Fracking as a Toxic Trespass

8128064076_9a89f930eb_zImagine what we mothers could do if we brought that spirit of loud, uncompromising, creative defiance to the necessary project of dismantling the fossil fuel industry and emancipating renewable energy, which is its hostage? Imagine hundreds and hundreds of mothers peacefully blockading the infrastructure projects of the fossil fuel industry, day after day. Imagine us, all unafraid, filling jails across the land. Imagine the press conferences we would give upon our release. Imagine us living up to our children’s belief in us as superheroes. —Sandra Steingraber

On April 24, Sandra Steingraber completed her 15-day prison sentence for “acting out” peacefully against the violation of our bodies and the earth by corporate polluters and environmental exploiters—in this case, the gas and hydro-fracking industry.

Sandra is my hero.

Sandra, like me, is a mother, cancer survivor, writer and activist. Her books, Living Downstream, Raising Elijah and Having Faith  contribute greatly to my thinking, writing and teaching.

Like Sandra, I know firsthand how the polluting of this planet causes unnecessary and horrific suffering for present and future beings.  And, like Sandra, I am frustrated about how little has changed for the better over the years, despite copious evidence she and other scientists have compiled that points to the links between toxic pollution and cancer, neurological disorders, asthma and other disease. A myriad of health problems such as these and others abound from the lack of environmental regulations in the U.S.  Also, like Sandra, as a mother, I worry about what the future holds in these environmentally degraded times for all children present and future. These days, protecting our children takes on a whole new meaning. So much is out of our control, and the stakes are crazy.

Every day, citizens breath, eat, drink and encounter toxic materials without their knowledge, consent or will. We need a Safe Chemicals Act, among other things. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis that’s spiraling out of control and scientific predictions are dire. We’re running out of clean water. We’ve got tons of radioactive waste that lasts for thousands of years, and no safe place exists so far to store these hazardous materials. Pollinating insects are vanishing. Crucial sea life is being destroyed. “Even life itself seems to be running out,” Michael Moyer and Carrie Stors write in Scientific American, “as biologists warn that we are in the midst of a global extinction event comparable to the throes of dinosaurs.” Things are bad, really bad, and future generations will bear a terrible burden for our hubris, negligence and greed.

From writing and speaking to civil action: What led Sandra to land in jail? I think that like a lot of us moms and cancer survivors who work on these issues, she’s had it. Unlike many (or most, I should say), however, Sandra truly has the courage of her convictions.

In recent years, gas companies began plans to drill, or hydro-frack, in upstate New York near Sandra’s  home. As a biologist, she researched what fracking upstate would mean for her community and beyond. Sandra decided to take the gas industry on directly, so she’s been marching, speaking, stumping, testifying, campaigning, writing and doing everything in her power to stop fracking from taking place in New York. Steingraber even gave away her $100,000 Teresa Heinz prize to New York State anti-fracking groups.  Instead of putting this money into a college fund for her kids, she gave the award away to save the earth and all of our children. “This is my kids’ college fund,” she told me. “The earth we live on.”

So when Inergy Storage and Transportation planned to use Seneca Lake, located near her home, as a dump for fracking waste (propane, butane and methane), Sandra put her body on the line.  She and others performed a peaceful act of civil disobedience by ‘blockading’ the gate of Inergy’s gas compressor facility on the lake.

Sandra was arrested for trespassing.

At her sentencing, Sandra said to the judge: “In my field of environmental health, the word trespass has meaning. Toxic trespass refers to involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant. It is a contamination without consent … It is my belief, as a biologist, that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass.”

While in prison, Sandra wrote a series of powerful letters to the world about her act of civil disobedience.  She wrote and drew upon the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, Parks and King. You cannot read her letters without being deeply moved.

In her final letter from jail, Sandra calls on all mothers to join her in a movement of environmental civil disobedience. We are in an “environmental crisis” she writes, that “requires our urgent attention. And by attention, I mean sustained political action, not intermittent, private worrying.” We are running out of time. If we really care about our children’s future, instead of carting our kids to soccer games and SAT prep classes, we need to participate in a “civil-rights … uprising.”

I cannot stop reading and rereading this extraordinary letter. I cannot stop imagining speaking face-to-face with Sandra and saying, “tell me precisely what to do and I’ll do it.”

Sandra provides compelling reasons to follow her call.  She’s singing out for a peaceful, creative and joyful mother’s revolution.  It happened before and it worked: They were the mothers of Women Strike For Peace (my own mom was one of them) and they helped stop above-ground nuclear test bombing in the U.S. in 1963. I believe we will do it again.

Welcome Home, Sandra Steingraber.

We stand with you.

We hear you.

You will prevail.

Crossposted from Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations

Photo of Sandra Steingraber courtesy of Flickr user SteveHarbula under Creative Commons 2.0. The upcoming issue of Ms. magazine will have an article on fracking, in which Steingraber is quoted. Find out how to receive the magazine digitally and/or in print here.


