Environmentalist Sandra Steingraber in jail for fracking protest: Porter
After years of protesting fracking through words, Biologist and poet Sandra Steingraber used civil disobedience. Now she’s in jail.
By Catherine Porter, Toronto Star, April 22, 2013
For Earth Day, I picked up cigarette butts and juice bottle lids in a nearby park with my kids.
Four hours away in upstate New York, Sandra Steingraber kissed her kids goodbye and went to jail.
I was ashamed of my paltry contribution to what I’ve come to see as a paltry day of action. But never more than when speaking to Steingraber’s son, Elijah.
He is 11.
“People think of my mom as a nice person who writes books. I think that she went to jail makes people shocked,” he told me over the phone while his dad drove him to Reading jail, where he was going to visit her for the first time. “It’s one big step to help the end of fracking.”
Steingraber is the poet laureate of today’s environmental health movement. Her trilogy of books, documenting the toxic cycle of carcinogens from us into our environment and back into us as fetuses (Having Faith), children (Raising Elijah) and adults (Living Downstream), have been compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which led to a ban on DDT. She has a doctorate in biology and a master’s degree in poetry, so she doesn’t write dryly about organogenesis or gene expression. She describes the origami of a fetus’s growth and the concert sonata of DNA expression.
Since Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 20, she’s examined the effects of pollution with a personal lens. She’s not just interested if toxic chemicals can generically cause cancer, but whether they caused her cancer, the potential prepubescence of her daughter or asthma in her son.
That’s what makes her so powerful. She’s got skin in the game, as we all do. Her main conclusion: industry should be forced to follow the precautionary principle, proving their products and byproducts are harmless before they are allowed to mass produce them. Preposterously, that’s not the case.
Around three years ago, Steingraber turned her scientific eye and mother bear instinct to the practice of hydrofracturing, or fracking. She was increasingly disturbed by what she learned: that blasting shale with chemical-laced water to extract the embedded natural gas bubbles creates a slurry of toxic chemicals no one knows how to treat. Plus the methane gas that often escapes is a very potent climate change gas.
And no one is tracking it.
Since 2005, fracking has been exempt from federal environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. In Canada, we’re fracking in northern British Columbia, where it’s also exempt from the environmental assessment act, Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart tells me.
After years of writing articles about the imminent dangers of fracking, giving expert testimony, delivering speeches, drafting petitions, even launching a coalition protest group called New Yorkers Against Fracking, Steingraber went old school last month. She practiced civil disobedience.
An energy storage and transportation company, Inergy Midstream, bought some old salt caverns along and under Seneca Lake, N.Y., not far from her home. Steingraber knows many of the 100,000 people who drink that lake water. Elijah was born on the lake’s edge.
Inergy plans to pump propane, butane and methane from distant fracking fields into those caverns, Steingraber says. So, one frigid day in March, she linked arms with a group of other protesters and blocked a company truck from getting to the site.
Exhausted with words, she used her body in protest.
“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 a contamination without consent,” she told the judge. “It is my belief, as a biologist, that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass.”
Last week, she was sentenced to 15 days in jail for her crime.
Elijah went to see her for the first time on Monday. It was their Earth Day celebration.
“She’s been locked up in solitary confinement for five or six days now. It’s probably been really tough for her,” Elijah said. “I’m excited to see her. I want to tell her I’m proud of her.”
When I was a teenager, Earth Day was a big deal. I remember feeling empowered, marching with my friends arm in arm in protests, drawing globes on sidewalk corners with chalk. That was before we knew about climate change. Now picking up garbage in the park feels like dropping a twig on a train track. I left feeling feeble and depressed.
Steingraber calls this “informed futility syndrome” — incapacitation by knowledge. The antidote, she says, is heroism. Civil rights came not just from talk, but from acts of civil disobedience.
So will ecological rights.
Maybe picking up garbage instilled a seed of environmental respect in my children. But the organic fertilizer will be to tell them a bedtime story about Steingraber and Elijah, who has started his own protest group called Kids Against Fracking. So far, he’s written some 20 protest letters to U.S. President Barack Obama, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and local newspapers, he says.
His mother is a hero, but he’s becoming one, too. On Earth Day and every day, our Earth needs all the heroes it can get.