Hydrofracking and the Heinz Award - October 2011
by Nancy Myers
We were delighted to learn a few weeks ago that Sandra Steingraber, SEHN board member and author most recently of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, had received the prestigious Heinz Award for her work toward solutions to environmental problems. No one deserves it more.
Just a few days before the award was announced, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation released a 1000-page document: "Revised Draft SGEIS on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program: Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale and Other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs."
This document was a revision of a 2009 Environmental Impact Statement after receipt of 13,000 public comments—including Sandra's. Sandra lives in upstate New York. Her voice is one of the most eloquent in the growing chorus of opposition to hydrofracking and the wholesale rush to suck natural gas from the bedrock under our communities.
The last chapter of Raising Elijah is about fracking and it's a call to parental arms. "We shouldn’t wreck this place down, right, Mom?" her son asks after a standing-room-only meeting on fracking at the local public library.
So we were awed but not surprised that Sandra decided to devote her $100,000 prize to the fight against hydrofracking. We publish her statement below, in which she quotes SEHN Science Director Joe Guth.
Nor was it surprising that the 1,000-page revised EIS on the Marcellus Shale had some serious flaws. On October 5, a large group of physicians and medical authorities in the state expressed concerns to Gov. Cuomo that the revised EIS failed to address public health. We publish their press release after Sandra's statement.
May we all rally with such passion for the sake of future generations: the kids of today and ever after, to whom we owe an unbroken land.
by Sandra Steingraber, Sept. 13, 2011
I'm thrilled to receive a Heinz Award in recognition of my research and writing on environmental health. This is work made possible by my residency as a scholar within the Department of Environmental Studies at Ithaca College. Many past and present Heinz Award winners are personal heroes of mine--and Teresa Heinz herself is a champion of women's environmental health--so this recognition carries special meaning for me.
And it comes with a $100,000 unrestricted cash prize. Which is stunning.
As a bladder cancer survivor of 32 years, I'm intimately familiar with two kinds of uncertainty: the kind that comes while waiting for results from the pathology and radiology labs and the kind that is created by the medical insurance industry who decides whether or not to pay the pathology and radiology bills. Over the years, I've learned to analyze data and raise children while surrounded by medical and financial insecurities. It's a high-wire act.
But as an ecologist, I'm aware of a much larger insecurity: the one created by our nation's ruinous dependency on fossil fuels in all their forms. When we light them on fire, we fill the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases that are destablizing the climate and acidifying the oceans (whose plankton stocks provide us half of the oxygen we breathe). When we use fossil fuels as feedstocks to make materials such as pesticides and solvents, we create toxic substances that trespass into our children's bodies (where they raises risks for cancer, asthma, infertility, and learning disorders).
Emancipation from our terrible enslavement to fossil fuels is possible. The best science shows us that the United States could, within two decades, entirely run on green, renewable energy if we chose to dedicate ourselves to that course . But, right now, that is not the trail we are blazing.
Instead, evermore extreme and toxic methods are being deployed to blast fossilized carbon from the earth. We are blowing up mountains to get at coal, felling boreal forests to get at tar, and siphoning oil from the ocean deep. Most ominously, through the process called fracking, we are shattering the very bedrock of our nation to get at the petrified bubbles of methane trapped inside.
Fracking turns fresh water into poison. It fills our air with smog, our roadways with 18-wheelers hauling hazardous materials, and our fields and pastures with pipelines and toxic pits.
I am therefore announcing my intent to devote my Heinz Award to the fight against hydrofracking in upstate New York, where I live with my two children.
Some might look at my small house (with its mismatched furniture) or my small bank accounts (with their absence of a college fund or a retirement plan) and question my priorities. But the bodies of my children are the rearranged molecules of the air, water, and food streaming through them. As their mother, there is no more important investment that I could make right now than to support the fight for the integrity of the ecological system that makes their lives possible. As legal scholar Joseph Guth reminds us, a functioning biosphere is worth everything we have .
This summer I traveled through the western United States and saw firsthand the devastation that fracking creates. In drought-crippled Texas where crops withered in the fields, I read a hand-lettered sign in a front yard that said, "I NEED WATER. U HAUL. I PAY." And still the fracking trucks rolled on, carrying water to the gas wells.
This is the logic of drug addicts, not science.
I also stood on the courthouse steps in Salt Lake City while climate activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison for an act of civil disobedience that halted the leasing of public land for gas and oil drilling near Arches National Park. Before he was hauled away by federal marshalls, Tim said, "This is what love looks like."
After two months of travel, my children and I arrived home to the still unfractured state of New York. After stopping at a local farm stand to buy bread, tomatoes, cheese, and peaches for dinner, we drove to vineyard-and-waterfall-lined shore of Cayuga Lake. I watched my son skip stones across its surface. Under his feet, the shale bedrock underlay the aquifer that provides drinking water to our village.
And this is what security looks like.
1. M.Z. Jacobson and M.A. Delucci, "A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030," Scientific American 301 (2009): 58-65.
2. "The Earth's biosphere seems almost magically suited to human beings, and indeed it is, for we evolved through eons of intimate immersion within it. Many of us are animated by moral and religious impulses to treasure and respect the creation that sustains us. We cannot live well without a functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything we have." Joseph H. Guth, "Law for the Ecological Age," Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, vol. 9
Media release of Environmental Advocates of New York, October 5, 2011
More than 250 pediatricians, family practitioners, otolaryngologists, endocrinologists, oncologists and other doctors, along with the Medical Societies of at least seven upstate counties and the regional office of the American Academy of Pediatricians, wrote to Governor Cuomo today, warning that the state has failed to analyze public health impacts of hydraulic fracturing in its rush to approve permits for drilling.
