Letter from Chemung County Jail, #1

Earlier this month, Orion friend and columnist Sandra Steingraber was sent to an upstate New York prison for attempting to block a facility used to store hydrofracked natural gas. Sandra has continued to write from jail—she wrote the following letter, which is addressed to environmental leaders across the country, on a scrap of paper, with a stub of pencil.

While confined in the Chemung County Jail, here in the southern tier of upstate New York, I have had to think deeply and long about the environmental community’s response to the boom in natural gas extraction from shale via hydraulic fracking, which is now sweeping the nation, from west to east. I write to share with you my insights regarding the split within our community over whether to embrace a regulatory approach to fracking, or to press for bans and moratoria.

I’ll begin by explaining why I am in jail. Last month, on the west shore of Seneca Lake, I stood with other local residents on a driveway owned by Inergy, LLC.

In so doing, we blockaded a gas compressor station site and prevented a company truck, carrying a drill head in its truck bed, from going where that truck wanted to go. When we refused to disband, we were arrested and charged with trespassing. When three of us further refused, at our arraignment on April 17, to pay the resulting fine, we were each sentenced to fifteen days in jail.

As the nation’s largest energy storage and transportation company, Inergy provides the infrastructure for fracking—including within states like New York, where high-volume, horizontal fracking is not allowed. Missouri-based Inergy has purchased more than 500 acres of lakeshore property along the banks of our state’s largest and deepest lake. Seneca Lake is so large and deep that it creates its own temperature stabilizing microclimate, which provides the necessary ecological conditions for our state’s world-class Riesling grapes. Wineries flourish on the hillsides about both banks of the Finger Lake. Inergy is interested in neither the wine grapes nor our unique climate. It does not care about Seneca Lake’s designation as the Lake Trout Capital of the world, nor the tranquil views that draw tourists and fill summer cottages. Nor, more basically, with the fact that Seneca Lake is the drinking water source for 100,000 people.

Inergy’s interest is, instead, focused on the landscape below the surface—namely the abandoned caverns left over from a century of solution salt mining that lie 1,500 feet beneath and beside the lake shore. Inergy’s plan is to repurpose these salt caverns to serve as storage for billions of barrels of fracked gases, which will be brought to Seneca Lake by rail and by truck from other states. However, these fuels will not be stored in barrels. The caverns themselves will serve as the receptacle for the pressurized, liquefied, explosive gases.

The Seneca Lake 12—as we arrestees call ourselves—fear that Inergy’s planned storage facilities pose serious risks, including calamitous ones. As journalist Peter Mantius reports in DC Bureau, salt caverns represented only 7 percent of the nation’s 407 underground storage sites for gas in 2002, but, between 1972 and 2004, they were responsible for all ten catastrophic accidents involving gas storage. In Belle Rose, Louisiana, the fourteen-acre sinkhole that is now making headlines was caused by the collapse of a gas-filled salt cavern. As a result, surface and groundwater have been contaminated,and an entire community faces relocation.

In addition to the risk for outright catastrophe, we Seneca Lake 12 object to the heavy industrialization of the pristine Finger Lakes region that we call home. Along with the twenty-four-hour light pollution from the industrial lighting of the drill rigs and the twenty-four-hour noise from the compressors, this facility will fill our scenic highways with fleets of diesel trucks and send train cars of hazardous, flammable cargo over our rickety rail trestles. A sixty-foot flarestack will send carcinogens and ozone precursors into our air. (My home is fifteen miles downwind; my eleven year old has a history of asthma.) Our deepest concerns are for the water. Inergy’s hillside pits have already leaked, salt geysers have already spewed, lake side vegetation has already died and, in spite of the fact that Inergy’s discharges of effluent chemicals into the lake have been out of compliance for the past twelve consecutive quarters, Inergy applied for and received from the State of New York a permit to discharge 44,000 additional pounds of chloride into the lake. Every single day.

