top of page

Renowned Science Writer Sandra Steingraber Puts Her Body On the Line to Defend Against Fracking

Steingraber says civil disobedience is a last-resort show of bravery that can change the outcome — but you have to get there before the bulldozers do.

March 21, 2013  |  This article was published in partnership with .

Watkins Glen, New York made Yahoo! Travel’s top 10 list of America’s coolest small towns. This Finger Lake village is described as having “Award-winning wineries, awe-inspiring gorges and waterfalls, and a racetrack that draws visitors to auto-racing events.” The story mentions hiking, NASCAR and “crisp Rieslings.”

Here’s what it doesn’t say about this dream town: it’s at the heart of the battle over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for unconventional shale gas in the Marcellus.

Companies aren’t drilling for gas here, but they’re drilling into the land in order to store fracked gas. Sandra Steingraber was among a group of individuals willing to put her body between drilling rig trucks and their destination on shores of Seneca Lake on Monday. Steingraber was arrested for her bravery, which is but one step in her evolving journey as a scientist, writer, and now activist.

Steingraber is a renowned scientist, currently a scholar in residence in Ithaca College. She’s also a lyrical writer, author of four books: Post-Diagnosis (written after being diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 20); Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (later optioned as a film); Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood; and most recently Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.

On World Water Day, this is a good time to reflect on the threats of drought and water contamination, in which fracking plays a key role. Steingraber talked with AlterNet about the health effects of fracking, her own personal connection to the issue, and what keeps her up at night. (Spoiler: it’s cement, but more on that soon.)

Tara Lohan: If I’m reading the news correctly, it looks like you were arrested earlier this week.

Sandra Steingraber: Yes, I was.

TL: How did you get involved in that action?

SS: It has an odd trajectory. I was writing about three other people who were arrested for civil disobedience at that same facility last September. One of them, the night before, showed up on my front porch and asked me if I would come the next morning to bear witness to what he was about to do and be available to talk to the press about compressor stations, which was something I was researching. I was happy to talk about the kinds of chemicals that compressor stations put into the atmosphere and what the problem is with this whole project. The whole project being a storage facility for fracked gases that a company called Inergy from Kansas City is trying to build. The plan they have for this part of the world is to use depleted salt caverns where salt mining has been done for probably a century at least, and use it as a storage facility for gas from the fracking fields in Pennsylvania. The idea is that the gas would be pressurized to the point of liquidification, then injected into salt caverns.

So I went last September and served as a sort of science writer/interpreter and witness and what impressed me was that the three people who chained themselves to this fence were not young people. The youngest was my age and I’m 53, she was a nurse. And then there was Rev. Gary Judson who is a retired Methodist minister who is 72 and he spoke eloquently about the underground geology of these caverns, about the history of salt caverns being used to store liquified petroleum products and their terrible track record with catastrophic accidents in other states. And then there was also the moral and ethical issue of using these caverns to store something toxic and explosive knowing that they have cracks and fissures and that this is a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. He, himself was an avid fisherman and he felt strongly that this was a treasure and we are called to defend creation.

So there he was, it was a very hot time and he was uncomfortably chained to this fence while he is talking and when the sheriff came and used bolt cutters to free him, then he was immediately re-manacled with handcuffs and his wife, who is 74 years old, ran up and adjusted his glasses in this very loving way, which were slipping off his face. And I think that’s what broke my heart, to watch the two of them who have been married for so long, to take this step. She wasn’t arrested but she was there with him.

And then I went to his court appearance (I’m a columnist for OrionMagazine). I wrote a column that was originally set in a courtroom and began with this Methodist minister walking down the aisle to face the judge and he walked slowly, with a kind of dignity that made me feel like this must have been how he walked down the aisle every Sunday up to the altar, but now instead of an altar there is the judge’s bench. He declared himself guilty and then was charged a fine and immediately everyone’s wallet opened up and without a collection plate we were doing the Sunday collection. So all this money was immediately sent forward to pay his fine on his behalf. The courtroom was just filled, we had so many people that there were people standing outside watching through the windows and they jimmied open the windows and they slipped $20 bills in the window. And in a minute we had raised twice as much money to pay the fine, which was not inconsiderable.

That became the opening of my essay which led me into a discussion about these infrastructure projects for fracked gas. Fracking means more than just fracturing the shale, there is the pipelines, the sand mining, and where you’re going to put it all.

