Sandra Steingraber came out to the high desert in 2011 on something of a pilgrimage. The biologist, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment and cancer survivor woke up one morning to find that 40 percent of the land in her county, including a parcel just down the block, had been leased for oil and gas development in the form of hydraulic fracturing, and came out West, to fracking's homeland, to learn more.
The journey took her through Chaco Culture National Historic, a place she and her husband had long dreamed of seeing and now brought their children to, to Moab, Utah, where the mayor spoke of development pushing closer to national parks there, even as far north as Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where signs warned against touching the petrified trees, as the oils from human skin could speed their deterioration, while a dozen or so oil and gas wells lined the road into the park, emitting a steady stream of volatile organic compounds and methane.
And, finally she found her way to the sentencing hearing in Salt Lake City for Tim DeChristopher, who bid on oil and gas leases in Utah in an effort to save that land from fracking, and was sentenced to two years in jail for it. As he was handcuffed and hauled away, he'd declared, "This is what loves look like." It was the first time she'd ever seen someone actually stop fracking, she says.
She took that message home, to New York state, and turned money from a grant typically used to fund research, the Heinz Award, to help to create a coalition of now roughly 500 anti-fracking groups in the state with a goal of stopping fracking, New Yorkers Against Fracking. Within a few years, they had achieved the unthinkable: a statewide ban on fracking, which was approved by New York's governor in December.
"The idea that fracking is just inevitable, it just needs to be rejected outright. The industry wears a mantle of inevitability and acts like it's impossible to stand up against it but I think we showed in New York that we can," she tells SFR. "New York is not exceptional. We were told, too, that it was just beyond the bound of thinkable thought that we could achieve a ban, that we had to realize that this was happening and the best that we could do is have really strong regulations and we just rejected that outright."
Steingraber appears in Santa Fe this evening at a gala for WildEarth Guardians, discussing how a lifetime of work on toxic chemicals in our environment and their effect on public health has evolved to the view that, as she wrote for Orion magazine, "hydrofracking is the environmental issue of our time."
Part of that evolution, she says, has come from the realization that fracking isn't just an energy issue, it's a question of toxic chemicals with which she had a deep familiarity already — benzene, formaldehyde, surfactants, biocides — being among the 700 options oil and gas development companies list as potential ingredients for the chemical cocktail used in their fracking operations. But as soon as she dove into it, she found an unprecedented amount of government-level obfuscation.
"I just never saw anything where all the laws had been changed to enforce secrecy so it basically blinded science," Steingraber says.
Her career as a public health-focused ecologist has seen her overlaying maps of cancer clusters with data on toxin releases to illuminate the interactions of the two.
"You can't do any of that research for fracking because the basic data are all hidden, and in many ways, not just because they're exempt from the right to know laws but also because all of these nondisclosure agreements have been signed between landowners and the company including that when people get sick they can't talk about it. in Pennsylvania, their physicians have a gag order, act 13, so we can't even gather evidence from that level. So I was just stunned by this whole thing," she says.
Attempting to do the same kinds of work on fracking has dead ended where oil and gas companies have drawn curtains around the chemicals they use and the maps of their deposits, and even the fault lines the chemicals and petroleum they put into and pull out of the ground might be crossing.
"How can I, as a biologist who does public health, understand what risks we're being compelled to endure when I can't even see the maps?" she asks. "These maps were done way before [the company], so they should be in the public sphere. I mean, they're maps of the geology above which we walk and where we live, and yet we're not allowed to see those maps."
That was about the time Steingraber and fellow members of New Yorkers Against Fracking started turning from public awareness efforts—she'd spent most of the weekends over the previous two years in church basements and high school auditoriums as part of a team of scientists giving a "fracking 101" lesson—into civil disobedience. For 11 months now, activists have been protesting a facility at New York's Seneca Lake where Crestwood Midstream proposes to use abandoned salt caverns to store highly pressurized gas. Steingraber has posted dispatches from the "We Are Seneca Lakes" protests on ecowatch.com as various factions of the community, including school teachers, faith leaders, musicians, farmers and foodies—who came with rubber spatulas and whisks in hand—have organized a peaceful blockade of the road into the methane gas storage facility. Days have been spent reading aloud from the pope's encyclical letter on climate change.
"We're challenging the fairness of what it means to trespass," she says. The company is permitted to dump salt into the lake every quarter. It trespasses into the lake that's the drinking water supply for nearby towns, and therefore, into the bodies of those who drink that water.
"That's the real trespass," Steingraber says.
By 2013, the previously narrow field of research on fracking had seen exponential growth and Steingraber, as a founder and member of the Concerned Health Professionals, assisted in releasing a compendium of that research—300 studies by July 2013. The number of studies has jumped up by the hundreds in months that have followed, and now stands at near 500. They are overwhelmingly negative, some 88 percent of studies demonstrating harm from fracking, with a concentrated affect on infant health.
"The science on fracking now is really clear...And the kind of harms they show are the kind of things that really require an ethical response from us," she says. "It's also pretty clear that there's no evidence—none—that fracking can be practiced safely. There's no regulatory framework anywhere that we can point to to say 'Oh, well, here's how you can acceptably mitigate the risks.' This is an inherently dangerous technology."
Cement and steel are not immortal, and sooner or later, they're likely to leak, and the effect of fracking is, essentially, leaving chimneys from chemicals deep under the earth's surface, radium and heavy metals and other hydrocarbon gases among them, to our atmosphere and the air around our homes, schools and businesses, she says.
"All by itself, the data should be allowed to moved into the world of policy making…All the science should be sufficient to stop it in its tracks, but it's not," she says.
What made the difference was taking the science to the people, educating them about the components of the regulations they faced and inviting them to speak up on it for themselves. The end result, more than 204,000 comments on fracking, arrived at policymakers' doorsteps in a U-Haul truck driven by Yoko Ono. The effect was, as we now know, a ban.
"It wasn't science alone that did it and it wasn't politics alone that did it, it was when science came into the public arena," Steingraber says.
Part of the problem with fracking beginning in the West is that this lesser populated region of the country provides for fewer data points when it comes to an epidemiological study of the health effects of fracking. Activists here, she says, may need to frame their concerns around water, possible increases in seismic activity and the threats to heritage sites near Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
SFR recently released an ebook on the effects of fracking near Chaco. Download it here.