Letters from Jail

Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 1

Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 2

Earth Day Letter from Chemung County Jail to Environmental Leaders, from Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 3, A Message to Fellow Cancer Survivors

Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 4, A Message to Fellow Mothers

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Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 4, A Message to Fellow Mothers

April 24, 2013

My book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, was released in paperback this week. But, being in jail, I was unable to grant interviews or otherwise to participate in its promotion. That’s not a situation that book publicists appreciate, although mine is being very good about it. But, being in here, I feel that I am walking my words.

The fundamental message of Raising Elijah is that the environmental crisis is a crisis of family life, as it robs parents of our ability to carry out our two most basic duties: to protect our children from harm and to provide for their future. When inherently toxic chemicals – including developmental toxicants linked to asthma, birth defects and learning disabilities – are legally allowed to freely circulate in our children’s environment, we can’t protect them. When heat trapping greenhouse gases create extreme weather events that slash the world’s grain harvests (this is happening) and acidify the oceans in ways that threaten the entire marine food chain, starting with plankton (and this is happening too), then we can’t plan for our kids’ futures – no matter how much we sock away in their college funds or Tiger Mom them into athletic or musical mastery.

This crisis requires our urgent attention. And by attention, I mean sustained political action, not intermittent, private worrying. Hence, unless the kids can get there and back, under their own steam, then piano lessons, karate, Little League, play practice, SAT prep, and Scout meetings are cancelled until further notice. Ditto for yoga, date night, and book club (with apologies to my long-suffering publicist).

Look, one in every four mammal species is headed for extinction. The world’s available drinking water is becoming less and less available. Insect pollinators, which provide us one-sixth to one-third of the food we eat, are in trouble. The price index for 33 different basic commodities is rising, and financial analysts are predicting shortages of the kind that lead to social unrest. Meanwhile, the world’s leading and most powerful industry is preparing to blow up the nation’s bedrock and frack out the last wisps and drops of gas and oil – releasing inherently toxic chemicals into our communities to do so.

In short, we don’t have time for out-of-town sporting events. Consider this commentary in the preeminent science journal, Nature:

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem that they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. . .  Recognition of the facts is delayed by the frankly brilliant propaganda and obfuscation delivered by energy interests that virtually own the US Congress . . . This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave(Nature, 491, Nov. 15, 2012)

The author, Jeremy Grantham, was speaking to the world’s scientists, but his message is equally applicable to mothers and fathers. Consider that the World Health Organization has identified climate change as the number one threat to public health for people born today. Otherwise known as our kids.

Now, do you have time to participate in a civil rights–style uprising? Protecting our kids, making sure they have a future: it seems to be a basis part of our job description.

I am here in the Chemung County Jail on a charge of trespassing as a result of blockading a compressor station site belonging to the nation’s largest gas transportation and storage company. Inergy’s plan is to compress, liquify, and store fracked gases from out of state in depleted salt caverns under Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of New York State’s eleven Finger Lakes. This practice has led to catastrophic results in other states – including explosions and collapses. Even now, Inergy itself is chronically out of compliance with the maximum legal limits for its chemical discharges into this lake, which is the source of drinking water for 100,000 people.

This compressor station, which is less than 20 miles upwind from my house, is just one piece of fracking infrastructure among millions. I chose to take a stand here both because Inergy’s plans represent a direct risk to my children’s air quality and safety, and because my son was born nearby. The west shore of Seneca Lake is his birthplace, and the sound of green frogs twanging in the night was the theme song for my labor and delivery.

So, yes, my course of political action has taken me away from my own children in an attempt to redress this problem on their behalf, and during the first five days, when I was kept in 24-hour lock-up, I had no access to them. But I am convinced the tears of my children now will be less than their tears later – along with the tears of my grandchildren – if we mothers do nothing and allow the oil, coal, and gas companies to hurdle us all off the climate cliff.

I’m also aware that human rights movements throughout history – from abolition to suffrage to civil rights – included many people who were parents of young children. They were surely just as busy as you and me. They, like I, probably also kept a list labeled, “Things to do before going to jail.” Their list, like mine, probably included: making meal plans, paying bills, cleaning the bathroom, and finding a costume for the school play.

