hold a public meeting about each drilling plan. The state plan also would allow only freshwater ponds, rather than ponds of frack wastewater, and require closed-loop systems (recycling of flowback water as much as possible) and disclosure of chemicals. Companies claiming trade secrets would still have to give information about chemicals to MDE.
Several commissioners asked for a side-by-side comparison of the state’s proposed regulations and the Eshleman report. Otherwise, they said, the commission couldn’t readily determine what was different. “Eshleman should be a baseline for the gold standard,” commission member and state Delegate Heather Mizeur said. Kenney said that would probably be difficult given the organization of the Eshleman report.
Commissioner Roberts questioned any setback less than 2,000 feet – a distance the industry in one instance insisted on to protect its infrastructure. Last year, Dominion Transmission Inc. (DTI) sought and received federal approval for a 2,000-foot buffer around its vast Sabinsville Storage Pool for natural gas in Pennsylvania — to protect it from nearby fracking. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed after DTI said the 2,000 foot buffer was “needed to ensure the facility’s continued safe and reliable operation amidst nearby natural gas horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing activity targeting the Marcellus Shale [my bold] and other possible encroachment activities by third parties.” DTI said it was concerned that fractures could create migration paths for the gas to move out of the storage pool. And FERC concurred, finding that “there has been no model developed that has been used to predict the exact placement and path, width, length and height of a fracture and then to prove, with actual microseismic events, that the fractures were placed where predicted and extended only to the predicted length, width, and height, and no farther.”
In other words, they don’t really know the consequences under the earth of fracking.
“I’m just asking for the same protections for everyone that the industry says it needs for itself,” Roberts said.
He also urged the state to consider that fracking would bring with it more gas lines and compressor stations, which are governed by FERC, rather than the state.
Commission member John Fritts, president of the Savage River Watershed Association and director of development for the Federation of American Scientists, asked about environmental damage: “How is the state going to be compensated for this damage? … Are we giving industry a free pass on this?”
Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer of Chevron could be relied on to react to nearly every proposed regulation with concern for the “real world.” Mind you, that is the oil and gas industry’s real world. His “real world” has nothing to do with the world of brook trout, unbroken forests, endangered bats and goshawks, grapes growing and children breathing. Various regulations were “very complicated” and “very difficult.” He said “reality on the ground becomes a different story” and asked “is this feasible” and “ is it realistic and in the real world?” Likewise, he said, operating without some waivers from setbacks is “not practical.”
Also rattling around the room were occasional references to the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a Pennsylvania coalition that includes the Heinz Endowments, a few of the large drillers (such as Chevron and Shell) and a few large environmental organizations (including the Environmental Defense Fund). It has devised a list of 15 voluntary performance standards. But half of the top 10 drillers in Pennsylvania didn’t sign on, and many environmental organizations rejected the premise: that drilling could be done safely, with or without voluntary practices. In addition, one can certainly take issue with the use of the term “sustainable” when describing a fossil fuel.
During a public comment time at the first meeting, Crede Calhoun criticized a “flaw in the process” that “seems to be putting the cart before horse.” Why, he asked, spend all this money and time developing regulations before determining whether fracking is in the best interests of the residents and existing tourist businesses? People who invest in second homes come to Garrett for the long-term. Fracking, though, is the “large-scale imposition of industry on the rural and peaceful landscape.”
Calhoun operates an ecotourism business catering to people who, he said, want to escape urbanization and industrialization. After the meeting, he said that fracking and the tourism industry are incompatible: “All the marketing says ‘Escape to Garrett County.’ What are they going to change it to? ‘Escape to Gasland’?”
–by elisabeth hoffman
May 1, 2013
“Fracking is the DDT of our age,” biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber said Monday afternoon at a lecture at UMBC. Like DDT, “it is ubiquitous, heavily promoted and we have come to see it as … harmless.”