In a larger way, our act of civil disobedience—for which I now wear an orange jumpsuit and reside in a six by seven foot cell—is directed at the practice of shale gas extraction itself. This is why, with our arms linked, we unfurled a banner with the words, “Our Future is Unfractured.” Clearly, a massive build-out of fracking’s infrastructure—the storage facilities; the pipelines, the compressors and condensers; the access roads; the underground injection wells for the disposal of fracking waste; the ethylene “crackers” that turn the byproducts of wet gas into ingredients for the petrochemical industry—is a necessary precondition for fracking to occur. As it boasts in its communiqués to investors and clients, Inergy intends to serve the Marcellus shale gas boom by turning the Finger Lakes region into the Northeast’s storage and transportation hub for the vaporous gases so obtained. Thus, taking a stand against infrastructure projects that aid and abet fracking not only draws attention to the public health and environmental harms created by the projects themselves but also signals objection to fracking and, even more fundamentally,to the further entrenchment of fossil fuel dependency in a time of climate emergency.

To this end, there are many fracking infrastructure projects near my home in upstate New York where I might have chosen to plant my flag as a first-time civil disobedient. In Horseheads, there is a storage depot for fracking chemicals headed for the gas fields of Pennsylvania. In Painted Post, a processing facility for fracking sand. Near the jail where I am housed here in Elmira, a landfill accepts radioactive drill cuttings from out-of-state operations. So, why protest at a compressor station site? The answer, for me, is highly personal. My son Elijah was born in a birth center on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake, just down the road from the new compressor station.The west shore of Seneca—where I walked when in labor—is a charmed place for me. And the burial of explosive hydrocarbon gases beneath it is, for me, a desecration.

But particulars aside, it’s the generic, cumulative, systemic and ubiquitous impacts of drilling and fracking operations and their associated infrastructure projects across the nation that is the first topic I want to raise with you in this letter.

Fracking, and the multitude of corollary activities that enable it, is turning this nation inside out. Consider that, by weight, the new number one commodity sent beyond its borders by the State of Wisconsin—which does not even engage in fracking—is silica sand. (Prized for its ability to withstand the lithostatic pressure of the earth without crumbling, grains of silica sand are shot into the shards of shale during fracking operations in order to prop the cracks open, so that the oil or gas can flow out of them.) In other words, Wisconsin is now exporting itself. The sand counties of Aldo Leopold are being loaded onto barges, trucks, and railcars headed for the fracking fields of America. Hills, bluffs, coulees: they are all going. Big parts of formerly rolling Wisconsin are now, thanks to frack sand mining, as flat as Illinois. In the process, surface water is silted, groundwater is threatened, and air fills with silica dust—a known lung carcinogen and a known cause of the disabling disease silicosis. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, drilling and fracking operations fragment millions of acres of intact, interior forests—along with the ecosystem services they provide. Nationally, thanks to fracking, energy extraction has become the number one land use; the U.S. has more acreage leased for oil and gas than planted in wheat or soy.

Against this backdrop of epic transformation of the landscape and mass industrialization of rural America, the policy discussions about fracking emerging from your respective organizations are remarkably narrow and conciliatory. Partnering with industry, Environmental Defense Fund focuses on calculating methane emissions rates from well pads and, together with the Heinz Endowments, promulgating voluntary standards for fracking based on “best practices.” The dubious notion of “sustainable shale” aside (by what definition of “sustain” can any non-renewable fossil fuel be described, let alone the methane bubbles trapped inside the Marcellus Shale, whose recoverable reserves have been re-estimated sharply downward by geologists and are now believed to provide only six years worth of U.S. gas usage), the Center for Sustainable Shale fails to consider the devastating collateral damage created by all the corollary activities that necessarily accompany shale gas extraction: strip-mining for sand, clear cutting of forests, and destruction of productive farmland are just three. While you consider industry best practices such as green completion, recycling of fracking fluid, and strict engineering standards for well casings, you entirely ignore the massive amounts of steel and cement—miles and miles of it for every well—that must be manufactured, transported, and entombed in the Earth for the one-time,short-term, un-recyclable use of shale gas extraction (in the case of the Marcellus Shale, a one-time use for six years of gas).

