What Fracking and Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining have in Common
By Steve Horn
Erie, CO meet Naoma, WV. Though seemingly different battles over different ecologically hazardous extractive processes—hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") for unconventional gas versus mountaintop removal for coal—the two battles are one in the same and direct parallels of one another.
On June 2, a coalition of activist organizations led by Erie Rising and joined by the likes of the Sierra Club, the Mark Ruffalo-lead Water Defense, the Angela Monti Fox-lead Mothers Project (mother of "Gasland" Producer and Director, Josh Fox), Food and Water Watch (FWW), among others, will take to Erie, CO to say "leave and leave now" to EnCana Corporation.
EnCana has big plans to drill baby drill in Erie.
It "plans to frack for natural gas near three local schools and a childcare center," according to a press release disseminated by FWW. "On June 2, the event in Erie will give voice to those immediately affected by fracking there, and to all Americans marred by the process, becoming ground zero for the national movement to expose the dangers associated with fracking."
The action is a simple one: a "rally and vigil to protest gas industry giant Encana’s plans to frack for natural gas near Red Hawk Elementary, Erie Elementary, Erie Middle School and Exploring Minds Childcare Center and transport toxic fracking by-products on roads that come within feet of these and other community schools," reads the FWW press release.
Actor and head of Water Defense, Mark Ruffalo, had this to say in The Denver Post of the upcoming action:
Erie Rising's struggle to protect children from the imminent danger of fracking is urgent. Encana wants to begin drilling by the schools early this summer, subjecting the town's children to the dangerous carcinogens that appear to have already caused so much illness.
On June 2, Erie Rising is holding a rally in opposition to the wells by the school. Erie Rising's members still have a long fight to protect their kids, but they are exposing the claim of clean natural gas as a dirty lie. It's a struggle that is paving the way for mothers across the nation to stand up and fight for their own children's future.
Colorado was one of the first two states (Texas being the other) where Halliburton (of "Halliburton Loophole" fame) chose to test its new horizontal drilling method in 1949, Sam Schabacker, Mountain West Region Director for FWW explained to DeSmogBlog in an interview. Colorado is home of the Niobrara Shale basin. Its Governor is a Democrat, John Hickenlooper, who in his former career was a petroleum geologist, working for Buckhorn Petroleum.
Hickenlooper was involved in a scandal in March of this year, appearing in a pro-fracking ad and making himself a de facto industry spokesman for the sector in which he was formerly employed. For his antics, he was called out by both the Republic Report and Think Progress. Think Progress reported,
Hickenlooper’s background and track record may indicate why he has failed this test of good government…He took $73,666 from oil and gas interests in his 2010 election, and as Salon points out, appointed an industry campaign donor to an important regulatory position.
According to FollowTheMoney.org, the oil and gas industry has also given more than $150,000 to candidates on both sides of the aisle running for seats in the Colorado House and Senate in the past two election cycles, 2010 and 2012, combined. With political circumstances such as these, it's perhaps no wonder people have stood up and decided to fight back. What other choice do they have?
"This encroachment of residential areas has really woken up a grassroots revolt of regular Coloradans who are standing up and saying don't come in my backyard," said Schabacker in an interview. "And that's really what's going on in Erie. This is Exhibit A of how the gas industry has cavelierly expanded into residential areas against the wishes of local governments and regular Coloradans."
"And so we're drawing a line in the sand [on this one]…and that's really what this fight is all about," he continued. "It's mothers' standing up to protect their children in their community."
If this seems like deja vu, it should.
Not only have communities around the U.S. been fighting back against the gas industry's proposals to frack in the areas surrounding schoolyards and universities, but similar battles have also been waged by activists against the coal industry in the recent past, as well.
Exhibit A of this fight was the recent prolonged fight in Naoma, WV against King Coal giant Massey Energy in the past several years pertaining to its coal mountaintop removal extraction site in close proximity to Marsh Fork Elementary School.
The Fight Back Against Massey and Marsh Fork Elementary School: A Redux
The community surrounding Marsh Fork Elementary School in Naoma, WV was also home to aggressive activism, this time a fight back against coal industry giant Massey Energy, then led by now-retired CEO Don Blankenship. The battle royale itself inspired many documentary films featuring it, including "The Last Mountain," which featured Bobby Kennedy Jr., "On Coal River," "Mountain Top Removal," and others. DeSmogBlog has written about the fight, as well.
In a nutshell, the community surrounding Marsh Fork was turned upside down by Massey at its Upper Big Branch Mine project, which involved contaminated air and water and left children susceptible to developing Black Lung and various cancers and other illnesses as they grew older. A summary of the milleux that occurred in the area, appearing in the film "Mountain Top Removal," can be seen below.
Like the battle in Erie of today, the battle in Naoma involved, as Schabacker put it in his interview, "mothers' standing up to protect their children in their community." Ted Nace, Director of Coalswarm, a project on the Center for Media and Democracy's Sourcewatch project and author of the book Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal, told DeSmogBlog in an interview that it is these types of battles that win the hearts and minds of regular everyday people.
"Movements need rallying points and a movement needs to have cases of high visibility local impact," said Nace.
"Those people who think about building movements should keep their eyes open to such cases. People at the local level are also looking to get visibility for their community. And I do think one of the big dimensions of environmental activism is finding stories that resonate for people. It's a lot easier for people to comprehend a story that involves other peoples' families than it is to understand a story about some unpronouncable chemical."
Eventually, after a long, hard grassroots fight, often involving civil disobedience, Massey Energy (with financial help from the Annenberg Foundation) was pressured into building a new school for the community away from the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Time will tell whether Erie sees similar success. The parallel, at the very least, is an interesting one.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>