Posted by: John Sutton | June 12, 2010

Sandra Steingraber – June 12, 2010

Good afternoon, Ithaca.

My name is Sandra Steingraber. I’m a biologist up at Ithaca College. I study carcinogens—chemicals that cause cancer. My interest in this topic began in a hospital bed in 1979 when heard a doctor tell me that I had bladder cancer. I had just turned 20. Back at the university library, I found out that bladder cancer is almost always caused by chemicals in the environment. Especially chemical contaminants in air and water.

Like solvents.

Like benzene.

Like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, otherwise known as soot. Years later, I came back to my Illinois hometown as a Ph.D. biologist. I found out that I was just one data point in a cluster of cancers there. I found chemicals linked to bladder cancer in my hometown drinking water wells and in the landfills. So I wrote about all that in my book Living Downstream.

Living Downstream came out as a movie recently. It was shown here in Cinemapolis, and it was shown at a Washington DC film festival together with—guess which other film? Gasland. So I got to see Josh Fox’s amazing documentary way before the rest of you, and it blew me away. Gasland inspired me to start researching the carcinogens used in the gas drilling of shale by hydrofracking.

Ithaca, nothing I’ve learned in the last 30 years of researching carcinogens scares me more than fracking. So when I was asked last month to participate in Congressional briefing about the environmental contributions to cancer, I spoke about fracking. I spoke about it again at a meeting with White House staff.

We all need now to be speaking about fracking. Here’s why. The bedrock under our feet is made of shale. Geologists call it the ancient basement of New York. It’s an old sea floor. It’s like a big chalkboard under the ground and trapped inside this layer are tiny bubbles of methane—natural gas. Those bubbles represent the bodies of ancient sea creatures.

To get these gas bubbles out of the bedrock, you have to shatter it with explosives. You have to pump it full of chemical-laced water under high pressure. You need compressors running 24/7. You need to fill the rural roads of upstate New York with diesel trucks. Carcinogens are involved at every single stage of hydrofracking. They fill the air in the form of diesel exhaust. They are added to our precious fresh water to turn it into fracking fluid. And most frighteningly, they are released from the earth itself when the shale is shattered.

Benzene. Heavy metals. Radioactivity. They come back up with the gas.

There is no water treatment plant known to man that can turn that poisonous, radioactive fluid that comes up out of a fracked well—a million gallons of it with every well drilled—back into fresh, drinkable water.

The earth contains some pretty toxic stuff. As long as it’s held a mile below our feet inside layers of bedrock, it won’t hurt us. But when we turn that bedrock into rubble, and when we puncture holes through our drinking water aquifers over and over in drilling thousands of gas wells, we give those toxic substances—the radon, the methane, the heavy metals—a potential means to escape and find us up here on the earth’s surface.

We scientists don’t know what happens to the fractured shale and the toxic fracking fluid left underground. We’ve never done that experiment before in here in the Finger Lakes. But I’m not just a scientist. I’m also a mother and a resident of this beloved place. And I’m not willing to be part of the fracking experiment. Are you?

We’ve seen the results of the experiment called Deep Water Horizon. We don’t need to wait for the result of Deep Shale Horizon, do we? Because if there is a catastrophic blow-out beneath our feet here, there won’t be any way of plugging the leak. There won’t be any 24 hour spill cams in the shattered bedrock. There will only be lakes and streams and wells and air full of carcinogens and no way of fixing the problem. No way of fixing it. And because my job as a parent is to keep my children safe from harm, my job as a parent is to say NO to fracking—until and unless it can be demonstrated safe.

Some people say that’s unrealistic. That fracking is inevitable. Well, that’s what they said about abolishing slavery, too. And Ithaca played a heroic role in that struggle. And that’s what they said about women winning the right to vote. And we in upstate New York played a heroic role in that struggle, too.

Ithaca, this is our moment. This is the struggle of our time. This is our chance to be heroic. To make history. I love this place. I love my children. And what we love, we must protect. Join me in letting our leaders know that fracking our land with carcinogens is no solution to our energy problems. Join me in letting our children and grandchildren know—letting all the generations who come after us know— that we in Ithaca did not play the role of Good Germans when the frackers arrived.

Let it be said that we were the French resistance, that we were the ones who stood up and said fracking for methane is the bridge to nowhere. Women’s suffrage began in Seneca Falls in 1848. Let it be said that the shift to a green energy economy began here, in Ithaca, on June 12, 2010.

Sandra Steingraber


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