Should Governor Cuomo decide to pursue full development of shale gas via high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, the amount of steel alone that would be buried in New York State will exceed, by 2.5 times, the entire tonnage of the U.S. Navy Fleet (as calculated by Cornell engineer Tony Ingraffea). To my knowledge, no one has estimated the amount of steel and concrete consumed by the fracking industry on a national basis for use as well casings and casing strings. Consider, however,that the production of both materials is fossil-fuel intensive and that, on a worldwide scale, cement manufacturing along is responsible for six percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Those same resources—and the jobs they provide—could be directed toward the construction of renewable energy infrastructures and the smart grid they require.

The advocacy of “sustainable shale” is provincial not only because it fails to consider radical alterations to land use wrought by fracking and the costly sacrifice of carbon-intensive resources, but also because it utterly ignores the ongoing fracking-driven transformation of our materials economy. Fully 30 percent of natural gas is used not as a source of domestic energy but in manufacturing, a big chunk of which is diverted for use in petrochemical manufacturing. Fully 5 percent of the world’s natural gas supply is consumed to make the petrochemical fertilizer anhydrous ammonia. Natural gas is also the starting point for the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic). The “wet gases,” such as ethane, that are blasted out of the ground with methane are used in the manufacture of other petrochemical plastics. And these are just a few examples. As you know, the U.S. chemical industry is experienced a parallel boom in activity as a direct result of cheap, abundant shale gas.

Accelerated petrochemical manufacture brought on by fracking has profound environmental and public health consequences. Cheap, abundant agricultural chemicals undermine the local, organic food movement and keep our nation’s farm system running onthe pesticide treadmill. Anhydrous ammonia fertilizer is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction of aquatic ecosystems throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and contamination of groundwater aquifers throughout rural America. Last Thursday’s deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas—which destroyed lives and homes across a vast swath of land—reveals the inherent dangers of relying on volatile petrochemicals as a source of agricultural nitrogen. Once again: natural gas is the starting point for anhydrous ammonia manufacture (say what you will about downsides of sustainable agriculture, but green manure, compost tea, and crop rotation never blew up a nursing home). In sum, the fracking boom—whether regulated or unregulated, guided by best practices or worst—further deepens the dependency of our nation’s food system on non-renewable fossil fuels at precisely the moment when we desperately need to be calling for its emancipation. In this, natural gas is not a bridge but a perilous detour.

Likewise in chemical manufacturing, fracking, by making petrochemicals cheaper and more abundant, undoes gains in toxic chemical reform, green chemistry, and green engineering.The plastics that will be created by a proposed new cracker facility in Pittsburgh from the wet gases of fracking solve a waste disposal problem of the energy industry—and make fracking more profitable—but, at the same time, add to the burden of unbiodegradable materials that we are, as individual citizens, encouraged to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Inevitably, much of this fracked plastic will end up in the oceans, adding to garbage patches and contaminating aquatic food chains. Meanwhile the cracking facility itself will add ground-level ozone (smog) to a Pennsylvania community already in non-attainment for ozone, and thus add to the community’s burden of asthma, heart attack, stroke, and preterm birth. How is this sustainable?

In my home state of Illinois—where no fracking is currently occurring—the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council has joined hands with industry to draft model regulations for fracking (which are not as strict as those that we rejected in New York). The Sierra Club’s subsequent endorsement of the fracking regulatory bill now under consideration by the State legislature has allowed pro-fracking forces in both government and industry to claim that Sierra Club has endorsed regulated fracking. In separate conversations this year with both Frances Beineke of NRDC and Michael Brune of Sierra Club, I was told that a nation-wide ban on fracking—or even moratoria in all states—would be “unrealistic” for political reasons. What seems to me less realistic—politically—is to imagine that the oil and gas industry, which has already exempted itself from federal laws and surrounds itself with secrecy, would willfully follow any regulations or voluntary standards of any kind. Ironically, the very states that are most vulnerable to fracking for reasons of economic desperation are those least able, because of massive budget cuts, to enforce regulations and provide oversight for an industry whose wells and infrastructure will be distributed across the landscape.

