On being a NY fracktivist

My sign - side one
My sign – side one

I spend a fair, some might say inordinate, amount of time on the fight to keep fracking out of New York State and to limit and end its use elsewhere. I frequently write comments on articles about it, a small fraction of which I share here at Top of JC’s Mind or on Facebook.  (For those who don’t know, fracking is the shorthand name for a process that extracts liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons from rock by using a mix of water, sand, and chemicals at extremely high pressure to fracture the rock.  Tons of information about environmental and health effects are available here: http://concernedhealthny.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CHPNY-Fracking-Compendium.pdf )

I also attend events, rallies, and meetings when I can.  Fracktivists (or fractivists, a spelling I don’t use as often because people sometimes glance at it and read it as fascists, which takes their mind in a totally wrong direction) in New York have taken to showing up with signs asking for a ban on fracking whenever Governor Cuomo appears in public, usually on his way to an event that has restricted access.  This bird-dogging, as it is called, has become even more important in the run-up to the November election.

While Cuomo claimed that, as governor, he would keep an open public calendar, he has taken to keeping his schedule secret until the last possible moment. Thus, it wasn’t until late Wednesday evening that we got word that the governor would be arriving at Binghamton University at 11:00 AM Thursday.  Isaac, our intrepid community organizer – did you know that community organizers can become president some day? – quickly got the word out and about twenty of us showed up, signs in hand, to greet the governor’s motorcade and chant “Ban Fracking Now!”

As important as it is for Cuomo to see us wherever he goes, it is equally important that members of the press talk to us.  We had three television stations, public broadcasting radio, and the local newspaper taking interviews.  We were happy that Dr. Sandra Steingraber was among our number that day.  She is a biologist and public health expert who is currently at Ithaca College, a nationally and internationally known expert in toxic impacts of industrial pollution who is spending the lion’s share of her time and effort these days in the fight against fracking.  All the media outlets interviewed her.  Here is a sample of coverage that we received:  http://www.binghamtonhomepage.com/story/d/story/fractivists-protest-gov-cuomos-visit/34621/XNJzJy-Dkk-O7Wrr4WZOig.

We have been at this for several years and may be at it for several more.  It’s tough to fight an industry that spreads its huge wealth around to politicians to keep our country using polluting, climate-killing fossil fuels, but we have to keep fighting because it is so important to our present and future.

My sign - side two
My sign – side two

Fracktivist flurry

There has been an uptick in my fracktivist activity lately. This latest activity burst started with the recent New York State Court of Appeals decision upholding the home rule rights of towns in the state to ban unconventional drilling within their borders by using their zoning/land use powers.

There followed a lot of commenting on articles in the press about the decision and also about some important new scientific studies that have been published this month, along with the usual guest viewpoints and letters to the editors that need support or fact-checking.

Earlier this evening, I attended my town board’s meeting, along with a group of fellow residents who have been asking the board to consider a moratorium for years now. Given that the board no longer has the excuse of being afraid that they will be sued, we decided to bring it up again during the open comment period near the end of the meeting.

There were at least fifteen speakers for a town moratorium or ban and only three for drilling if/when the state lifts its moratorium. I even spoke, which is unusual as I prefer to communicate by writing rather than public speaking.

The frustration was that the board wouldn’t answer any questions that we asked. They are beholden to some of the large landowners and people in the trucking and construction business, so they pretend that it is all just a matter of preference, not a matter of science and public safety.

I asked one of the leaders of the anti-frackers how she thought it went, as I really wasn’t sure. She thought it went as well as it could have under the circumstances.

I guess – for tonight – that will have to do.

NY local fracking bans upheld!

Hallelujah! The decision from the highest court in New York State just came down, affirming that towns can use their home rule zoning authority to ban shale gas extraction (aka fracking) within their borders.

On the one hand, I am very happy for the jurisdictions with bans in place. It’s a huge victory for NY fracktivists and the fantastic legal teams that have been working on these court cases at the various levels for three years.

