New York's New Abolitionists: The Fight to Stop Fracking
“I blocked the entrance to the Inergy gas storage facility because I believe that the institutions ... [that should] protect the people and the environment from harm can no longer be relied to do so ... When the government fails to act in the public interest, the public must act on its own.” —Michael Dineen
“I’d rather have bread and water now than no bread and toxic water later as a result of this flawed Inergy project.” —Melissa Chipman
“My small, peaceful act of trespass was intended to prevent a larger, violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into air and water and the intrusion of fracking infrastructure into our beloved Finger Lakes ... For defending water, air and climate stability on which my children’s lives depend, and because I have deep respect for the rule of law, I am willing to go to jail.” —Sandra Steingraber
Small, whitewashed, unimposing, the little courtroom in Reading Township on Lake Seneca where Judge Raymond H. Berry sentenced renowned environmental writer and biologist Sandra Steingraber and two others, businesswoman Melissa Chipman and farm owner Michael Dineen to fifteen days in jail this past Wednesday for trespass on property owned by the US’s biggest gas storage and transport corporation, Inergy, LP, doesn’t look like a place where cardinal human rights events unfold. But then, neither did similar rural courtrooms in the South during the Civil Rights era. The sentencing, which came a day after the 50th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, should be seen as a watershed in American human rights and environmental history.
New York isn’t just another state. It has a history of legendary movements, from abolition and women’s suffrage in the nineteenth century to Occupy in the twenty-first. Its environmental campaigns have included the watershed Storm King Mountain case, in which activists defeated Con Edison’s plan to carve a giant facility into the face of that Hudson River landmark. The decision established the right of anyone to litigate on behalf of the environment.
For the past four years, an astonishing grassroots resistance has arisen to oppose to the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry. Arriving to cover it in August, 2011, I found a sprawl of loosely connected, grassroots groups whose names announce their counties and their long-term vision. Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes and Gas-Free Seneca were only two of many more. They cross all lines of political affiliation and social background. Almost all are run by volunteers.
It is this movement that, so far, has kept New York free of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Of all the states lying over the methane-rich Marcellus Shale—Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are the other three—New York State alone has managed to keep the drilling out. Think of its activists as New York’s new abolitionists, or perhaps as a vanguard of America’s new Civil Rights movement. “I have never seen [an environmental movement] spread with such wildfire as this,” says Robert Boyle, a legendary environmental activist and journalist who was central in the Storm King case and founded Riverkeeper, the prototype for all later river-guardian organizations. “It took me 13 or 14 years to get the first Riverkeeper going. Fracking isn’t like that. It’s like lighting a train of powder.”
The war analogy is appropriate: the battle against high-volume hydraulic fracturing is part of a larger war launched by fossil-fuel corporations for mastery of the Earth itself. The stakes could not be higher: corporations like Inergy are in the business of wrecking the planet. Activists like Steingraber, Chipman and Dineen are trying to save it.
For the past six months the state’s gas industry ally, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), has been set to issue New York’s first permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing. All it will take is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s OK. He has been vacillating between the fossil-fuel industry, the support of which he will need if he runs for President in 2016, and his environmental base. Meanwhile, Inergy and other corporations have been penetrating the state with pieces of the infrastructure that would eventually support fracking.
Fracking Infrastructure Penetrates New York State
High-volume hydraulic fracturing—the high-pressure propulsion of chemical-and-sand-laced water into deep shale formations to force out methane—is an act of industrial violence that upends half a billion years of safe storage of the gas. But what happens after the drilling, makes this industry perhaps the most invasive in human history. Vast architectures of production and processing have fanned out from shale-gas wells to penetrate once-tranquil rural American regions. The infrastructures include thousands of miles of pipelines, compressor stations that compact shale gas for transport, millions of diesel trucks that service the industry and salt caverns.
Repeat: salt caverns. For millennia, salt has been mined for consumption and food preservation. The caverns, or disused mines, located a thousand feet and more beneath ground and water, are now being used for unconventional oil and gas storage, with catastrophic results. In Louisiana, the collapse of salt caverns used this way has resulted in massive seepage of gas and oil into surface and groundwater, necessitating the evacuation of whole communities. According to a report this past January, in 2002 salt caverns constituted only seven percent of the U.S.’s 407 underground gas storage sites. But between 1972 and 2004 they were responsible for all 10 of the catastrophic accidents involving gas storage.
For the past several years one of New York’s grassroots anti-fracking groups, Gas Free Seneca, has been trying to draw public attention to plans by a Missouri-based corporation, Inergy, LP, the U.S.’s largest energy storage and transportation corporation, to use two salt caverns located beside the lake for storing millions of gallons of unconventional gas. This would transform a New York State wonder, the historic Finger Lakes region, into the Northeast’s biggest gas storage and transportation hub, endangering the area’s ecology and the lives of residents.
