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Responding to Public Threats

A few weeks ago, Dr. Sandra Steingraber—renown scientist and acclaimed author— was jailed just as the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber intensified. As tanks rolled into Boston, as armed officers scoured emptied streets, and as we waited, still in shock, for news from Watertown, I read the first of Steingraber’s letters from the Chemung County jail. In March, she and ten others had blocked the gates of a storage facility for fracked natural gas near her home. Steingraber had committed a willful act of civil disobedience to contest threats with complicated chains of causation and complicity, like cancers, chronic disease, and miscarriage.

These events—Steingraber’s jail sentence and the Boston Marathon bombing—are incomparable. But I experienced them in parallel. The fact of their co-occurrence shaped my own elusive search for meaning after such senseless loss. How do we respond to the presence of public threats to human life?

Steingraber was one of three sentenced on April 17th for trespassing onto the grounds of Missouri-based Inergy LLC, a salt-cavern storage hub for the products of natural gas extraction near a lake that supplies 100,000 with drinking water. For 12 straight quarters, Inergy has polluted more than is permitted by federal and state authorities. Before her sentencing, Steingraber wrote: “my small, non-violent act of trespass is set against a larger, more violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into water and air and thereby into our bodies. This is a form of toxic trespass.” As my colleagues in sociology and the environmental health sciences have documented, violations like this happen every day, across the country, and disproportionately and unjustly in low-income communities and communities of color.

The spread of fracking represents, to Steingraber and to others in the public health community, an intolerable continuation of an already untenable reliance on fossil fuels; a proliferation of an industry that is inherently toxic to human health and the planet; a feedstock from which other inherently toxic materials are manufactured. As Steingraber says in Living Downstream, the documentary film inspired by her work, “when carcinogens are deliberately introduced into the environment, some number of vulnerable persons are consigned to death.”

How much senseless loss of life can we bear as a society? Whether the loss of life is sudden or whether life slowly slips from us, it’s catastrophic.

As Steingraber spent her first nights in jail, our humanity and heroism were on full display in Boston last week—from the first responders and the ER and surgical teams to the public safety officials who worked without sleep—all in an effort to preserve life. The response and resources marshaled were nothing short of massive, and implemented with an unprecedented degree of cooperation and coordination, despite chaos. Countless acts of selflessness and a collective compassion were cultivated in the face of unspeakable loss and a profound rupture to our sense of self and security. Boston acted decisively, collaboratively, and forcefully, until the threat was removed.

We’ve seen what we are capable of to preserve human life, and it is an awe-inspiring force.

On the one week anniversary of the bombings, which was also Earth Day, Steingraber released her second letter from her Chemung County prison cell. On that day, Bostonians gathered, in Copley Square, in town centers, wherever we were. We bowed our heads in silence and held the victims of all bombings in our hearts. That night, a vigil also congregated outside the jail in Elmira, New York to support Steingraber and her fellow prisoners of conscience. These were both acts of reverence to life beyond our own.

Dr. Rebecca Altman resides in Arlington with her husband and two sons. She is an environmental sociologist who has taught in the Community Health Program at Tufts University. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network.