Anti-Fracking Activist Sandra Steingraber's Pursuit of a Healthy Environment

Anti-Fracking Activist Sandra Steingraber's Pursuit of a Healthy Environment


Sandra Steingraber PhD, the acclaimed author and ecologist, is determined to stop natural gas companies from ever conducting hydraulic fracturing in her upstate New York community. She was raised in a family whose members did not close their eyes to the horrors around them.

Sandra Steingraber. Photo: Sarah Kelsen

Steingraber, who was adopted as an infant, said part of the game plan of those who carry out atrocities is to make them seem unstoppable and inevitable. In her role as a public health biologist, she is witnessing atrocities being committed against air, food and water by the natural gas industry and other industrial sectors. “It seems to me that we are in the middle of an ecological holocaust, to speak really bluntly,” Steingraber said in an interview.

Steingraber’s adoptive father had to go off and fight Adolf Hitler as an 18-year-old. During much of World War II, the German Wehrmacht seemed unstoppable. But ultimately Nazi Germany was defeated. Steingraber’s father and the millions of others battling Hitler’s military machine remained steadfast in part because they believed they were fighting a good fight.

The vast majority of Germans either participated in or overlooked the atrocities of Nazi Germany and later denied personal moral responsibility for what occurred around them. After the war, the rest of the world did not judge these people kindly. Because of the syndrome known as the “Good Germans,” the evil of Nazism was allowed to spread widely, Steingraber said.

Growing up in Illinois, the lesson she was taught by her parents and extended family was never act like a Good German. “You don’t judge the probability of success when you do the right thing,” she said. “You just do the right thing. And you do it with your whole heart.”

Today, Steingraber is inspired by the commitment of the individuals and grassroots groups who are working against the use of hydraulic fracturing, an industrial practice used for the extraction of natural gas. “I believe fracking in New York is stoppable,” she said. “It has to be stopped and therefore we can stop it.”

Steingraber is not an armchair activist. On April 17, a New York judge sentenced Sandra Steingraber, Melissa Chipman and Michael Dineen to 15 days in jail for their resistance to the heavy industrialization of their community in upstate New York.

A month earlier, Steingraber and 10 fellow residents of the Seneca Lake region, in a peaceful act of civil disobedience, blockaded the gate of a gas compressor station run by Missouri-based Inergy LLP. They were protesting their opposition to Inergy’s planned heavy industrialization of the Finger Lakes region.

While resistance to the natural gas industry is growing, not everyone is on board. As with the Good Germans of the 1930s and 1940s, there are many Americans living in fracking zones who are pretending that everything is normal and fine. Steingraber finds this type of mindset extremely troubling, especially among residents in New York where state officials are still considering whether to allow fracking.

“The biggest obstacle in our way, not to diminish the power of the oil and gas industry, which I fully acknowledge is the wealthiest and most powerful industry on the planet, but it’s really the advanced resignation of the people that they are about to run over that is my biggest problem right now,” Steingraber said.

Too many people believe it is not realistic to fight for the abolition of fracking. They opt instead to lobby lawmakers for stricter regulations. “That’s really a form of fatalism that’s treacherous,” Steingraber said. “There’s no science that shows regulations are actually protective. If we go the regulatory route, we are laying time bombs underneath New York.”

Resistance Is Never Futile

In her latest book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, Steingraber cites a newspaper article in which an energy company official is quoted as saying, “The shale army has arrived. Resistance is futile.”

The U.S. natural gas industry indeed views the places where it sets up operations as a battlefield, especially in areas of the country where the industry has held little influence and lacked visibility. When it explores and drills for natural gas in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, there is relatively little public opposition to its activities. But as advances were made in hydraulic fracturing technology and extracting natural gas from shale rock became more economical, gas companies jumped at the opportunity to move into new areas where local politicians had yet to be paid off by the industry.

Legislators and regulators in the states situated above the Marcellus Shale, though, were easy targets. Public officials in Pennsylvania, for example, rolled over without any hesitation when the gas industry dangled large amounts of money before their eyes. The shale gas army moved into the state, known affectionately by drilling enthusiasts as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” with the full blessing of state and local officials, even though studies had not been conducted to ensure gas drilling and its associated activities would not have adverse effects on local communities.

