Lenox — The slow struggle to remove PCBs from the Housatonic River is an ongoing saga that started decades ago, while the fight against fracked gas pipelines in Western Massachusetts is a much fresher continuous crusade. But the PCB problem and the pipeline problem are interconnected.
Speaking on Saturday, December 2nd in Lenox, acclaimed author, activist and biologist Sandra Steingraber addressed both of these local environmental issues. Like the late Rachel Carson, Steingraber has written extensively about the links between the environment and human health. Drawing from her environmental health expertise, she explained to the audience gathered at Lenox Memorial High School that the environmental crisis is actually twin crises of what is happening to our planet, and what is happening to our bodies.
“The root of these two trees of crises is our use of fossil fuels,” she said.
Natural gas, she explained, is not just used for energy. It is also the origin of plastics. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used in commercial manufacturing of not just plastics, but also as insulating fluid in electrical transformers, in paints, hydraulic equipment, and other uses. Steingraber delved into describing what PCBs are and why they are so harmful to our health – causing cancers, testicular dysgenesis syndrome, and even long-term memory loss. Although the U.S. banned the toxin in 1976, the contamination remains in the environment and in our own bodies.
“As soon as a technology is entrenched, it’s almost impossible to dislodge even after we discover really harmful effects,” Steingraber told The Edge in an interview prior to her talk. She said this is true of both PCBs and fracking. “Also there is no cleanup. Both fracking and PCBs create unfixable problems.”
As a biologist and cancer survivor, Steingraber knows well the damage petrochemicals like PCBs can do to the human body. As an anti-fracking activist, or “fractivist” with a science background, she is also very aware of the harmful effects of this type of extreme extraction on our health and our climate.
“Fracking exists as branches of both trees of crises,” Steingraber told the Lenox audience.
The underlying science drew her into the fracking fight in her home state of New York. Having keen knowledge of the inherent health and climate risks, she could not sit back and allow fracking to happen in the place where she is raising her kids. Steingraber donated the entirety of her $100,000 cash award from the Heinz Foundation to the New York anti-fracking movement and thus co-founded New Yorkers Against Fracking. She worked with a broad activist coalition demanding that Governor Cuomo ban fracking statewide, which he eventually did in 2014.
“For me the fight against fracking was about embedding science in a really powerful social movement,” Steingraber said in an interview with The Edge. Sometimes, though, the science itself fails to sway decision-makers. This was the case with an underground gas storage facility planned for Seneca Lake, near Steingraber’s home in upstate New York. Federal regulators approved the project and construction was underway – but local citizens physically intervened.
“If you’re not going to listen to my data, then you’re going to have to listen to my mother’s body standing in front of this truck,” said Steingraber, who participated in the Seneca Lake blockade and served jail time for this act of civil disobedience. “I think we do have an ethical obligation to prevent harm and protect places that we love and that our children depend on.”
“The climate crisis is really a crisis of parenting,” she added. She explained that she cannot protect her children from harm or plan for their future without taking climate action. For her, engaging in climate activism is of the same importance as other safety precautions like vaccinations or paying attention to car seat recalls.
In the case of Seneca Lake, this meant putting her body on the line. And she was not alone. Members of the Sugar Shack Alliance – the direct action group that has been fighting pipelines here in western Massachusetts – came out to Seneca Lake to help support the activists there. Steingraber acknowledged this solidarity and lauded the anti-pipeline activism in the Berkshires. “Our struggles are connected,” she said. In The Edge interview, she compared the growing pipeline resistance to civil rights-era protests: “I think the pipelines have become the lunch counters of the 21st century.”
Steingraber’s work fighting fracking in New York State is the subject of a new documentary film called Unfractured. (See trailer below.) The film recently had its international premiere at the DOC NYC film festival in New York City and is currently on the film festival circuit. Steingraber showed the film trailer at the end of her talk on Saturday.
The film threads together three storylines – the campaign to ban fracking in New York, Steingraber’s experience traveling to Romania to join fractivists there, and the fight against the gas storage facility at Seneca Lake. All three storylines end positively. “There are three David versus Goliath stories where David wins. I think for people fighting hard in the current political climate, they might need a story about winning,” Steingraber told The Edge.
She offered some inspirational parting words of wisdom: “When you fight with your whole heart, you can win.”