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Ellen Cantarow: Big Energy Means Big Pollution

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Gary Judson had just been removed from his shackles when they slapped the handcuffs on him.  The 72-year-old Methodist minister had chained himself  to the fence surrounding a compressor station -- part of the critical infrastructure associated with hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking -- a stone's throw from Seneca Lake in upstate New York.  The sheriff and his deputies freed him only to arrest him for trespassing.

"They don't have the right to do this -- to put the lake in jeopardy. We'll all end up paying for their mess," Judson told a small group of supporters on hand to witness his act of civil disobedience.  The "this" he was protesting, Sandra Steingraber recounts in a recent issue of Orion magazine, was the plan of Missouri-based Inergy Midstream to turn abandoned salt caverns beneath the lake's shores into storage areas for millions of barrels of natural gas piped in from Pennsylvania's fracking fields.  "Inergy has been in violation of the Clean Water Act at this facility every single quarter for the past three years," Judson said. "Since 1972, there have been fourteen catastrophic failures at gas storage facilities. Each one of them has been at a salt cavern."  A "failure" at Seneca Lake could be particularly catastrophic because, Steingraber writes, it provides the drinking water for 100,000 people. (Last month, Steingraber was jailed for 15 days for her own act of civil disobedience against Inergy.)

In Pennsylvania, where gas is currently being forced out of the shale rock in which it's resided for millions of years, "failures" are already an everyday affair, as TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reports in the latest in her series of articles from fracking's front lines.  Once upon a time, coal miners, tunnel workers, and "radium girls" faced the horrors of their dangerous trades in seclusion, deep below ground, inside mountains, or hidden behind factory walls.  They worked and died unseen and unheard.

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Today, industrial safety issues have come home -- literally.  Toxic chemicals aren't just reserved for Superfund sites; they are increasingly in our houses, our water, and our food.  When something goes wrong at a fertilizer plant, it doesn't just mean workers are in danger any more, but also -- as in the case of the town of West, Texas -- a nursing home, a school, an apartment complex, and five blocks of residences in a small town.  As Cantarow writes, Pennsylvania farming communities are being turned into huge, open-air laboratories by energy companies eager to make North America a twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia, with ordinary people serving as its guinea pigs.  And those people are paying a heavy price: mystery illnesses, dead animals, polluted water, land made worthless, and the loss of a way of life.  In the midst of this new hell, however, there's also hope. Like Gary Judson in New York, Pennsylvanians are speaking up, organizing, and doing what they can in the face of long odds and tough times.  Nick Turse

The Downwinders 
Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania 
By Ellen Cantarow

More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded "the most contaminated place in the world." As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.

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Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging  industry pushes the next wonder technology -- in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. "In my opinion," says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, "what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning."

The process of "fracking" starts by drilling a mile or more vertically, then outward laterally into 500-million-year-old shale formations, the remains of oceans that once flowed over parts of North America. Millions of gallons of chemical and sand-laced water are then propelled into the ground at high pressures, fracturing the shale and forcing the methane it contains out. With the release of that gas come thousands of gallons of contaminated water. This "flowback" fluid contains the original fracking chemicals, plus heavy metals and radioactive material that also lay safely buried in the shale.

The industry that uses this technology calls its product "natural gas," but there's nothing natural about up-ending half a billion years of safe storage of methane and everything that surrounds it. It is, in fact, an act of ecological violence around which alien infrastructures -- compressor stations that compact the gas for pipeline transport, ponds of contaminated flowback, flare stacks that burn off gas impurities, diesel trucks in quantity, thousands of miles of pipelines, and more -- have metastasized across rural America, pumping carcinogens and toxins into water, air, and soil.

Sixty percent of Pennsylvania lies over a huge shale sprawl called the Marcellus, and that has been in the fracking industry's sights since 2008.  The corporations that are exploiting the shale come to the state with lavish federal entitlements: exemptions from the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Clean Drinking Water Acts, as well as the Superfund Act, which requires cleanup of hazardous substances. The industry doesn't have to call its trillions of gallons of annual waste "hazardous." Instead, it uses euphemisms like "residual waste." In addition, fracking companies are allowed to keep secret many of the chemicals they use.

Pennsylvania, in turn, adds its own privileges. A revolving door shuttles former legislators, governors, and officials from the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) into gas industry positions. The DEP itself is now the object of a lawsuit that charges the agency with producing deceptive lab reports, and then using them to dismiss homeowners' complaints that shale gas corporations have contaminated their water, making them sick. The people I interviewed have their own nickname for the DEP: "Don't Expect Protection."

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The Downwinders

Randy Moyer is a pleasant-faced, bearded 49-year-old whose drawl reminds you that Portage, his hardscrabble hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, is part of Appalachia. He worked 18 years -- until gasoline prices got too steep -- driving his own rigs to haul waste in New York and New Jersey. Then what looked like a great opportunity presented itself: $25 an hour working for a hydraulic-fracturing subcontractor in northeastern Pennsylvania.

In addition to hauling fracking liquid, water, and waste, Randy also did what's called, with no irony, "environmental." He climbed into large vats to squeegee out the remains of fracking fluid. He also cleaned the huge mats laid down around the wells to even the ground out for truck traffic. Those mats get saturated with "drilling mud," a viscous, chemical-laden fluid that eases the passage of the drills into the shale. What his employer never told him was that the drilling mud, as well as the wastewater from fracking, is not only highly toxic, but radioactive.

In the wee hours of a very cold day in November 2011, he stood in a huge basin at a well site, washing 1,000 mats with high-pressure hoses, taking breaks every so often to warm his feet in his truck. "I took off my shoes and my feet were as red as a tomato," he told me. When the air from the heater hit them, he "nearly went through the roof."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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