  1. I greatly respect Sandra Steingraber for standing up for what she believes in and speaking loudly. At the same time, there are feminists and intellectuals on the other side of this issue as well. I personally work in PA as a supervisor on drilling rigs for a major company in the area and endlessly respect the work our company has been doing to minimize impact on the environment and it has an excellent safety and environmental record in the area. (regretfully some smaller operators can’t say the same thing and we have been spending a lot of money to correct past mistakes by others) I also intimately understand the process and its consequences and support fracking in Appalachia, which is also my own back yard. The merits of fossils fuels are clearly on their way out, but natural gas is a good bridge until renewable can stand their economic ground or the country starts consuming infinitely less. The oil & gas industry is also changing and becoming more progressive and employing more and more women. I believe as it empowers more women and women have more boots on the ground of its operations and in their offices that conditions for safety and environment will only improve and would like to encourage people not only to see this industry as an evil-doer and see more women bring their voice inside. To Sandra: I respect you and your stand for what you believe is right. Myself, also a Sandra, will continue my own feminist battles as an engineer, manager, and leader in the field of this male dominated industry to improve it from the inside out.

    • Also, for those who are more interested in the issue, I highly suggest watching the documentary _The Rational Middle_ by director Gregory Kallenberg, who also directed the documentary _Haynesville_ about fracking in Louisiana for a fuller picture of the issues- environmental, technical, social, commercial- with many balanced voices. It can be seen here:

    • When possible (probable, provable) devastating results of an economic activity are made known, as they are in hydraulic fracturing, I am in favor of putting all of our financial resources immediately into solar energy, an infinite resource. I think we should create the social and economic structures to provide good work with good remuneration to all people who are able to work. I think profit should be taken out of every equation. It’s cruel to “make money” at the expense of other people!

  2. Jim Quigley says:

    Thank you Heidi Hutner. Sandra Steingraber is an inspiration. Far too many scientists fall under the spell of dispassionate regard for the truths revealed by their own research. Sandra Steingraber understands what her research tells her and knows that it compels action. May we all find the courage that is so clearly in abundance for her.

  3. Danielle says:

    It’s crazy how something as significant as the world’s collapse is such a minor topic of discussion. I’m so interested in learning more and spreading awareness. Looking for an outlet for this pent-up passion!

  4. @Sandra (the industry one): Which company do you work for? As far as suggesting that ‘Rational Middle’ is “balanced” – this is a farce. The director, Kallenberg, has deep gas industry ties. The film’s chief financial sponsor is Shell, and its PR firm, Edelman, works for the oil and gas industry. This is the same kind of smoke and mirrors that tobacco companies used to convince people that smoking was healthy. Do you know the story of Bernays creating the “torches of freedom” march featuring “empowered” women smoking cigarettes? Here are the facts about ‘Rational Middle’

  5. Well isn’t that special, there is a ‘Sandra’ with a great job on the oil and gas industry payroll who wants us to believe that fracking is a feminist endeavor, therefore, what harm could come from it. Nice try, an insult to Ms. readers’ intelligence, however. I guess that’s why she’s making the big bucks.

  6. Sandra says:

    I appreciate you bringing these points up about the director and the financing behind it, but I also appreciate Shell is upfront in the first segments of the film about funding it and giving freedom to Kallenberg. It is a documentary and like all documentaries and all media, it comes from a particular point of view, just like Ms. does. It is still worth watching. My point is that to fully wrap ourselves around these complicated issues, we need to look at all those viewpoints. Gasland is also a documentary made about fracking and also has its own agenda and its own errors and slants within it, but since it’s against the industry, we forgive their errors or don’t even try to find them because it suits our confirmation bias. I don’t claim everything in either one is true, but I believe people should come to both with an open mind, absorb the information as objectively as possible, and then sort it out and make judgments. Here I was immediately judged as a liar and bad person and that just isn’t the case and is unfair. The impression I get is that we have a deep sown cynicism about the industry, and not without reason to be concerned and keep a watch on it for sure, but going from the gut reaction and judgment every time that if an o&g company touched it that it full of all lies, evil, and their goal is to steal your money and destroy the planet because it simply isn’t true. I don’t fault companies of any sort for wanting to improve their image or reach out, environmental, industrial, or anyone else. There are misunderstandings and a lot of them, but if we always work from the immediate view that if it’s from someone in o&g it is lies and evil and if it is from someone in the environmental sector that it is sacred and true, that will not get us to a productive dialogue between the two. There is a lot of confirmation bias and immediate judgment going on both ends. I have this same conversations with people in the industry about how some view antifracking activities. I also talk to them about understanding where they are coming from, where their information is coming from, and really trying to grasp where the truth actually lays between the two and what we can learn and how to improve our efforts. My primary goal in this comments section is not a debate about fracking. My major concern is that we don’t know how to have a civil and construction conversation unless it is with someone who agrees with our point of view. It is very easy and risks nothing to dismiss anyone immediately who doesn’t think or feel the same way we do. It is much harder to try to understand both sides. We have a lot of difficulty considering that maybe, just maybe, we might be a little bit wrong about something and should step back and reconsider- on any issue. There are very few people I see on Facebook or blogs sincerely trying to have an open discussion and not just sell their one right view, wherever it lies. (Yes I am expressing my view and open to challenges and changing my opinion, and I’m also reading and absorbing your comments and doing my own research) That is what I hope to see more of and am attempting to generate. However, as you can see from the comments on the blog and Facebook, I have not been successful. I am clearly an evil person who makes gobs of money (ps. it’s comparable to engineers in other fields) to kill the world so my children can’t live and I can die of cancer early. Makes perfect sense.

