On Feb. 12, the charge of "unlawful entry" brought against me was dismissed without condition. The U.S. Attorney dropped the case, finding it baseless and without merit. Although this is a personal victory and I am very grateful and relieved at the U.S. Attorney's decision, it serves as a painful reminder that we do not have rights unless we exercise them.
On Feb. 1, I was arrested, briefly jailed, and charged with "unlawful entry" for attempting to film a public hearing in the Science, Space and Technology committee. I did not enter unlawfully, I lined up outside just as everyone else did and walked in when the room opened. I set up my tripod and camera where cameras normally are set up in that particular hearing room and I was calm and peaceful. I did not disrupt the hearing nor did I intend to do so. I believed I was within my first amendment rights, as a journalist and filmmaker. I was reporting on a case that is intensely personal to me, that I have been following for 3 years.
The House had convened a hearing in the House Energy and Environment subcommittee to challenge EPAs findings that hydraulic fracturing fluids had contaminated groundwater in the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. I have a long history with the town of Pavillion and its residents who have maintained since 2008 that fracking has contaminated their water supply. I featured the stories of residents John Fenton, Louis Meeks and Jeff Locker in GASLAND and I have continued to document the catastrophic water contamination in Pavillion for the upcoming sequel GASLAND 2. It was clear that Republican leadership, including Chairman Andy Harris of Maryland, who ordered my arrest, was using this hearing to attack the three year Region 8 EPA investigation involving hundreds of samples and extensive water testing which ruled that Pavillion’s groundwater was a health hazard, contaminated by benzene at 50x the safe level and numerous other contaminants associated with gas drilling. Most importantly, EPA stated in this case that fracking was the likely cause.
When I was being led out of Congress in handcuffs, Representative Paul Tonko, Democracy of New York shouted out "This is the People's House!" in disgust. Representative Brad Miller of North Carolina, moved to suspend the rules so that we could continue to film the proceedings stating "All god's children should be allowed to film this hearing!" It was a surreal moment. Later that day, Congressman Maurice Hinchey would write, "This is blatant censorship and a shameful stain on this Congress."
But if it is not now the "People's House," it is now, more than ever the "people's media." I was able to watch my own arrest on YouTube because members of the audience filmed it and posted their videos. It was the citizen journalism that first documented people lighting their water on fire in gas fracking areas. It was citizen journalism that posted videos of the recent mass arrest of peaceful protestors in New York and in California. The people's media is our system of accountability and transparency and we must continue to practice it.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states explicitly “Congress shall make no law…that infringes on the Freedom of the Press." Which means that no subcommittee rule or regulation should prohibit a respectful journalist or citizen from recording a public hearing.
I have huge respect for those who make the immense personal sacrifice to do public service and represent their constituents and the American people. I believe we elect our representatives with good will and trust and the hopes that they serve us honestly and respectfully and I believe that we, as citizens, send them to Congress with love, pride and well wishes for the future of the nation. However, I have no respect for or deference to those who would misuse the power granted them by the American people to upend the institutions of democratic government and the rights of the citizenship they have been sworn to uphold for private gain, political leverage or because they are beholden to corporate influence or corrosive ideology.
The people of Pavillion deserve better. The thousands across the U.S. who have documented cases of water contamination in fracking areas deserve their own hearing on Capitol Hill. They deserve the chance to testify before Congress. The truth that fracking contaminates groundwater is out, and no amount of intimidation tactics—either outright challenges to science or the arrest of journalists—will put the genie back in the bottle. Such a brazen attempt to discredit and silence the EPA, the citizens of Pavillion and documentary filmmaking will ultimately fail and it is an affront to the health and integrity of Americans.
We cannot take our democracy and the rights of our citizenship for granted. Democracy is not handed to us from on high or guaranteed to us by battles fought by our ancestors. It is perpetually under siege by those with power, money and influence who would rather our nation of laws becomes a nation of affiliation. It is clear to me that I was arrested to serve the interests of oil and gas companies, whose interests often run counter to those of ordinary American citizens.