The other thing for me is that my son was born right next to this facility. There used to be a birth center, which was very popular— my son is now 11 — a place for women to come and they had excellent prenatal care and you got to labor and deliver in this very beautiful place with a view of the lake. I chose to do an all-natural childbirth and for someone who is a cancer patient and leads a highly medicalized life, it was very meaningful to me to be in a natural setting and not a hospital. So the shore of that lake is sort of a sacred place for me. It was the first environment for my son — he was actually born in the bathtub — so he was born in Seneca Lake water.

For me on Monday it was an interesting writerly return to this place where I had once gone to do something physical — give birth — and now I was going to do something physical, namely, let my body speak by placing it between a truck carrying a drillhead and the place where this truck wanted to go.

TL: So is this facility actually open at this point? Are they storing gas there?

SS: Yes and no. There has been gas stored in various parts of this facility for some time. But now with the gas boom in Pennsylvania their intent is to expand it hugely and so permits have been submitted to both to state and federal agencies. And there is a kind of fastracking going on. And Inergy is already going ahead with construction. The drill rigs that drill down into these salt caverns are just like overnight appearing there. It seems to be an attempt to create a kind of fait accompli situation.

I have testified about this facility in the past and submitted comments and feel as though I have pursued all legally available channels for me to object to this facility as a menace to public health, climate and drinking water. And it has all fallen on deaf ears and there is a race to get this thing in the ground.

Having never taken a step toward civil disobedience before, I had to think hard about when it is appropriate. I don’t think you do it as a first resort, it has to be a last resort but on the other hand if you do it when the bulldozers are already there, then it’s kinda too late. There must be a sort of sweet spot where things are tipping forward but they aren’t inevitable yet but perhaps a show of bravery and a show that we intend to defend this place and we’re calling on our government to protect us — maybe civil disobedience can actually change providence, change the outcome here. That was what I was hoping for.

TL: How did you first start getting involved in fracking issues?

SS: It happened when Cornell University invited me to speak in the fall of 2009 at a forum on fracking. I had only barely heard of it. I was asked because I have some knowledge about the actual chemicals they use in fracking fluid, so I’ve been studying the health effects of toxic chemicals, especially endocrine disruptors and carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins for some time.

After I delivered my piece I got to hear what the other experts had to say, and the more I listened the more horrified I was. Then I came to learn that much of the land in my own county was being leased in the anticipation that fracking would come to New York and in fact 40 percent of the land is still leased, including land very near to where I live in my village. It became very personal, suddenly.

In the spring of 2010 one of my books, Living Downstream, was re-released to coincide with the film adaptation and that film was being shown in Washington DC at an enviro film festival. During it I wandered into another theater where Gasland was screening and that experience really brought the issue home to me and I began to see it as a human rights issue.

In the summer of 2011, I was researching fracking full-time, looking at the health effects, so I set out on a long two-month tour, going to 20 states interviewing people out West where fracking had been going on for some time when I happened to be in Utah, in Moab which is one of the areas in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry when word came down that Tim DeChristopher, the anti-fracking activist, was going to be sentenced. So I decided to jump in the car and drive to Salt Lake City to attend his sentencing. Some local activists asked if I would speak at the rally outside, which I did.

So I was there at the courthouse when he made that now-famous speech to the judge, “This is what love looks like” and then suddenly was hauled away in chains. I guess it was a week or so later and I was out in the desert and got word that I was a lucky recipient of a Heinz Award for my research and writing on environmental health and the trilogy of books I had written on the topic.

It comes with a $100,000 cash prize and with Tim’s words still in my ears, I knew that I was going to donate this award to the anti-fracking movement, I just felt called to do that. But I didn’t know then what form that would take. That money became the seed money to form the coalition New Yorkers Against Fracking that has been a bringing together of the tribes of the anti-fracking movement in New York. We have grown to more than 200 organizations and 1,000 businesses and we have different chapters like Faith Leaders Against Fracking and Poets Against Fracking and Chefs for the Marcellus and we have Concerned Health Professionals to Protect NY. It’s not a member of ours but we work closely with Artists Against Fracking represented by people like Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono and also Salman Rushdie and Lady Gaga.

We’ve become the voice of the anti-fracking movement in New York. I guess in those two years I’ve moved my own work, I thought that I was going to do science for the people at the barricades. In other words, research everything I could about the environmental health effects of fracking to be used by people as they made their own decisions about fracking. I’m mostly known for translating science for the public.