On the other hand, I am frightened for towns like mine that have conflicts of interest on the town board with members who refuse to recuse themselves. They are on record saying that our current zoning protects us, even though it doesn’t. We need a permanent statewide ban so that the rest of the townspeople don’t get subjected to all the pollution in order for a few large landowners and related business owners to make money at the expense of our health, environment, and quality of life.

Because I live on the PA border with drilling just over the town line, we are already suffering negative impacts. Air, water, traffic, climate and other impacts don’t respect human-created borders. We need not to add to them by allowing shale drilling and related infrastructure and waste disposal to occur in New York State.

The decision is attached to this brief article:  http://polhudson.lohudblogs.com/2014/06/30/nys-top-court-says-towns-can-ban-fracking/

school district election day

Today, across New York State, voters are heading to the polls for school district elections. For some reason I have never been able to ascertain, school budgets are the only ones that are voted on directly in New York. Unfortunately, sometimes this means that school budgets fail as a general statement against taxes, forcing second votes on revised budgets or austerity budgets that cut all extracurriculars and all-but-bare-bones transportation.

This year, there has been an unusual amount of advertising to pass the school budget. I think it is to convince people not to use the budget vote as an opportunity to take out their frustration with the contentious rollout of common core standards in the state. For the record, I no longer have school-aged children in my household, so I haven’t experienced common core directly in my family. I do support the concept of common core, to cover fewer topics in a school year, but in greater depth, in contrast to the current trend toward a mile wide but an inch deep approach. New York State’s curriculum has long been infected with survey-itis. For example, in the social studies curriculum, a survey of US history is taught in fifth grade, again as a two-year sequence in seventh and eighth grades, and then again as a one year Regents course in high school, locally usually taken in 11th grade. Because so much time is devoted to rushing through large amounts of material, there isn’t time to engage in in-depth analysis of any time period or theme. When I was in high school in Massachusetts several decades ago, we had options for semester-long US history courses in Civil War and Reconstruction, Minorities in America, Presidential Greatness, or several other options. Already expected to have an overview of our country’s history, we were able to develop deeper understanding of the hows and whys of history, which also helped to inform our lives as active citizens.

The upset over the implementation of common core seems to mirror two statewide changes that happened during my children’s school careers, the ending of local high school diplomas in favor of more rigorous Regents diplomas for all graduates and reform of state-wide tests in fourth and eighth grades and high school Regent exams. It also mirrors the transition to a new high school honors program on the local level. The root of the problems with all these changes was not that the final goals, but the transition itself, in which students are tested in the new framework without the benefit of the years of preparatory study that is in place when the transition is complete, resulting in lower test scores as these students catch up to the new standards. It seems that the same mechanism is happening with the transition to common core.

The other oddity of this election locally is that we have eight candidates running for four board of education seats. Given that candidates often run unopposed or with only one more candidate than seats available, this year is a hot contest. Even more unusual, there is a group of four being presented almost as a slate, advertised together in mailings, on yard signs, and in hand-delivered fliers, and endorsed by the local teachers’ union.

Voting is from 12-9 PM today at the local elementary schools. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

UPDATE:  The budget passed by a wide margin. All four of the candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union were elected; the two incumbents who were running for re-election got only 50-60% of the voting totals of the successful candidates.

A Poem for the Marcellus

I had to share this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-steingraber/marcellus-shale_b_1428030.html, which leads to an essay and poem by biologist/poet, Dr. Sandra Steingraber.  She is one of the heroes in the fight to keep unconventional fossil fuel extraction, aka fracking, out of New York State and to rein in this and all toxic industrial activity everywhere. The poem is mind-blowing for me, partly because of its depth of composition and partly because I have spent a lot of time in the fight, too, although in the role of citizen advocate/commenter, not expert/lecturer/author.

comment on PSB guest viewpoint by Phil Kraft

Below is my comment to this (Binghamton NY) Press & Sun-Bulletin guest viewpoint by Phil Kraft on the Jan. 31, 2014 presentation on the Potential of Shale Gas in New York State:  http://www.pressconnects.com/article/20140212/VIEWPOINTS02/302120101/Guest-Viewpoint-Deception-surrounding-gas-drilling-offers-important-lesson?gcheck=1