To fight against Hitler, anti-fascist partisans sent their children away to safe places in case they were betrayed. They were busy parents, too. They loved their children just as much as we do. The difference is: now there is no safe place for our children. We can’t hide them from the ravages of climate change.

And here are two observations from the inside: the jails are already full of mothers. Every single woman on my cell block has kids. One of them is trying, from behind bars, to find her son a kidney because he desperately needs one. That’s hard to do from a pay phone, but she’s doing it. And yet, what do you suppose Marlene (not her real name) spoke about with me as we walked around and around the walled-off, barbed-wire rec area at 6:35AM this morning? The same thing that mothers throughout New York State are talking about this morning – how our kids are handling the state testing. Last week was ELA. This week is math.

The mothers in jail are fierce and proud. When the male guards insult them, they insult back. Their voices echo down the corridor, penetrate the iron doors, walls, carry messages through the heating vents and, when they can, out the windows. When Stingray cussed out a guard for demanding she remove a towel from her face while sleeping, she received six days in “the box.” So she told me while we were all lined up against the wall to head out for rec. An hour later, when the guard ordered us to line up and come in, she did not walk meekly to the door. Instead she ran the other direction and then, in a stunning gymnastic display, turned a whirling series of cartwheels, round-offs and flips, landing – Olympic-champion style – at the guard’s feet. Stingray has two kids and is six months pregnant with the third.

Imagine 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 super heroes.

As Stingray shouted down the vent to another inmate yesterday, “You know I’m loud. My words are my magic.”

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Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 3, A Message to Fellow Cancer Survivors

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

As everyone knows, being booked into jail involves rites of passage: mug shots and fingerprints. What you may not know is that being fingerprinted no longer involves ink and paper. Like everything else, including the mug shot, this ritual has been digitized. The booking officer first rubs your fingers with a sequence of baby wipes and then splays them onto the glass plate of a scanner. Voilà! There they are, many times larger than life: facsimiles of your fingertips floating in the computer monitor. A series of happy electronic chirps means the pictures are keepers; a single beep means re-do (and out come the baby wipes again).

Meanwhile, you stare transfixed at your own disembodied black-and-white fingers, hailing you from behind the screen – their contours, whorls, and ridges, all familiar and alien at the same moment. And then it hits you: how exactly like looking at one’s own breasts on a mammogram! Only this time: you already know the length of your sentence; it’s far shorter than having cancer, and it doesn’t involve the possibility of death.

Here’s another difference – when the booking officer has to retake the image, he actually says F*CK, whereas the radiology technician – whose level of loving kindness roughly approximates Chemung County’s deputies – says things like, “The doctor wants another shot. Lean forward. Take a breath and hold it.” Which is less reassuring than F*CK.

I’m incarcerated in the Chemung County Jail for trespassing at a compressor station site on the banks of Seneca Lake, where the nation’s largest energy storage and transportation corporation seeks to store the vaporous products of fracking – methane, butane, propane – in abandoned salt mines under the lake. If Inergy, LLC has its way, my tranquil Finger Lakes home will be turned into the fracked gas storage and transportation hub of the entire Northeast. For my act of civil disobedience, which involved blockading this site with eleven other residents, I received a 15-day sentence.

As someone who grew up amid heavy industry – downwind from the Illinois River Valley’s biggest polluters – who was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 20, who documented, in my 30s, the presence of solvents and other carcinogens in my hometown drinking-water wells, who became a mother in my 40s, I highly value clean air and water and am motivated to protect them. I think a lot of cancer survivors feel that way. What I didn’t expect – as a first-time civil disobedient – was how well prepared I was for jail by my prior experience as a cancer patient. As far as I can see, if you’ve ever spent time in a hospital, tethered to a catheter tube, you have all the skills you need to cope with incarceration.

Hospital:  Bad food; lights on all night; strip searches; people you’ve never met control your life; confined to a small space; little access to daylight; delayed response to call-button request; annoying television in the background; ice chips.

 Jail: Ditto, minus the call button.