Meanwhile, land in Missouri and up and down the Illinois River is being readied for sand stripmining in anticipation of fracking’s debut in Illinois, and the Shaunee National Forest, a haven of biodiversity, in southern Illinois, is being opened for drilling activity. The results will neither be sustainable nor regulatable.

With fracking, the mainstream environmental community has lost its way, aligning itself with those who believe that now is not the time to embrace renewable energy and declare the fossil fuel party over.

The voices that cry “wait” and capitulate to powerful industry forces through their willingness to trade one fossil fuel for another are taking us down a perilous path. It is time to say now—grassroots groups and big green groups together—that the unholy trinity of coal, oil and gas is part of a ruinous past and; that further investments in new techniques to blast these deadly fossils from the bedrock are a waste of time, money, water, air, trees, health and farmland; and that well-intentioned attempts to regulate and police the resulting mess is a waste of human ingenuity that could be better spent re-imagining and retooling our economy and our culture for the post-carbon age. We don’t need to design filters for cigarettes—they provide only false assurances of safety and only delay the initiation of entirely new habits and attitudes.

With respect and toward the unfracked future,

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber’s column “The Silence of Science” appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion. Learn more about Sandra’s writing and activism—including updates on her incarceration—at the Raising Elijah Facebook page. Painting by Robert Shetterly.


  1. Letter to Sandra Steingraber: Your Lake Seneca is my Loyalsock Creek


    Dear Sandra,

    I hope my letter finds you, and finds you well. I have followed and, where I could, photographed and documented the defense of Lake Seneca against those whom I have called the industrializing profiteers of the extreme extraction corporations, Inergy in this case. While my temptation is to draft a scorching analysis, I know the relevant facts about the gas storage, frack rig, compressor, pipeline, dehydrator, deep injection well, waste pool, sand truck, chemical cocktail, and on and on, are as fully at your disposal as they are at mine. So, instead, I decided to write something different—a letter—whose aim it is to tell you about another endangered moment of this life on Earth, namely, my Loyalsock Creek and state forest, for while you may not know, my beautiful creek is your magnificent lake.

    Inergy plays a lead role in both of our stories. While the fight in Watkin’s Glen and its surrounding villages and vineyards takes the form of resistance to Inergy’s plan to construct an LPG storage facility utilizing the abandoned and potentially seismic salt caverns of Lake Seneca, our struggle is for one of the few remaining pristine forests and watersheds left to Pennsylvanians—the Loyalsock. The difference is that while your moratorium holds—and we hope this continues for our own sakes—we have now been fully occupied by what amounts to an invading and terrorizing industrial army whose soldiers of fortune—Inergy, Anadarko, Kinder Morgan, Chesapeake, EXCO, XTO, Cabot, Range Resources, Consol, WPX, Halliburton, Aqua America, and so many more—have converted the conditions of life—water, air, and soil—into off-shore bank deposits, real estate schemes, investments in fracking technologies for use overseas, climate change denial propaganda, pro-fracking hit squads, and the purchase of our elected representatives. I understand that you are right now in jail; you’ve know idea how much I admire your courage. It is, indeed, to that courage I am appealing now.