Over the years I’ve moved to the barricades myself and now find myself standing arm-in-arm with people who are on the frontlines. And I still believe very much in the power of data and science to inform decisions but it has become apparent to me that all by itself science doesn’t change things and it has to be championed by people and forcefully inserted into the conversation.

TL: With your background in science what are your biggest concerns about fracking?

SS: There are several. First, I think it’s important to say that the word is used in different ways depending on who’s using it. And when I use it, I use it to refer to the whole process of shale gas extraction and delivery. The industry uses it to refer just to the moment when the shale is fractured using water as the sledgehammer to shatter the shale. With that as the definition they can say truthfully that there are no cases of water contamination associated with fracking. But you don’t get fracking without bringing with it all these other things — mining for the frack sand, depleting water, you have to add the chemicals, you have to drill, you have to dispose of the waste, you have drill cuttings. I refer to them all as fracking, as do most activists.

When you look at the whole shale gas extraction process the problems begins with the mining of the sand. The sand is necessary because water all by itself can’t hold the crack open, it can create the cracks, but as soon as you release the hydraulic pressure the weight of the earth will close all the cracks back up, and so the water is used as a firehose to shoot silica sand grains into the cracks to prop them open from here until eternity and that allows these bubbles of gas that have been trapped these many years to flow out along with everything else the shale can contain and that includes radon, benzene, all these other vapors that are very toxic. So I worry about the mining of silica sand. That really turns the earth inside out; there is no way to do that in a sustainable way. You’re creating these big holes and risking groundwater contamination just from the mining process.

Silica sand is a known carcinogen, like asbestos. It causes lung cancer and silicosis. And so in some of these places where silica sand is mined, including not far from where I grew up along the Illinois River valley, when you go to these places, you can’t go without your car being covered in what looks like unbleached flour. It is highly respirable and very dangerous.

We’ve never exposed the general population to silica dust. It has almost exclusively been considered an occupational hazard for people who work as sandblasters or in the glass industry but now we are doing this in human communities — if not mining than the transport in open trucks, train cars or barges. And then we have to process it all and add chemicals. We have no data all about what happens when we expose, let’s say, a four-year-old child or a pregnant woman or an older person. The fact that we don’t have data doesn’t mean it’s safe, we just have never conducted this human experiment before.

I have a lot of concern about the well casings themselves. The things that really keep me awake at night are thinking about cement. It is a strong substance — it can stand a lot of compression. But if you use it as a casing in the wall of the bore hole that you drill all the way down a mile down into the earth, then that casing has to stand forevermore as an unbreachable barrier between all the toxic neighbors that you’ve just liberated from the shale and the groundwater that lies above. Cement is not immortal — it cracks, it shrinks, it gets small holes in it. Now you’ve just opened a pathway for these vapors to find their way up — either into our air or groundwater — and there is really no fixing it.

When you frack, you’re not only sending water down with incredible force, you are inducing small-scale seismic events, you’re creating motion that’s not just compressive, but is three-dimensional movement and that causes torque and stress and shearing force on cement and it’s not a material that can take that without cracking.

When these well casings age and they’re fracked and refracked on nearby wells, because you have six to eight wells on a well pad, and all these constant vibrations and explosions are happening, I worry a lot about the integrity of the casings and what happens over time.

We know from data in Pennsylvania that 6 to 7 percent of wells leak immediately and it looks like over 30 years you get about half of them leaking. Well, how many leak after 100 or 200 years? We don’t know because we’ve never run the experiment long enough. But it occurs to me that we’re burying time bombs in the earth that future generations will have to do deal with and there will be no fix for the problem if our water gets contaminated.

Another problem I have is climate change. When I look at the greenhouse gas footprint of fracking and take a look at the whole life-cycle analysis, it’s very leaky and some percentage of methane is lost — and it’s lost at every step from the point the dril hits the shale, you’re still drilling so you don’t have the ability to hook it up to a pipeline yet and the methane starts pouring out. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas then CO2 in terms of being able to trap heat. It looks like anything above 2.5 percent leakage means that gas is just as big a climate killer as coal.

Well, some of the data coming out of Colorado shows that it’s leaking at 9 percent and even if that is extreme and not typical, it really frightens me to think that we’re swapping out one thing that we know is really bad, namely coal, for one thing that is at least as bad and maybe even worse. And it’s happening just at a time in our earth’s history that we’re so close to catastrophic disaster that the only thing that will save us is immediate decarbonization and rapid drawdown. So at the very best, fracking is a terrible distraction from what we need to do and at the worst we’re going from the frying pan into the fire.

