Earth Day – Letters from the Chemung County Jail by The Marcellus Effect
Letters from the Chemung County Jail #2 by Sandra Steingraber, April 22, 2013
I was led to cell #1 in block D of the Chemung County jail by three things. One is the decision of Inergy to industrialize the Finger Lakes region where I live and, in so doing, aid and abet the fracking industry by erecting a massive storage depot near the birthplace of my son. I consider this an act of desecration. That’s what biologists call the proximate cause of my decision to commit an act of trespass by blockading the Inergy’s compressor station driveway. … My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath. The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?
Earth Day – Letters from the Chemung County Jail by Sandra Steingraber
Sandra Steingraber, première lettre écrite en prison translation by Amie du Richelieu April 21, 2013
When Henry David Thoreau spend a night in jail for civil disobedience – defining the term in the process – he was served chocolate and brown bread for breakfast. The tray that was slid under my bars at 5:00am this morning contained nothing as tasty. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to say what the ingredients were. Packets of instant hot cocoa (artificial) are available from the commissary for a price – along with ramen noodles, decaf coffee, Jolly Rogers, shampoo, pencils, envelopes and paper.
There is no window in my cell. The lights are on all night. The television is on all day. Through the bars that make up the fourth wall of my new living quarters, I have a view of the catwalk, which is patrolled by guards, and then another wall of bars, and beyond those bars is a window made up of small panes of opaque glass. At about seven o’clock, one of the inmates asked for fresh air, and the guard, whom everyone calls Murphy’s Law, cranked open the grid of panes, just a little.
Now, I can stand at my own bars, and move my head in different directions – jumping up and down works the best – and see through the scrims of multiple layers of bars – a glimpse of the outside world. There are row houses with windows and no bars – which in fact suddenly seems miraculous – and I thought I saw a bird fly by. No trees through; only slinky–like concertina wire. Somewhere, beyond the shouting of the television, there are church bells.
… Even though I am entirely cut off from everything, I know and love – my children and my husband, the April return of birdsong and wildflowers and pollination and photosynthesis. I believe this is the place to speak about fossil fuel extraction in general and fracking infrastructure in specific.
I now inhabit an ugly, miserable, loud and ungraceful world. There are no flowers; no local, delicious food; no tranquil landscapes; and not even coffee or tea.
If we do not want New York to become a prison of wellheads, pipelines and compressor stations; if we do not want the violence of climate change instability and mass species extinction; if we do not want to leave our children a diminished world bereft of frog song, bees, coral reefs, sea ice; then coming to a place as far removed from the rhythms of the natural world as a jail cell is not an inappropriate place to say so. [Emphasis added]
WATCH Bill Moyers Interview with Sandra Steingraber: The Toxic Assault on Our Children April 19, 2013
Biologist, mother and activist Sandra Steingraber discusses her fight against fracking and toxins contaminating our air, water and food.
BILL MOYERS: But here’s what the industry says, the American Natural Gas Alliance. “Fracking wells have a smaller surface footprint, therefore requiring half as many wells as was needed 20 years ago. The process is far safer for the environment than other forms of fossil fuel extraction, such as strip mining. The chemicals used in fracking are highly diluted and natural gas is clean and abundant and fracking will provide many needed jobs.” That, in a capsule, is their response to you.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yeah. Well, that’s the promotional language that fracking has been unrolled across our nation. But the data tell a different story.
One of my biggest concerns is what fracking does to air quality. We have some new data coming out of Wyoming as well as some of our other Western states like Colorado showing that drilling and fracking operations are almost always accompanied by spikes in ground-level ozone — smog.
And this kind of air pollution kills. We know that. And so we could through a health impact assessment estimate how much ground-level ozone and air pollution would be created through drilling and fracking operations and all the attendant technology that goes along with it. Compressors, flare stacks, diesel engines and so forth, and run the numbers to see how many more children will have asthma, what will the heart attack and stroke risk be, how many more emergency room visits and so on. And we could even monetize those costs.
But so far, we in the scientific community have been unsuccessful in our petition that this kind of science should go forward as a precondition for making a decision about whether to lift the moratorium here in New York or not. So as a substitute for a comprehensive health impact assessment, instead, our department of conservation asked the Department of Health to review a document that we in the scientific community don’t have access to yet.
BILL MOYERS: You were talking about a secret study that they–
SANDRA STEINGRABER: A secret study, right. So I’ve never heard of this actually, in public health. How can you have a secret public health study? It seems almost a contradiction in terms. So those of us who actually live there, who are parents, who have children there and who are also members of the public health community, who have scientific questions, we feel very frustrated.
I have worked for 20 years on toxic chemicals and what we call toxic trespass. And over and over again, we have brought very good science into the public. We have brought it before presidents, we have brought it before Congress. And over and over again, the regulatory system has proved impervious to our petitions.
It is a broken system. It cannot respond to new science. It can’t respond to — it can’t sort of evolve to say, “All right, here’s new evidence that this chemical is linked to preterm puberty in girls or early preterm labor in women or to learning disabilities and so forth.”
There’s nothing in our laws take in that new information and say, “It’s time to redesign our economy so it does not have to depend on chemicals that inherently cause childhood developmental problems.” …
SANDRA STEINGRABER: The environmental crisis seems to me like a tree with two trunks. On one of these trunks is toxic trespass. So all of us are—
BILL MOYERS: Toxic trespass?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Toxic trespass–
BILL MOYERS: You’ve used that several times. What is it?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, it means that chemicals without our consent enter our body sometimes because we inhale them. You know, each of us breathes a pint of atmosphere with every breath. And so that is one way in which toxic air pollutants then enter us, into our bloodstream.