    We are at war in rural Pennsylvania. Our tree-sitters like my good friend Alex Lotorto have cut out of the ancient Eastern Hemlocks they’re defending by a co-opted machinery of the state so that Kinder Morgan can rape the Appalachian Trail in the interest of constructing the Tennessee Pipeline. Our citizens are being evicted from their homes only to be disgorged into cities like Williamsport where the rents are as high as imported frack-industry workers will pay, and where every corner and crevice has been transformed into a man camp. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Riverdale Mobile Home Community, I am reminded of the intimate connections between social and economic justice, the particular vulnerabilities of poor women, children, and the elderly, and the unadulterated waste that fracking has made of these. Your dogged quest for justice reminds me a little of Deb Eck’s, one of the resident leaders at Riverdale whose mobile home was one of the very last to leave after the June 12th state police raid, and during the demolition of the park. I am reminded of the Faustian bargains made routinely by our churches, schools, universities, retirement homes, and state agencies to lease land to interests whose record of environmental, labor, and safety violation should make our stomachs clench and our fists clench harder. Worn down by the recession, by the conversion of great rivers like the Susquehanna into toilets for the coal industry, the pharmaceuticals, and now by Act 13’s gutting of what little say our municipalities enjoyed by a corrupt and corporatized state government, it’s a wonder we have been able to foment resistance in Pennsylvania at all. But what we know is that the war for our homes, our water, our air hasn’t really even yet begun. That awaits the pipelines—at which point we will not only be at war, but under siege. It is vital that New York’s moratorium hold. Without it, there is no border to brake the trucks, no symbolic line in the sand, no last best chance for us to put a stop to what amounts to a kind of slow but sure genocide in the name of “free enterprise.”

    I realize as I draft my letter to you that I am not really writing for you—though I do sincerely hope you’ll be able to rejoin your family soon. I am writing for myself, for my children, for my communities. You and I are both mothers. My four children—three sons and a daughter—are mostly grown. One lives in Michigan where the industry is just beginning to power up its destructive machinery; two live in the West whose extraction wars are well underway. My daughter is soon to leave for Ukraine, a Peace Corps assignment I find especially poignant given my own communications with friends in Romania and Russia over what are and have always been global issues: extreme extraction as the last desperate gasp of the fossil fuel behemoth, its consequent contribution to climate change, deforestation, desertification, and the coming mammoth migrations of people and animals in search of water. It is a dark prospect—but I now find myself imagining the possibility that we could find ourselves at war here—anywhere—over access to what clean water remains after we have destroyed it to fuel not only our own accelerating consumption, but the weaponry we’ll deploy to prosecute just such a conflagration. I’d be tempted to call this a kind of ironic justice, except that the people (not to mention the countless extinguished nonhuman animal species) who will do the suffering and dying are all the same. They’re the ones who always suffer first, poor women, children, the elderly, non-whites, indigenous peoples.

    Still, I promised this letter would be about Inergy. And truly it has been—if symbolically. But let me make the connection to your Lake Seneca more real. On Labor Day 2012, an Inergy pipeline construction crew had an accident that allowed spill a fair swathe of bentonite directly into Loyalsock Creek just upstream from World’s End State Park family swimming area. As you can see from the photographs, the creek was clouded, its late Summer foliage suffocated by the spill. Bentonite is, of course, not itself especially toxic—but it can strangle aquatic life. DEP not only did nothing to chastise Inergy, the state agency refused even to advise swimmers to avoid the family recreation area. In the grand scheme, the spill was a minor episode in the ongoing fracktastrophe that is Pennsylvania—but for us who love the Loyalsock is was an omen. Anadarko now plans to begin drilling operations in Loyalsock at Rock Run—and I can barely say this out loud without crying. This is the people’s land, the people’s forest, the people’s creek. It is as much my creek as Seneca is your lake. Moreover, it is precisely the same story to be told about EXCO’s drill pads in Elk Grove, Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, or Consol’s operations on Beaver Lake Reservoir, Westmoreland County—and countless other beautiful vulnerable places.

    I am writing to ask you to keep fighting, Sandra. Just as you and your fellows bravely blockade the Inergy gates, I and mine are prepared to chain ourselves to access road gates and truck fenders—and to trees. Your moratorium is a vital part of our reason to hope, and our willingness to fight is part of what has helped to hold your moratorium.

    I love my children, Sandra. When I saw the image of you holding your son’s face, I wept for all of us, but not just at the injustice of you and your fellows’ arrests, but for your child and my own who face a future for which “sustainable” is fastly becoming little more than the hollow promise of a gray sky, a brownfield earth and, as Carson might have put it, a silent spring.

    Fight, Sandra.

    You have my word that I will.


    Wendy Lynne Lee
    Department of Philosophy
    Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
    Bloomsburg, PA 17815
    Executive Board, Shale Justice


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