I was arrested because I refused to turn off my camera at a public hearing in the U.S. congress. I have filmed hundreds of public hearings around the country and the first amendment guarantees my ability to report on what happens in public.
And I continue to refuse. I refuse to let Congressmen blatantly attack science in the the Science committee without the light of the media shining out their transgressions. I refuse to be silenced and not report on the misdeeds of those representatives who are clearly influenced by oil and gas companies beyond loyalty to their own citizen's health. I refuse to stand down and let oil and gas companies lie about what they are injecting into the ground and emitting into the air. I refuse to let the Bill of Rights collapse under the weight of a 250 million dollar lobbying campaign. I refuse to let money, power and influence define the next American century over the will of the people. I refuse to turn of my camera and sit idly by as huge areas in 34 states become sacrificial drilling zones. I refuse to turn my back on the good and great people that have entrusted me with their stories of oil and gas contamination and walk away from the fight they have inspired me to wage on their behalf. I refuse to let the oil and gas industry bury their cancerous secrets for us to unwittingly drink. I refuse to bow and walk out of congress leaving it to the influence of those with money to peddle in its halls. I refuse to relinquish my understanding of the law and of justice. I refuse to surrender my citizenship and my dignity, head bowed in submission, to the influence of corporate power. I refuse to forsake the American dream of the many for the financial gain of the nationless few. I refuse to walk away, from my home and my country.
The fact that my case was dismissed so readily only attests to the ridiculousness and unfairness of my arrest, the U.S. attorney has refused to pursue it.
I woke up one morning and declared myself a journalist. I had to. My home was under siege by the gas fracking industry. I felt that I had to not only seek out the true effects of the largest natural gas drilling campaign in history on public health and the environment but also to report what I found to my community.
The first amendment states that anyone can do the same. Anyone can wake up in the morning, declare themselves a journalist and enjoy the protections of the First Amendment. In the era of instant media, YouTube and social networks, this becomes even more relevant and exciting; anyone with an iPhone can rock the world. It was citizen journalists who first posted police pepper spraying peaceful protestors in New York and California and it was citizen distribution that virally spread those horrific videos of police brutality until the whole world was infected with the truth of what is happening in the USA today. It was citizen journalists who first documented water catching on fire at the kitchen sink as a result of gas fracking. It was citizen journalists who woke up one morning and decided to show the water contamination and air pollution due to gas drilling in Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and in states across the nation.
This year we have seen severe repression of journalism in America. Hundreds of journalists have been arrested this year simply trying to do their jobs. Whether they were covering oil and gas issues or issues of economic inequality during the Occupy demonstrations.
"Recently, Reporters Without Borders released its 2011–2012 global Press Freedom Index. Due to journalist arrests and press suppression at Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests, the United States has dropped significantly in the rankings of press freedom, from 27 to 47," Truthout reports.
Having personally witnessed the outrageous police brutality and repression which was an unwarranted response to occupy protests and to citizens who were acting in defense of their towns and neighborhoods against gas fracking and other egregious human rights violations as the result of fossil fuel development, I feel it is necessary to stand with all of those who have had enough of inequality and enough of big business having undue influence over the government.
So please accept my invitation, and the First Amendment's authorization, to declare yourself a member of the Press. Declare yourself a witness to history and a fighter for transparency and equality under the law. And if you feel like it, go film a congressional hearing. Don't bother to ask for permission, permission was just granted to you by the U.S. Attorney. You don't need credentials, you have your rights. Assert them.
p.s. I am very thankful to Reporters Without Borders, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Independent Documentary Association and to the 30,000 people who signed the Working Families Party petition on my behalf and to all of my supporters for your help, well wishes, and statements of outrage and strength. I am also very grateful to all of the reporters, news outlets and journalists who reported on this travesty.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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