TL: I hear a lot of stories of people whose health is impacted when they live near fracking operations. You certainly know a lot about the chemicals that are in the toxic soup down there. How do we begin to scientifically link illnesses and especially cancer to pollutants in operations like fracking?

SS: This is one of the trickiest parts of public health and especially with cancer, there’s a long lag-time between the onset of exposure and the onset of disease and during that time people move away from the area and other people move in. That being said, we have some emerging data that are really troubling, there is some data in the pipeline showing mothers who live near drilling and fracking operations in Pennsylvania have on average, babies born with lower birth weight and Apgar scores — a measure of new-born responsiveness. And there is some corroborating data coming out of Colorado. The differences are quite big. So we have those data. We have data out of Texas showing higher rates of asthma for kids who live near the gas patch and so on.

So the question is how much data do you want before you take precautionary action? I’m a big believer that you don’t just guinea pig out these kinds of studies, you don’t conduct human experiments on people without their consent by unrolling an industry that uses our land as their factory floor. It’s the only industry that I know where there’s no fenceline, there’s no zoning. It just comes in, leases our land, and sets up shop right where people live. And so there is all kinds of potential pathways for exposure. And those need to be studied.

I’m of the opinion that in the states where fracking has not yet arrived it needs to not arrive. And in the states where it already exists it needs to be phased out as soon as possible and in the meantime we need to be studying the health effects very intently.

TL: With a president right now who seems intent on an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes fracking, what should we be doing? 

SS: Here in New York we have not begun to frack, so I think our challenge is to keep it out and so far we’re doing a really good job of that. When you look at the poll data, and there is a new poll out this week, it clearly shows that there is a clear margin now that more and more New Yorkers are opposed to fracking.

It shows very clearly now that the more New Yorkers know about fracking the more opposed they are. So in states where fracking has not yet happened, I think the thing to do is to do a lot of public education and outreach. It shouldn’t be that the only knowledge people have about fracking is these rosy commercials they see on television that are highly misleading.

I myself have spend the last two years, every Friday night in some church basement somewhere or in some chamber of commerce or in some junior high school auditorium being part of some town meeting or teach-in talking about the health effects of fracking and often someone else talks about the economic effects and so on. And I really believe in that. I believe in taking data right into people’s communities — they are hungry for it and asking for it.

So far, we have done that work and people have come to the conclusion that it’s not worth it. It’s not worth unrolling this carcinogen-dependent, accident-prone industry over the top of this landscape which is an agricultural landscape but which is also densely settled. There is too much to lose. We are the nation’s number-three dairy state and then we’re also the nations’s number-three producer of organic products and finally we’re the number-two producer of wine in the nation next to California. Industrializing wine country makes very little sense to most people I know, including people who voted a straight Republican ticket. The wine industry is more than just wine; it also is bed-and-breakfasts, it’s wine tastings, it’s destination weddings, it’s part of a whole tourism economy that we’re very proud of. We’re jeopardizing the goose that lays the golden egg here.

TL: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?

SS: I would just say that the climate issue around fracking is not independent of the health effects issue. Climate change has been identified by the World Health Organization as the number-one threat to human health. And so moving us off fossil fuels altogether is an imperative need for reasons of public health and not for future generations, for the generation my children are a part of.

Of the three forms of fossil fuels — the hard lumpy stuff (namely coal), the goopy stuff (namely oil and tar sands) and the invisible vapor of natural gas — of the three, natural gas has this reputation of being the cleanest, the least evil. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s an urban myth. The data show it’s just as bad, if not worse.

The idea that we’re locking in infrastructure and capital investment into natural gas exploration when we should be getting away from natural gas altogether is such folly that I think fracking has a kind of danger associated with it that is different than tar sands. I’m not diminishing that struggle but it seems to me that everybody knows that tar sands is dirty. “Tar” sounds dirty — but natural gas doesn’t.

As a writer I have a bigger narrative problem. And I don’t have a visual image, like one giant pipeline. I have thousands of pipelines and thousands of wells. But because it happens where so many people live, the health effects issue looms really large to me. I prefer to look at it as a human rights issue. It doesn’t make sense to me that we would be investing in blowing up the bedrock of our nation with what appears to be four to 16 years of gas. By the time my kids are my age, the gas will be gone, the jobs will be gone, and they’ll be left with this incredible toxic mess

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.



bottom of page