The reporter whose observations on salt cavern accidents I just cited, Peter Mantius, writes that one of the caverns was plugged and abandoned a decade ago after a Louisiana engineer concluded its roof had collapsed in a minor earthquake. The other “sits directly below a rock formation weakened by faults and characterized by ‘rock movement’ and ‘intermittent collapse.’” The lake provides 100,000 people with drinking water. In preparation for its Finger Lakes adventure, Inergy has built a gas compressor station that would compact the gasses for storage.
Last fall, New York State activists began staging acts of civil disobedience at Inergy’s sites to protest its project. On March 18, 12 people—"Seneca Lake 12,” as they’re now known—including businesswoman Melissa Chipman, farm owner Michael Dineen and renowned biologist and environmental writer Sandra Steingraber, blocked the gas compressor site. On Wednesday evening, April 17, Chipman, Dineen and Steingraber chose to go to jail for that act rather than pay the fines that might have consigned the protest to oblivion.
Behind his low bench in the Reading Court, Justice Raymond Berry looked more like an elderly office functionary than a dispenser of justice in an historic human rights event. Steingraber stood before him in a maroon shirt, a simple strand of pearls around her neck, her black-stockinged legs looking like a crane’s—thin, frail-looking, vulnerable. She spoke in a subdued, girlish soprano:
“On March 18, I willfully ... blocked access to a compressor station site ... 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 contamination without consent. It is my belief as a biologist that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass.”
For the past three years, she continued, Inergy has been out of compliance with EPA regulations, dumping 44,000 pounds of chloride daily into Seneca Lake. "That’s 22 tons a day ... 8,000 tons a year ... Those industrial discharges trespass into the bodies of those who drink it." Inergy, she said, plans a 60-foot flare stack that will release toxins that contribute to heart attacks, strokes, preterm births, and asthma in children. "Thus Ingery trespasses into our lungs and air. I see this as a real danger to my 11-year-old son who has a history of asthma.”
Steingraber added that since the corporation is building an infrastructure to store gas obtained by fracking, “Inergy trespasses into our climate ... at a time when the best science shows us that we should be rapidly moving away from fossil fuels of all kinds.” Her action, said Steingraber, was meant “to bring attention to such hazards on the Finger Lakes ... and to protect water, which is life itself.”
Her voice broke ... “I trespassed. It was an act of civil disobedience. For that and because I have deep respect for the rule of law, which the energy company does not, I am willing to go to jail,” she ended, tears filling her eyes. Others in the crowd that jammed the courtroom wept.
Then a burly sheriff handcuffed the three environmental rights activists. They were led outside to a waiting correctional facilities van, while the crowd that had jammed the courtroom erupted in cheers and clapping.
New Yorkers Against Fracking, founded by Steingraber and others, last summer issued a Pledge to Resist Fracking in New York. A broad coalition of organizations and thousands of people have signed the pledge to resist the industry in acts including nonviolent civil disobedience. (Originally the pledge was meant to launch such protests only after the state began issuing fracking permits. But “Seneca Lake 12” decided the penetration of fracking infrastructure into the state required earlier action).
Attorney Joe Heath, Chief Counsel for the Onondaga Nation, attended the arraignment as Steingraber’s lawyer, but stepped aside so she could speak for herself. Heath has experienced decades of American human rights movements starting just as he entered law school at SUNY Buffalo, with the 1971 uprising at Attica prison, the largest in New York State.
“The fact that so many people have been willing to risk their freedom,” he said of the growing determination of New York’s resisters to engage in civil disobedience, “helps set a mark for how strong the grassroots movement is here in New York, which is getting mirrored in other states. Four years ago when we started fighting, everybody thought fracking would be here a long time ago. What these resisters have done is ... an example of heroism, people taking control and not letting state government and federal government sell us out.”
Ellen Cantarow first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her writing has been published in The Village Voice, Grand Street, Mother Jones, Alternet, Counterpunch, ZNet, The Nation and other publications, and has been anthologized. She writes regularly for Tom Dispatch. She is also lead author and general editor of an oral-history trilogy, Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change, published in 1981 by The Feminist Press/McGraw-Hill.
LETTER FROM CHEMUNG COUNTY JAIL, PART 1 by SANDRA STEINGRABBER, April 18, 2013:
When Henry David Thoreau spent 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 a.m. this morning contained nothing as tasty. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to say what the ingredients were. Packets of instant hot coca (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 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.
Thoreau said, about his own experience with incarceration, that the confinement of his physical self was inconsequential; the freedom was a state of mind. Or something like that. I have neither the book, nor Google, to help me fact--check. But I am very aware of my physical self, and sense that my biological life in jail is part of my message. 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.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington, eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›
- Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ... ›
- Zombie Fires Could Be Awakening in the Arctic - EcoWatch ›
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the ... ›
By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
- Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Accidentally Develop 'Mutant' Enzyme That Eats Plastic ... ›