The Silence of Science

The last time I thought about the possible crimes of a Methodist minister, I was a teenager. The minister in question was the one who sent shivers of Holy Spirit zinging through the pews of our church every Sunday. The accusation: adultery. More or less simultaneously, charges were leveled at my school principal over an incident involving an undercover drug agent, and the president of the United States was revealed to be surrounded by burglars and plumbers. Thus were the heads of my church, school, and country laid low.

The lesson I took from all this was that trails of corruption invariably lead to the Justice Department and that the coverup likely involves school board members and deacons. And Jesus is no Deep Throat.

There were two places to go from here: nihilism or biology. I chose biology. With unifying principles and enduring beauty—pollination, photosynthesis—the study of life seemed a trustworthy place to plant my flag. Au revoir, Methodist Church.

I was thinking about all this as I sat, forty years later, at the trial of Methodist minister Gary Judson (age seventy-two), whose fate I had come to care deeply about. I had a front-row seat in the courtroom in the town of Reading—which is tucked among the Finger Lakes and Riesling grapes of upstate New York—when the reverend walked down the aisle. Slowly. As though to present the weekly offering.

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.

But the table before him was a judge’s bench, not an altar, and the white-haired judge who stared down from it demanded, with no benediction, a plea to the charge of trespassing at the Seneca Lake Compressor Station.

“Guilty,” said the white-haired minister who stared back up. Whereupon a substantial fine was levied. And then the clerk asked—I am not making this up—“Visa or MasterCard?” and the surrealness of the question triggered a call and response among the assembled onlookers.

“I’d like to pay his fine, your honor,” called out a man from the back.

“So would I!” called out another standing by the door.

“You cannot all pay,” groused the judge. But wallets appeared from pockets everywhere—including those belonging to congregants outside the overflowing courthouse who had been watching the proceedings through the window and who were now jimmying it open and passing twenty-dollar bills through the crack.

A minute later, a pile of cash amounting to twice the fine was being counted and stacked in the front row. No collection plate needed.

Reverend Judson’s crime might have been prevented had Missouri-based Inergy Midstream not bought the old U.S. Salt Company plant on the west bank of Seneca Lake in 2008, along with 1.2 miles of shoreline beneath which lie abandoned salt caverns. Inergy’s intent was—and is—to repurpose these chambers for the storage of propane, butane, and methane (natural gas) from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania. Millions of barrels’ worth. Only the volatile gases won’t be in barrels. The containers will be the caverns themselves.

To do this, Inergy plans to drill into the caverns, siphon out the brine they contain, and replace it with liquefied gas. Such transfers require brine pits, flare stacks, and enormous pressure. Thus, formaldehyde-emitting compressor stations—such as the one whose fence Reverend Judson, on a blue September morning, chained himself to. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen.

OF THE SEVENTEEN people who gathered at the Inergy compressor station site, I (age fifty-three) was one of the youngest. The oldest was eighty-five. Many protesters had roots in the region going back generations. What they talked about was frustration.

Frustration because Inergy is duplicitous: it reassures the public that its plans are modest but boasts to investors of its aim to become the gas storage and transportation hub for the entire Northeast. Frustration because Inergy has a ghastly safety record, including repeated equipment failures. Because Inergy has started drilling even before its environmental impact statement is finalized and permits granted. Because the rail and truck depot that Inergy is building will fill our roads and train trestles with rolling tankers full of explosive materials. Because Inergy has, since July, already spilled more than fifteen thousand gallons of brine, killing lakeside trees. Because Seneca Lake is a drinking water source for 100,000 people. Because the state turns a blind eye.

While chained to the compressor station fence, Reverend Judson, an avid fisherman, spoke about the sparkling lake behind him. “They don’t have the right to do this—to put the lake in jeopardy. We’ll all end up paying for their mess.” I was impressed not only with the force of Judson’s moral argument but also with his knowledge of aquatic ecology, climate change, and the arcane details of environmental regulation. This is a man who can talk water-quality indices as well as apostles.

“Inergy has been in violation of the Clean Water Act at this facility every single quarter for the past three years,” he said. “Since 1972, there have been fourteen catastrophic failures at gas storage facilities. Each one of them has been at a salt cavern.”

When the sheriff and his deputies arrived and most of the protesters dispersed, Judson did not. No sooner had bolt cutters emancipated him from the fence than handcuffs re-manacled him. As he was led away, his wife (age seventy-four) ran up and adjusted his glasses.

