Gary Judson had just been removed from his shackles when they slapped the handcuffs on him. The 72-year-old Methodist minister had chained himself to the fence surrounding a compressor station — part of the critical infrastructure associated with hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking — a stone’s throw from Seneca Lake in upstate New York. The sheriff and his deputies freed him only to arrest him for trespassing.
“They don’t have the right to do this — to put the lake in jeopardy. We’ll all end up paying for their mess,” Judson told a small group of supporters on hand to witness his act of civil disobedience. The “this” he was protesting, Sandra Steingraber recounts in a recent issue ofOrion magazine, was the plan of Missouri-based Inergy Midstream to turn abandoned salt caverns beneath the lake’s shores into storage areas for millions of barrels of natural gas piped in from Pennsylvania’s fracking fields. “Inergy has been in violation of the Clean Water Act at this facility every single quarter for the past three years,” Judson said. “Since 1972, there have been fourteen catastrophic failures at gas storage facilities. Each one of them has been at a salt cavern.” A “failure” at Seneca Lake could be particularly catastrophic because, Steingraber writes, it provides the drinking water for 100,000 people. (Last month, Steingraber was jailed for 15 days for her own act of civil disobedience against Inergy.)
In Pennsylvania, where gas is currently being forced out of the shale rock in which it’s resided for millions of years, “failures” are already an everyday affair, as TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reports in the latest in her series of articles from fracking’s front lines. Once upon a time, coal miners, tunnel workers, and “radium girls” faced the horrors of their dangerous trades in seclusion, deep below ground, inside mountains, or hidden behind factory walls. They worked and died unseen and unheard.
Today, industrial safety issues have come home — literally. Toxic chemicals aren’t just reserved for Superfund sites; they are increasingly in our houses, our water, and our food. When something goes wrong at a fertilizer plant, it doesn’t just mean workers are in danger any more, but also — as in the case of the town of West, Texas — a nursing home, a school, an apartment complex, and five blocks of residences in a small town. As Cantarow writes, Pennsylvania farming communities are being turned into huge, open-air laboratories by energy companies eager to make North America a twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia, with ordinary people serving as its guinea pigs. And those people are paying a heavy price: mystery illnesses, dead animals, polluted water, land made worthless, and the loss of a way of life. In the midst of this new hell, however, there’s also hope. Like Gary Judson in New York, Pennsylvanians are speaking up, organizing, and doing what they can in the face of long odds and tough times. Nick Turse
Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania
By Ellen Cantarow
More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.
Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology — in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”