Unlike the paid-off politicians, many Pennsylvania residents viewed the gas industry with suspicion. The previous extractive industry to invade Pennsylvania—coal—also promised riches for everyone. But what the coal barons ultimately oversaw was the permanent scarring of a state, leaving behind destroyed ecosystems and countless cases of black lung. Recognizing a higher level of distrust than it faced in friendlier regions of the U.S., the gas industry knew it had a public relations battle on its hands.

The industry started pouring millions of dollars into advertising campaigns and building highly disciplined PR operations. Gas companies believed they were fighting an insurgency. As a result, they hired former U.S. military psychological operations, or psy-ops, experts comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments. “Having that understanding of psy-ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania,” a gas company official said about his company’s decision to hire former military psy-ops experts.

In Raising Elijah, Steingraber acknowledges the shale gas army has arrived in the Marcellus Shale and has set its sights on her community in New York. But when the health of children and the future of the planet are at stake, resistance is never futile—“unless you believe sitting at a segregated lunch counter or standing before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square is just a waste of time,” she writes in the book.

“If everyone who had quiet anxiety and concerns about fracking acted upon their values, we could stop it,” Steingraber said in an interview. “But it’s this advanced fatalism that I find most frustrating. It’s harder for me to deal with than the arguments of the oil and gas industry. I’m happy to debate the oil and gas industry anytime, anywhere. And if we’re having a fair and honest debate on the evidence, I always feel like I’ve won the argument.”

Working to Get Everyone on Board

Steingraber is particularly troubled by the so-called realism when it is practiced by the big environmental groups who then provide political cover for the natural gas industry. For example, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune revealed in a February 2012 interview with Time magazine that from 2007 to 2010 the Sierra Club had accepted $26 million from Chesapeake Energy Chairman and CEO Aubrey McClendon and other people associated with the natural gas producer.

Steingraber wrote a letter denouncing the Sierra Club for its decision to accept millions of dollars from the gas industry. In the letter, posted on the Orion Magazine website on March 23, 2012, Steingraber said she would be removing the Sierra Club’s endorsement—the group in 1999 called her “the new Rachel Carson”—from her website.

The Sierra Club’s response to her letter failed to placate Steingraber. “There has been no acknowledgement that in the years in which they were doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry that they provided political cover, including hoodwinking people like me,” she said in an interview.

Steingraber lives in Tompkins County, New York, where 40 percent of the land has been leased to natural gas drillers. She is angry at how the leasing was conducted in a hush-hush manner at a time when the big green groups were actively endorsing natural gas production. “How did I not know that?” she asks about the leasing activity. “To get to all the people who own 40 percent of the land and to get them to sign contracts, all kinds of house visits and phone calls had to happen when the Sierra Club was on the payroll.”

The messaging that people were hearing from the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund was that natural gas is cleaner-burning than coal and would serve as the perfect bridge fuel to a sustainable energy future. At the time, when landmen were working overtime buying up leases across New York, the Sierra Club and the other big green groups failed to warn people about the dangers of the extraction process and the related activities that go along with natural gas drilling.

After Brune told Time magazine about the payments from the natural gas industry, Steingraber said she wanted to wait and see how the organization would react to the disclosure. Would they clean house and reorganize? After six weeks of waiting, she realized the organization would not be making any substantive changes. That’s when she decided to write her letter blasting the group.

“Any board member who had anything to do with it should resign,” Steingraber said. “Then there are reparations that need to happen. The Sierra Club helped to put the wheels of fracking in motion. And now people are hurt. People have poisoned water.”

Given the gas industry’s toxic track record and the fact the industry is gearing up to begin extracting natural gas in her community, Steingraber decided to devote a chapter of Raising Elijah to fracking and how it negatively impacts public health and the environment.

“The proposal to shatter the shale bedrock of our rural county and extract from it natural gas reveals the abandonment” of the precautionary principle, she writes in the book.

“I felt like I had to include a chapter on fracking in the book. It became the capstone final chapter, which I hope encapsulates all of the previous problems that I wrote about in the first nine chapters,” Steingraber said, adding that she is currently working on a book devoted entirely to fracking.

Refusing to Remain Silent

When she began researching and writing Raising Elijah four years ago, Steingraber said she did not aim to write about fracking. It was her intention to summarize for parents the state of the evidence on environmental health threats to pediatric development, from point of conception through and including puberty.