Basically, if you can be a cancer patient, you can be an inmate. Have you ever walked down a hospital corridor pushing an IV stand with one hand while trying to hold shut your backless, blue gown with the other? If so, you will have no trouble with ankle chains and an orange jumpsuit. Have you ever laid alone on an examination table with your feet in the stirrups, prepped and draped, waiting endlessly for the doctor to finish up with the previous patient and walk through the damned door? If so, then you will know how to occupy your mind while handcuffed to a wall while the officer finishes booking the inmate in the next room.

I say all this because there is a great need, at this historical moment, for citizens in general and cancer patients in specific to vigorously insert themselves into the political process. I’m not calling you to unlawful behavior. Civil disobedience is a highly personal decision and, for me, came as an individual act of conscience – but I do contend that there is more to fear from our inaction than from the consequences of our actions.

After two decades of researching, writing, speaking, and submitting expert testimony as a biologist on the role of chemical carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and developmental toxicants in an attempt to bring about toxic chemical reform, I have to admit that very little has changed. Now I am watching the fracking boom – which uses and releases chemical carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and developmental toxicants and enjoys exemptions from most of our federal environmental laws – undo what little progress we have made and hurtle us further down the road toward the catastrophe of climate change.

Here is what I am now convinced of: the oil, gas, and coal industries – and all the hydrocarbon carcinogens they produce and release – will not be dismantled by good data alone.

And here, from cell block D, are my recent observations: having been arrested three days prior to a cancer checkup, the latter, while deeply familiar, was far more frightening than the former. The images from my 2013 fingerprinting were far less terrifying than those from my 1995 colonoscopy. And lying motionless for 45 minutes in an MRI tube is a bigger ordeal than five days in 24-hour lockup. In a jail cell, you can reacquaint yourself with the bible, you can do pushups, you can think.

Please also see the fully referenced December 12, 2011 Letter on Cancer Risks of Every Stage of the Fracking Process, signed by national and statewide cancer organizations.

Credit: © Benjamin Gervais / The PPC

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Earth Day Letter from Chemung County Jail to Environmental Leaders, from Sandra Steingraber

April 22, 2013

TO: FRED KRUPP, Environmental Defense Fund

FRANCES BEINECKE, Natural Resource Defense Council

MICHAEL BRUNE, Sierra Club

PHILIP JOHNSON, Heinz Endowments, and

Other fellow leaders in the environmental community:

While confined in the Chemung County Jail, here in the southern tier of upstate New York, I have had to think deeply and long about the environmental community’s response to the boom in natural gas extraction from shale via hydraulic fracking, which is now sweeping the nation, from west to east. I write to share with you my insights regarding the split within our community over whether to embrace a regulatory approach to fracking, or to press for bans and moratoria.

I’ll begin by explaining why I am in jail. Last month, on the west shore of Seneca Lake, I stood with other local residents on a driveway owned by Inergy, LLC.

In so doing, we blockaded a gas compressor station site and prevented a company truck, carrying a drill head in its truck bed, from going where that truck wanted to go. When we refused to disband, we were arrested and charged with trespassing. When three of us further refused, at our arraignment on April 17th, to pay the resulting fine, we were each sentenced to 15 days in jail. I am writing to you on day 6 of my incarceration.

As the nation’s largest energy storage and transportation company, Inergy provides the infrastructure for fracking – including within states like New York, where high-volume, horizontal fracking is not allowed. Missouri-based Inergy has purchased more than 500 acres of lakeshore property along the banks of our state’s largest and deepest lake. Seneca Lake is so large and deep that it creates its own temperature stabilizing microclimate, which provides the necessary ecological conditions for our state’s world-class Riesling grapes. Wineries flourish on the hillsides about both banks of the Finger Lake. Inergy is interested in neither the wine grapes nor our unique climate. It does not care about Seneca Lake’s designation as the Lake Trout Capital of the world, nor the tranquil views that draw tourists and fill summer cottages. Nor, more basically, with the fact that Seneca Lake is the drinking water source for 100,000 people.