So the other trunk of this tree of crisis is climate instability in which is created of course by the combustion of fossil fuels and their buildup in our atmosphere such that we’re trapping heat and that heat is being absorbed by the ocean, warming the ocean, but also acidifying the ocean in ways that are now precipitating mass species’ extinctions. And the main actors in the story of climate instability are carbon dioxide and unburned methane. Which is–
BILL MOYERS: And fracking affects those?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And fracking affects both of those, of course in– first of all, natural gas is methane. And to blast it out of the bedrock and extract it and put it into pipelines and process it and get it to market so that we can make our tea kettles whistle, much methane is lost to the atmosphere in that, during that time.
Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, more than twenty times more powerful over a 100-year period.
And so as far as I can see then this tree of crisis has a common root, which is a kind of ruinous dependency on fossil fuels.
BILL MOYERS: You are confronting here the current momentum of capitalism, and a hundred-year momentum of capitalism where creating commodities and wealth require the processes that are sometimes dangerous to us, or that provide economic benefits.
I read — in preparing for this conversation, I read the story of one fellow who’s been working at odd jobs, taking welfare when he must, who’s now expecting a windfall of up to $300,000 a year for the next decade from a lease he signed for fracking with Chevron. Now do you really expect him to turn that down?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, once they get to the level of — to the end of the process, where we’re asking a desperate farmer to turn away from looking at the bedrock under his feet as a bank account, you know, as a piñata that could be shattered to make money so he could retire, so he can send his children to college — we’ve failed, right? We’ve failed.
And so I’m far more interested in going upstream and looking at this as a design problem. To say, “All right, so we’ve had our run of fossil fuels. And we’ve become incredibly dependent on them to make stuff for us, right?” So the vinyl siding on your house is made out of natural gas, right.
And hydrous ammonia, which is used as synthetic fertilizer in our wheat fields and our corn fields, also made out of natural gas. So we have created an agricultural system that rides a tandem bicycle with the fossil fuel industry. We have created a materials economy and surrounds ourselves with material that are essentially fossils that were exhuming from the earth at a way that is not sustainable. They’re called nonrenewable for a reason.
And so it’s time to engage human ingenuity to do something entirely different.
And that’s where I’m interested in working. Because it seems to me when I look back at history, we have, in the United States, faced other times where our economy was ruinously dependent on some kind of abomination. And of course, slavery would be the one I would use as my example here. Where people had to rise up and say that even though millions of dollars of personal wealth is bound up in slave labor, even though slave labor offered us the lower prices of goods, offered us ability to be competitive in the world market, it’s wrong to do that.
And instead of trying to regulate slavery, control slavery emission rates, have state-of-the-art slavery, we decided to take an abolitionist approach to that. So I named my son Elijah, you know, after an abolitionist from my home state of Illinois, Elijah Lovejoy, who–
BILL MOYERS: A great newspaper editor.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: I learned his story when I was growing up.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Every Illinois school child learns the story.
BILL MOYERS: And many in Texas did as well.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, he’s he plays a role, of course, not only as an abolitionist but as a defender of our First Amendment rights.
BILL MOYERS: Ultimately killed by a mob.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Ultimately pumped full of five bullets in the free state of Illinois, you know, just down the stream from where I grew up. For daring to write and speak out against slavery. But his– best friend who was then the President of Illinois College in response to the death of Elijah Lovejoy turned his home into a station in the underground railroad. And his best friend’s sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who went on to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and so–
BILL MOYERS: Unintended consequences of taking a stand.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Doing the right thing at the right moment.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And you can’t always predict, right, of the power and inspiration that your words will have. Of course, his words affected John Brown, it affected the abolitionists in Boston and so forth. And so when — I had to pause for a long time, in fact, it took me three long days after Elijah’s birth before I actually named him Elijah, after Elijah Lovejoy.
It’s a hard thing to name your son after someone who was martyred. But I wanted to, when I say my son’s name, I wanted to remember that change is possible. That when you stand up and do the right thing and ask for something to be redesigned, that that’s a noble and right thing.
BILL MOYERS: But here’s what you’re up against. The energy industry very easily got a loophole placed in federal legislation just a few years ago which exempts fracking from many of the country’s major–
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: –environmental protection laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. Is that correct?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: So what does that tell you?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, what it means is that it’s an outlaw enterprise. That it has succeeded in exempting itself from our nation’s foremost environmental laws so our federal government doesn’t have much control or power over this industry. …
BILL MOYERS: Is that why you’re going to jail?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yes. I mean, I think what’s required — I don’t think you have to go to jail. That’s an act of conscience that I chose to take. But I do think that what’s required at this moment is heroism. And I’m mindful that when I read books to my children, they love to hear the narrative of heroes.
And heroes that can overcome all kinds of odds when everyone is telling them they can’t possibly win, and they do. And I still believe in that very strongly. …
BILL MOYERS: On Wednesday, the day after our conversation, the judge sentenced Sandra Steingraber and two other activists to 15 days in jail after they pleaded guilty to trespassing. [Emphasis added]
Sandra Steingraber: Prepared Sentencing Statement for the Reading Town court April 17, 2013
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. … 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. … 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.” [Emphasis added]
Sandra Steingraber, faire de la prison comme action citoyenne non violente translation by Amie du Richelieu April 19, 2013