    • Hi Sandra, it’s interesting that you mention a desire to have a constructive conversation about these issues but then turn around and play the victim when you’re challenged for presenting industry-funded propaganda films as the “balanced” “fuller picture.” I came here with full transparency (used my real name and linked to my organization), and I’m ready to engage in a conversation with you. Will you answer my basic question: which company do you work for in the Marcellus?
      There’s a lot of good reasons why people don’t trust the oil and gas industry, and there are enough documented lies, irresponsible projects, reckless accidents and public relations tricks used by your industry to fill volumes.
      In particular, there are documented cases of your fellow Marcellus drilling companies bragging about their use of military psychological warfare tactics and personnel to deal with the “insurgency” (their word) of concerned citizens in Pennsylvania. They use Rumsfeld’s book and the Army counterintelligence manual as guides to dealing with concerned communities. Is this the U.S. or Afghanistan? Listen for yourself:

      These are troubling facts, Sandra. And they don’t square with your claims that the industry is a responsible actor that should be trusted.
      Are you willing to be transparent about your claims here? Because so far all you’ve done is pollute this comment board with age-old industry PR techniques including misdirection, ventriloquism and propaganda.
      So, if you want to have an open, constructive conversation, please demonstrate it by being transparent and answering basic questions.

    • Wow, Sandra. I don’t know about the first part of that LAST sentence, but you sure got the last half right!
      I am certainly willing to have a respectful and civilized conversation about natural resources. About how we humans need to use them and what is the best way to go about it so that we leave something here for future generations and don’t poison ourselves in the meantime.
      But no one will ever convince me that fracking is safe and will not harm the environment and our health. It is NOT just the “smaller operators” that are making mistakes. 6% to 7% of ALL fracking wells leak. (Yes, even the “big guys.'”) Wastewater lagoons leak and spillover with heavy rains. These are facts. Sinkholes and earthquakes are becoming commonplace in areas where fracking is booming. And this will happen over and over, at every well site all across this country. We shall see how it pans out, because there will be no stopping it where it already has begun. That is, until we see another Love Canal. And for what? Another 20 years of fossil fuels? Seems like a pretty crappy trade off to me.

  7. Sandra says:

    Perhaps this person better expresses themselves. Attempt to read and judge afterwards.

  8. If the O&G Industry would spend as much time and energy planting trees, investing in renewables, researching industry efficiencies and retooling the future as they spend on propaganda and ads depicting that everything is alright, we’d be much further along by now. I’m just saying…

  9. In addition, we are already facing issues of water shortages and droughts all across the country. Our water resources are already stressed. Fracking places a huge demand on water resources and pits the oil and gas industry against farmers and ranchers in competition for this resource.(
    We are at a time where we need to be CONSERVING fresh water, not finding new ways to make fresh water toxic and unusable. And please don’t tell me fracking wastewater can be treated to make it perfectly clean again. Fracking fluid is radioactive (!) and also contains heavy metals which water treatment plants cannot remove. It is also extremely high in salts (thus the term BRINE) which will damage any existing water treatment facility.
    This whole thing reminds me of what the nuclear power industry did 40 years ago. There was no safe method of disposing of the spent fuel, but the industry said that technology would catch up and we would figure it out before it became an issue. Well. THAT certainly didn’t happen! I am certain that fracking is no different.

  10. Frank Morris says:

    Fracking is active in 20 states. With fracking for oil, US primed to get out more oil than Saudi in 4 years. But German Energy Transition shows another way. It’s all a question of business models. Cultivation or exploitation. Distributed wealth or concentrated wealth. Resiliency or devaluation. Compare Contrast.–PR_259122

  11. Elizabeth Thompson says:

    Thank you, Sandra Steingraber, for your courageous, powerful, humble leadership to protect our world for future generations, curb our hunger for a finite fuel that has been shown to harm us, and pave the way for all of us to join in the “Save the World Symphony”.

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