However, gradually she began to see fracking as the largest threat to children in the region of New York where she lives with her husband, Jeff de Castro, and her two children, Faith and Elijah. The younger of the two, Elijah, was named after Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist writer from Alton, Illinois, just down the river from where Steingraber grew up.

In her research, Steingraber learned that Lovejoy remained calm in his published writings about slave owners and their supporters. Lovejoy saved his fierce language for the citizens of Illinois who sought to remain above the fray, ignoring the evils of slavery. Lovejoy’s fellow residents in Alton volunteered to sign a resolution asking him to cease publication and leave town but would not sign a resolution that urged protection against mob rule. These people were “the ones who believed themselves upstandingly moral but who chose to remain silent about the great moral crisis of the day,” she said.

In November 1837, Lovejoy, 35, was killed by a mob, shot to death over his anti-slavery views. If his fellow citizens who opposed slavery had stood up to defend him and speak out against slavery, Lovejoy almost certainly would not have been killed. And if all of the Americans who chose to remain silent for so many years had decided to fight for what was right, slavery would have ended much earlier.

The same is true for protecting public health and the environment. Because of the significance of what is at stake, Steingraber views the anti-fracking movement as part of a long, noble history. But for the movement to be successful, people need to recognize that silence is complicity.

Steingraber, who earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Michigan, has studied the practice of hydraulic fracturing and its impact on humans and the environment. At a public health conference, she explained that fracking is a form of fossil fuel extraction that turns the earth inside out. It buries a surface resource that is vital to life—fresh water—and brings to the surface subterranean substances—hydrocarbons, radioactive materials, heavy metals, brine—that were once locked away in deep geological strata and now require permanent containment, she said.

“Before it is sent down the borehole, the fresh water used to fracture bedrock is mixed with inherently toxic materials. These include known and suspected carcinogens, neurological toxicants, and chemicals linked to pregnancy loss,” she explained. “At least one thousand truck trips are required to frack a single well. These trucks—along with earth-moving equipment, compressors, and condensers—release or create soot, volatile organic compounds, and ozone. Exposure to this kind of air pollution has demonstrable links to asthma, stroke, heart attack, cancers and preterm birth.”

Not only are natural gas producers using highly toxic substances to pull the methane out of shale gas formations deep below the earth’s surface, the gas getting extracted is being used as a feedstock for highly toxic chemicals. The widespread use of fracking is creating an abundant and cheaper feedstock to create these toxic chemicals. For many years, Steingraber worked for chemical reform and changing the nation’s laws that govern the production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals. But with fracking, she believes a new approach is needed.

“It really makes no sense for me to keep talking about how we need chemical reform when we keep blasting out of the ground more and more of the feedstock that makes that stuff,” she said.

One Battle at a Time

Steingraber, who also authored the acclaimed book Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment and is featured in a 2010 documentary of the same title, understands first-hand what is at stake for public health in the fracking wars. She is a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with bladder cancer more than three decades ago, at the age of 20. It is the most expensive kind of cancer because people can live a long life with it, but it tends to recur in the majority of patients. “It’s the cancer most likely to recur of all human cancers,” Steingraber said. “That means you live a really highly medical life forever and I’m also considered at high risk for other kinds of cancers. The medical surveillance that I’m under is intense.”

Steingraber isn’t the only cancer survivor in her immediate family. Her mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when Steingraber was 15 years old. Her mother, who was told at the time that she had only months to live, is still alive and at 82 has outlived most of her doctors. “Her main message to me is don’t let them bury you until you are dead,” she said.

Looking back at World War II and her father’s fight against Nazi Germany, Steingraber recites a portion of the speech given by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill before the House of Commons and how it informs her battle with cancer and applies to the anti-fracking movement. “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender,” Churchill said in the June 1940 speech.

“You just take it one battle at a time,” Steingraber said. “You bring the sort of Churchillian determination to every biopsy and you keep fighting.”

To aid in the fight against fracking, Steingraber made the decision to donate a significant portion of the $100,000 she received as a winner of the Heinz Award to help prevent fracking in New York.

Established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz, the awards recognize outstanding individuals for their contributions in the areas of the environment, arts and humanities, human condition, public policy, and technology, the economy and employment.