EVEN THOUGH, as of this writing, fracking is still illegal in New York State, the de facto moratorium has not prevented the rapid build-out of fracking’s infrastructure. Twenty miles from Reading lies the riverside town of Horseheads, which now hosts a $40 million way station for fracking chemicals and explosives. All this sits atop an aquifer that supplies drinking water for thousands of people. Meanwhile, a new high-pressure pipeline burrows under the Hudson River to carry natural gas from fracking wells into lower Manhattan, and construction of a 12,260-horsepower compressor station (which will emit 61,000 tons of air pollutants per year) is under way in the town of Minisink, New York, just a few miles northeast of the New Jersey border. These facilities have all been sites of protest and outbreaks of civil disobedience, as citizens do what they can to halt the full-scale industrialization of the region at the behest of the gas industry.

Some of those involved are members of Occupy the Pipeline, and some belong to New Yorkers Against Fracking, a group that I helped to found. Now there are Artists Against Fracking (including both Salman Rushdie and Lady Gaga), Elected Officials to Protect New York, and Faith Leaders Against Fracking. This last group, which numbers more than three hundred, held an antifracking vigil as Hurricane Sandy bore down upon the state.

I’m working on pulling together Biologists Against Fracking but am having a tough time of it. Even the scientists whose own research shows harm from drilling and fracking operations are hesitant to speak out. Some fear loss of grant money. Some believe their objectivity will be questioned—as though objectivity and neutrality were the same thing. Some are just so, so busy. And some believe fracking is inevitable. The result is political silence, a stunning position for physicians under oath and other medical professionals studying such things as cancer-causing chemicals.

As I watch scientists with evidence position themselves above the fray while faith leaders quote from their data while chained to fences, I wonder if I might not be saved by religion after all. I do know that silence is consent. That we have a duty to protect our communities, especially our children, not just by studying how toxicants behave in the environment but by taking action to prevent their introduction and release. And that the words that echoed through the sanctuary of my childhood church have been returning to me in the sleepless hours.

Call to Worship. Psalm 25: Let them be ashamed who are clothed with treachery.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Yes, yes. I am a United Methodist minister in New York State and am against fracking. I did not know that some of the groups you mention exist, so thank you for writing this. I will look into the People of Faith group and take this information to my church.

  2. Hear,hear, Sandra!!! Your message is getting through, more are listening, more are caring. Together we can make the money grabbers do things our way.

  3. I’m a biologist (immunologist) and I stand firmly with Dr. Steingraber. I refuse to be silent in my small town in upstate NY where fracking is of major concern. Hopefully, my credentials will carry some weight, although I fear that ignorance is a tough hurdle to clear. Thanks for all your wonderful leadership.

  4. Sandra Steingraber, you are a huge inspiration along with the many others. I am an RN and worked in oncology and hospice and health is more important than wealth. The fracking industry is not ready for “prime time” because they have no plan for the huge amount of frack liquid wastes.

    This Spring, I saw a moving new documentary titled the “Triple Divide”- about a place in Ulysses Pa were three river systems begin which is unusual. The Genessee river , the Allegany River and a tributary of the Susquahanna. The State of Pennsylvania wants to permit a waste water treatment plant for flowback frack waste that contains considerable radioactivity at that location- permitting up to 700 trucks to come to that location on a small icy road -one way daily- this is insulting to common sense.

    Read this about flowback waste:

    Fracking was developed in the 1980s by the US government under contract but never practiced til much later because the huge quantities of water used and returned contaminated – nobody knew what to do with it and they still don’t. The time that the country decided to go ahead without a plan was after we were so bold as to blow up 500 mountaintops and destroy the water by dumping the mountain rubble into the creeks. Now it seems ok to destroy huge tracks of tar sands and boreal forest — so now we think it is ok to do a massive horizontal drilling for a mile in the radioactive shale formation and it will be copied and multiplied by other nations following the US. — BAD EXAMPLE- others doing it will multiply the CO2 emissions worldwide and affect climate instability and dragging out the radium that dissolves in water in a lot of places.

    Professor Mark Z Jacobson of Stanford has published a plan in 2013 for New York State to go all renewable energy by 2030 beginning NOW.

    Natural gas is not a requirement for life but water is.

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