Steingraber said that all of her attention now—as a mother, scientist, writer, cancer survivor—is directed at halting fracking.
Only because she was on her best behavior in jail did she make it to UMBC, where she delivered the sixth-annual Korenman Lecture. Steingrager was sentenced April 17 to 15 days for trespassing in March at a planned Inergy Inc. compressor station and gas storage site near Seneca Lake and her home in Trumansburg, NY. She pleaded guilty, explaining to the judge that her act of civil disobedience was because of unjust laws. Inergy, she argued, is guilty of toxic trespass. After refusing to pay the $375 fine, she was jailed along with two other members of the Seneca Lake 12 but released after eight days.
Steingraber sees herself as continuing in the tradition of Rachel Carson, whose work a half-century ago led to the banning of DDT. Steingraber was 3 years old when Carson’s Silent Spring was published. Her father, a teacher who always voted Republican, used it as a textbook in his business class. Although she couldn’t read the book, Steingraber saw it go in and out of her father’s worn book bag. And when she went to the Laundromat with her mother, she noticed that the bus driver had the book under his windshield. And she saw it other places, too. “In the 1960s … it was the ubiquitous book,” she said. Because of Silent Spring, Steingraber’s father became an organic gardener. He had fought in World War II and suffered from what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. “His garden was therapy for him,” she said. “He was not interested in bringing in a command-and-control military strategy to maintaining weed control and keeping pests out.”
Steingraber said her life has had many parallels to Carson’s. Both were women and biologists who had trouble choosing between a career in writing and one in science. And both had cancer. But Carson had to hide her cancer, so she wouldn’t be seen as biased or even hysterical, while Steingraber has been able to write about her experiences. ”I’ve always been forthright about my diagnosis, and I’ve never had to be afraid that my science would be impeached because I had cancer,” she said. The difference, she said, is that the feminist movement made women’s stories and autobiography matter.
Carson’s science alone did not bring about change, Steingraber said. Carson also was pushed by activists, in particular by a Long Island group called the Committee Against Mass Poisoning—a name Steingraber said needs to be revived. The group noticed that birds were dying after aerial DDT spraying. The members, mostly women, sued, lost, sued again, lost again, all the way to the Supreme Court, where they again lost, Steingraber said. But newspapers followed the story and asked Carson and other scientists to write about it. “A critical space was opened in the culture to talk about these issues and to do the science,” Steingraber said, “because the Committee Against Mass Poisoning forced the issue.” In addition, an activist group of scientists, the Environmental Defense Fund, eventually worked with lawyers to press for one of Carson’s goals: the creation of what became known as the Environmental Protection Agency. Eventually, DDT and other pesticides were banned. “We took an abolitionist approach,” Steingraber said, after finding “some chemicals so inherently unmanageable and un-regulatable that no laws could manage them sufficiently to prevent harm.”
And Steingraber takes a similar, abolitionist approach to fracking.
Steingraber was headed for medical school when her bladder cancer was diagnosed between her sophomore and junior years of college. Doctors asked her if she had ever vulcanized tires or worked in aluminum smelting, because bladder cancer is often caused by exposure to chemicals. Of course, she had not, she said, but she learned that her hometown had 30 industries, including an aluminum smelter, chemical manufacturers and coal-burning plants. In her research for the book that would become Living Downstream, she found dry-cleaner solvent, a cause of bladder cancer, in her town’s drinking wells.
And so, Steingraber said, she wanted to do for carcinogens what Carson had done for pesticides. Like Carson, Steingraber summarizes the science in her book, but unlike Carson she includes herself as a data point in the cancer cluster of her community. “It wasn’t seen as the opposite of doing good science,” she said. For 20 years she worked toward a Carson-esque bill of rights that would have made people secure from poisons applied by others. For a time, Steingraber said, she thought she was making progress toward persuading the EPA and state agencies that relying on these chemicals was a foolish violation of human rights and expensive. That is: Cancer, asthma, miscarriages are expensive.