I was able to attend the presentation. What most impressed me is that this presentation was based on actual production data from the Northern Tier PA counties using HVHF in the Marcellus, which was then correlated with the geologic features of the shale. Using calculations of depth, thickness, thermal maturity, and organic content, the PA well data could be projected to NYS. There were also industry maps that show the expectation of drilling companies for NY’s potential, and none of them extended much beyond the NY/PA border for either the Marcellus or the Utica. Many gas production companies have core samples of both the Marcellus and Utica because they have had to drill through them to reach the Trenton Black River formation; the companies already know which areas are too thin, too shallow, or too thermally immature or overmature to yield enough methane to justify the enormous expense of HVHF. Industry has already concentrated their drilling in PA to areas around a couple of sweet spots, one to our south in the Northern Tier, although not extending up to the NY border, and one in SW PA. Older shale plays followed a similar pattern, with drilling dispersed throughout the play initially, but then concentrating in a small area when the sweet spots were discovered.

Unfortunately, a lot of expectations are still based on the original draft SGEIS, when it was expected that shale plays would be more uniform in their production. That is why it is so important for NYers to examine the actual production results and experiences of extraction in PA, so that we have the best available data to decide what to do in NY. Everyone is invited to view a video of the presentation:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKRWbyhskh8

Superstorm Sandy anniversary

This week, there are a lot of reports on the one year anniversary of superstorm Sandy, much of it revolving around how slow and difficult re-building has been and how much is left to do. While these reports are true and I understand the frustrations, the situation should not have been a surprise. Recovery from major disasters is usually slow. Compare today’s New Orleans to pre-Katrina. I live in a town that was affected by the flooding of the Susquehanna with tropical storm Lee in September, 2011. Some of the FEMA buyouts in my county are just going through now, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Sandy hadn’t been so devastating that it mustered additional federal disaster recovery funding for New York State.

The sad truth is that many homes and businesses that were destroyed should not be re-built in the same location, even if they are elevated. For decades, we have been building on barrier islands, river banks, shorelines, flood plains, hillsides that are at high risk for landslides, former marshes and wetlands, and all manner of unstable topography. We built various flood walls and levees and drainage systems and sea walls and planted wind breaks and tried to convince ourselves that we could control nature, but it is becoming increasingly evident how foolish we were. Barrier islands are meant to be temporary landforms, breaking and reforming when they are battered by winds and waves. The sand on the shores is meant to migrate. Floods are meant to deposit new soil on their floodplains and to change the path of the river bed. It’s why mature rivers develop bends and meanders. Marshes and other wetlands absorb some of the excess precipitation to blunt the effects of large storms and floods.

We got away with building where we shouldn’t have and interfering with the natural topography for a while, dealing with extreme weather events when they happened rarely, and might have gotten away with it for even longer, had we not been burning fossil fuels with abandon. Given the realities of climate change and the fact that, even if we finally muster the will to stop using fossil fuels quickly, the planet will continue to heat with increased severe weather events for decades to come,  we need to stop doing the things that got us into this mess in the first place.  It means not building at all in some especially vulnerable areas and building to strict codes regarding elevation and positioning of infrastructure in others.  Restoring wetlands and salt marshes. Increasing permeable areas so there is less run-off to deal with.  The list of changes we need to make is long.

Most important of all, we must stop all incentives, subsidies, tax breaks, regulatory loopholes, etc. for fossil fuels. It’s (well past) time that we transitioned to 100% renewable fuel sources. We have the technology to do so. There are scientific studies outlining plans to do so, including one specific to New York State.  http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf  Bonus:  Offshore wind turbines can help blunt some of the force of hurricane winds.

We will have to weather more horrible storms and more instances of sustained bad weather, such as the stationary front that caused nine inches of rain and then-record flooding in my area in 2006 and the recent stalled storm system that recently devastated the Boulder CO area. And we will have to re-build, but we have to do it with an eye to what will be more secure in the future. And we have to keep the vast majority of the fossil fuels in the ground. No more excuses. It’s much, much too late for that.