"We are greatly concerned about the omission of a critical issue related to the development of natural gas using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking: human health impacts," the doctors and medical authorities wrote.
(NOTE: A copy of the medical authorities' letter to Governor Cuomo, along with supporting documentation, is available at www.psehealthyenergy.org.)
Noting that hydrofracking will likely increase health care costs in communities where drilling is likely, as well as increasing costs to mitigate water and air pollution, the medical authorities called on Governor Cuomo to immediately request an independent school of public health to conduct a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), since the state's Department of Health has said it is unwilling to do so.
The letter notes that the state rejected recommendations from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, in an earlier review of a draft of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement or SGEIS, that the state include "a greater emphasis . . . on the potential health impacts that may be associated with gas drilling and hydrofracking."
The EPA called for the state Health Department to join with DEC as co-lead agency on the environmental reviews, which the DEC did not do. The lack of consideration of hydrofracking’s impact on public health violates former Governor David Paterson's Executive Order #41 (2010) specifically directing the DEC to undertake further review of hydrofracking and the impacts of the horizontal drilling deep underground "to ensure that all environmental and public health impacts are mitigated or avoided."
"Hydrofracking has the potential to significantly destroy the water, air and soil of communities in and around the drilling areas and to effect large state aquifers providing water for millions of families across New York," said Henry Schaeffer, MD, FAAP, Chair, American Academy of Pediatrics, District II, NYS. "As pediatricians, we are very concerned about how the negative environmental outcomes may impact children's health, development and general well being in the hydrofracking areas and beyond. Children are far more susceptible to environmental toxins, since they absorb and metabolise toxins at a higher rate for their body mass."
"As the doctors who care for children, we urge caution and more study." Dr. Schaeffer said. "Our children are depending on us to protect them. And in this instance, we must take a stand and do just that. We urge New York state government and our state's citizens to slow down what appears to be an unnecessarily fast approval process for hydrofracking in New York."
Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and member of the state's Hydrofracking Advisory Panel, said the Department of Health told his panel that it could assess public health impacts based on data in other states, but that such an assessment was never prepared.
"At the second panel meeting I asked if Governor Cuomo had directed the agency to conduct such a study and the Department of Health's answer was 'no'," said Moore. "Moreover, the agency said they would only study public health impacts and conduct toxicological studies once drilling is underway in New York State."
Dr. Adam Law, a physician specializing in endocrinology and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College, said medical professionals agree that the time to conduct that health assessment is before drilling gets underway, not afterwards.
"The SGEIS certainly mentions many of the toxic chemicals employed in hydraulic fracturing, the harmful substances in the flowback-produced waters, the vented volatile organic compounds, the production of ozone, among other potential pollutants known to cause human disease," said Dr. Law, who is also a board member of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, a group that is conducting a series of scientific assessments of the SGEIS. "But there is no attempt to evaluate the kinds of health consequences that have already been observed in affected communities in those states where hydraulic fracturing is taking place."
"Because of this glaring omission, this document does not provide a way to form a responsible, evidence-based opinion as to how this industrial process will affect the health of the New Yorkers, nor if adverse effects can be effectively mitigated," said Dr. Law. "Until there is a formal, independent, health impact assessment conducted by recognized public health researchers, the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing should remain in effect."
Dr. Sandra Steingraber, PhD, a biologist and Distinguished Scholar in Residence in the Department of Environmental Studies at Ithaca College, asked how New York could release a 1,000-page EIS and not address health impacts.
"We know with certainty that fracking will increase smog and exposure to diesel exhaust and particulates," said Steingraber, who is also an author and cancer survivor who lives in an area of the Marcellus Shale that would be targeted for hydrofracking. "We know with certainty that exposure to these chemicals, in early life, is associated with preterm birth, asthma, and lowered I.Q. in children, and risk of stroke, heart attack, breast cancer, and diabetes in adults. How many premature deaths will fracking cause in New York State? What are the medical costs?"
Dr. Larysa Dyrszka, pediatrician and advocate for children's right to health, said, "The duty of government is to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Policies with far-reaching consequences such as this must take into account the health of the most vulnerable--the largest vulnerable population being children. Children's metabolism makes them highly susceptible to toxins and that fact has not been considered in the SGEIS. For that reason, and others, we are calling on the Governor and the DEC to order a health impact assessment, and it should be completed and evaluated before moving on with this process."
Signers of the letter to Cuomo also include the medical societies of Herkimer, Madison, Chenango, Oswego, Cayuga, Tompkins and Otsego counties, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics District II (New York).
The medical authorities' letter came in part in response to Governor Cuomo's commitment to rely on science and health concerns in considering the SGEIS, which calls for the issuance of hydrofracking permits throughout the state with the exception of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.
The DEC claims it exempted the two major municipal watersheds because their water is not filtered, warning that allowing hydrofracking there could lead federal authorities to order the installation of multi-billion dollar water filtration systems.
But two weeks before the medical authorities wrote the Governor, a group of 59 scientists from around the world with expertise in water treatment systems, aquatic chemistry or biogeochemistry, wrote him warning that existing municipal drinking water filtration systems are not designed to handle the chemicals and other contaminants included in the flow-back from fracking.
Pennsylvania, which allows hydrofracking in areas near New York's Southern Tier where many hydrofracking permits would be issued, last spring moved to ban sending contaminant-laden flowback through public filtration systems because nearby waterways showed evidence of contaminants.
The medical authorities' letter also cites growing evidence from hydrofracking in Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana, North Dakota and Pennsylvania that documents worsening health metrics among residents living close to gas wells and related infrastructure such as compressor stations and waste pits. Those symptoms can often be traced to the onset of such drilling operations.
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