“We were making slow progress. Until along came fracking,” she said. This technology “has upended everything … and contravenes all the good things we have put in place.”
When she was growing up, DDT was under every sink, and children often ran through a fog of DDT spray. Magazine ads proclaimed that DDT was good for you, even though it was also a “ruthless assassin” for bugs. “Fracking occupies that same space in our culture today,” she said.
She explained the now-familiar fracking process: the “petrified fizz of champagne bubbles” trapped in rock, the remains of sea creatures that died in an ancient ocean 400 million year ago; the drilling technique devised to extract this hard-to-get gas; the millions of gallons of water; the explosives; the silica sand to prop open the cracks; the gel to make it slippery—and the biocides needed to kill the living organisms deep under the Earth’s surface. “The underground that we had thought of as a place of inertia, death, lifelessness is actually completely alive,” she said. In fact, she said, scientists believe that more biomass, more living organisms are deep under the surface than on top and these play an important role in the carbon cycle and climate stability. Gasp, said the audience. “Fracking requires you kill off all those,” she said, so industry has to broadcast pesticides and biocides underground “to kill off anything that’s alive.” Fracking also requires places to store the butane and propane that comes up from the ground, such as at the salt caverns on Seneca Lake, where she was arrested in March.
Steingraber’s latest book, Raising Elijah, is both the name of her son and a call to raise up the spirit of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist in the 1830s who was assassinated for his stand against slavery. Lovejoy condemned slavery when it was being “regulated.” The slave trade from Africa had been halted, making each slave worth more. “He was motivated to do so as a parent,” Steingraber said, because he could see children being sold into slavery across the river in Illinois. Even though his work also put his own family at risk, he had to condemn this “homicidal abomination.” Today, she said, we are “ruinously dependent on another abomination”: fossil fuels, which are killing the planet and ourselves.
“And we are taking a regulatory approach to them when we should be taking an abolitionist” one, she said.
Responding to several questions after her talk, she criticized the mainstream environmental movement, as “playing a traitor’s role in fracking.” One of her letters in jail was to leaders of Sierra Club, EDF and others that view fracking as inevitable and so are cooperating with industry. “I’ve run out of patience with the mainstream environmental movement.”
In the audience, two representatives from Sierra Club also said they were dismayed with the compromises the large organizations were making. “I share every one of the frustrations you express,” said Richelle Brown, who is in charge of Maryland Sierra Club’s natural gas campaign. She said she hopes to push resources to communities on the front lines that are fighting the compressor stations and LNG export plants that go with fracking. “My approach to that is to try to go in and change the organizational culture,” Brown said. Also, Ruth White from Climate Change Iniative of Howard County said her group and Chesapeake Climate Action Network are pressing for studies to see if fracking can be done safely. Steingraber said that is an approach she is also taking in New York, where she is pushing for a health impact study—although she remains “sure [the] risks can’t be mitigated.”
Steingraber also said we need to modernize energy as much as we have the telecommunications industry. If her great-grandfather were brought back to life, she said, he would not know how to place a phone call. But he could put gas in her car. We are “frozen in the past” with our energy system, she said. Industry says abandoning fossil fuels is pie in the sky or unrealistic, but “it’s more pie in the sky and unrealistic to think that Earth’s system eco-services are going to carry on while we ravage them,” she said.
Plankton, which make about half the oxygen we breathe, are declining at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year and have declined perhaps 40 percent since World War II. “Why don’t we know this? Why do we know more about the stock market even if you don’t have stock?” she asked. “How come we aren’t told on a daily basis how the plankton stocks are doing?” Same with CO2 levels, which are teetering at close to 400 ppm this week. “We don’t have public conversations about them.”
“It’s unrealistic to imagine we can keep the fossil fuel party going,” she said, “and [to] imagine realistically that we are going to have plenty of oxygen and plenty of fish in the ocean.”