The Heinz Family Foundation selected Steingraber for the award for successfully bringing a human rights approach to the environmental crisis. “Dr. Steingraber urges governments to adopt policies that safeguard the healthy development of children and the abiding ecological systems on which their lives depend,” the Heinz Family Foundation said in its profile of the award recipients. “Dr. Steingraber has deployed her rare combination of abilities as a lyrical writer, disciplined scientist and passionate advocate to the pursuit of a healthier world for us all, saying, ‘What we love we must protect.’”

Steingraber said the timing of the award announcement influenced the outcome of her decision to use the money to fight fracking. When she received the telephone call from Teresa Heinz letting her know that she had won the award, Steingraber was on a research trip in the western U.S. studying the impact of fracking.

“I was in Salt Lake City when I got the phone call and it just happened that Tim DeChristopher, the activist who successfully disrupted the leasing of public land in southern Utah for the oil and gas industry, was being sentenced,” she said. “I was shocked that he got two years in prison. I was shocked that he was led away in chains.”

Resistance and Moral Obligations

Steingraber said DeChristopher’s speech at his sentencing hearing deeply moved her. “He looked at the judge and said, ‘This is what love looks like,’” she said. “The rest of his speech was all about our moral obligation at this moment in history to do whatever we can to the best of our ability to stop forms of resource extraction that are eliminating the future for young people. Here he was a young man going to prison acknowledging that this is taking away his future plans, but the point was he had no future anyway because of the oil and gas industry.”

So when she received the phone call from Teresa Heinz and realized she had a cash prize of $100,000 with no restrictions, Steingraber said “it seemed that I was called by Tim DeChristopher himself and his message to do everything I could to stop, to resist fracking.”

“I didn’t want to use the money to study fracking. I wanted to use it to stop fracking,” she said. DeChristopher is scheduled to exit federal incarceration on April 21.

In early 2012, Steingraber announced she would be providing the seed money for the formation of a statewide coalition called New Yorkers Against Fracking. Joining Steingraber as honorary advisory committee members were Niagara native, former Love Canal resident and founder of Center for Health, Environment and Justice Lois Gibbs and anti-fracking advocate and upstate resident and actor Mark Ruffalo.

Steingraber said her decision to donate a significant portion of the Heinz Award represents the reverse of what the oil and gas industry does. Oil and gas companies “come in and cut checks that they give to people in exchange for their compliance and silence,” she said. “I’m going to write a big check and push that into the community in exchange for resistance and speech.”

The $100,000 donation to New Yorkers Against Fracking represents less than what the oil and gas industry pays for a single television advertisement. “It’s nothing to them. It’s everything to me,” she said. “But because it’s everything to me, the gesture might have the power to inspire and embolden others to join this fight.”

After publicly announcing that she would give the money to fight fracking, Steingraber delivered a speech to a group of residents in upstate New York who were beginning the process of investigating ways to impose a moratorium or ban on fracking in their community. The man who was leading the effort told Steingraber that her decision to donate her money to the anti-fracking movement inspired him to take action.

“That’s exactly as I had hoped. It would be something that would counteract this resistance-is-futile message that they are getting from the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Experienced political strategists and coalition builders will run the group, but New Yorkers Against Fracking will not be an attempt to orchestrate the anti-fracking movement. “It’s going to serve as a megaphone and spotlight for the movement so that it makes the messaging more visible,” she said.

According to Steingraber, the environmental problems caused by fracking are first and foremost creating a crisis of family life because they prevent parents from protecting their children against things that are harmful. Her job as a parent has been “sabotaged” by a government that has failed to provide the necessary protection to allow for healthy child development, she said.

Steingraber emphasized that she and her family live a modest life in a small town in update New York. They live in a 1,000-square-foot house. Her 10-year-old son, Elijah, shares a bedroom with Steingraber and her husband. He really needs his own room at this point in his life, she said.

The $100,000 cash award could have gone toward upgrading her home or helping to pay her medical bills as a cancer survivor. “But am I really going to use the money to put an addition on my house when they’re about to blow the bedrock up underneath?” Steingraber asked. “It seemed to me that the best investment I could make with this money was to devote it to protecting the air, food and water of my little family.”

This article has been updated from a Press Action post from April 2012.

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