Inergy’s interest is, instead, focused on the landscape below the surface – namely the abandoned caverns left over from a century of solution salt mining that lie 1,500 feet beneath and beside the lake shore. Inergy’s plan is to repurpose these salt caverns to serve as storage for billions of barrels of fracked gases, which will be brought to Seneca Lake by rail and by truck from other states. However, these fuels will not be stored in barrels. The caverns themselves will serve as the receptacle for the pressurized, liquefied, explosive gases.

The Seneca Lake 12 – as we arrestees call ourselves – fear that Inergy’s planned storage facilities pose serious risks, including calamitous ones. As journalist Peter Mantius reports in DC Bureau,salt caverns represented only 7 per cent of the nation’s 407 underground storage sites for gas in 2002, but, between 1972 and 2004, they were responsible for all ten catastrophic accidents involving gas storage. In Belle Rose, Louisiana, the 14-acre sinkhole that is now making headlines was caused by the collapse of a gas-filled salt cavern. As a result, surface and groundwater have been contaminated,and an entire community faces relocation.

In addition to the risk for outright catastrophe, we Seneca Lake 12 object to the heavy industrialization of the pristine Finger Lakes region that we call home. Along with the 24-hour light pollution from the industrial lighting of the drill rigs and the 24-hour noise from the compressors, this facility will fill our scenic highways with fleets of diesel trucks and send train cars of hazardous, flammable cargo over our rickety rail trestles. A 60-foot flarestack will send carcinogens and ozone precursors into our air. (My home is 15 miles downwind; my eleven year old has a history of asthma.) Our deepest concerns are for the water. Inergy’s hillside pits have already leaked, salt geysers have already spewed, lake side vegetation has already died and, in spite of the fact that Inergy’s discharges of effluent chemicals into the lake have been out of compliance for the past twelve consecutive quarters, Inergy applied for and received from the State of New York a permit to discharge 44,000 additional pounds of chloride into the lake. Every single day.

In a larger way, our act of civil disobedience – for which I now wear an orange jumpsuit and reside in a six by seven foot cell – is directed at the practice of shale gas extraction itself. This is why, with our arms linked, we unfurled a banner with the words, “Our Future is Unfractured.” Clearly, a massive build-out of fracking’s infrastructure – the storage facilities; the pipelines, the compressors and condensers; the access roads; the underground injection wells for the disposal of fracking waste; the ethylene “crackers” that turn the byproducts of wet gas into ingredients for the petrochemical industry – is a necessary precondition for fracking to occur. As it boasts in its communiqués to investors and clients, Inergy intends to serve the Marcellus shale gas boom by turning the Finger Lakes region into the Northeast’s storage and transportation hub for the vaporous gases so obtained. Thus, taking a stand against infrastructure projects that aid and abet fracking not only draws attention to the public health and environmental harms created by the projects themselves but also signals objection to fracking and, even more fundamentally,to the further entrenchment of fossil fuel dependency in a time of climate emergency.

To this end, there are many fracking infrastructure projects near my home in upstate New York where I might have chosen to plant my flag as a first-time civil disobedient. In Horseheads, there is a storage depot for fracking chemicals headed for the gas fields of Pennsylvania. In Painted Post, a processing facility for fracking sand. Near the jail where I am housed here in Elmira, a landfill accepts radioactive drill cuttings from out-of-state operations. So, why protest at a compressor station site? The answer, for me, is highly personal. My son Elijah was born in a birth center on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake, just down the road from the new compressor station.The west shore of Seneca – where I walked when in labor – is a charmed place for me. And the burial of explosive hydrocarbon gases beneath it is, for me, a desecration.

But particulars aside, it’s the generic, cumulative, systemic and ubiquitous impacts of drilling and fracking operations and their associated infrastructure projects across the nation that is the first topic I want to raise with you in this letter.

Fracking, and the multitude of corollary activities that enable it, is turning this nation inside out. Consider that, by weight, the new number one commodity sent beyond its borders by the State of Wisconsin – which does not even engage in fracking – is silica sand. (Prized for its ability to withstand the lithostatic pressure of the earth without crumbling, grains of silica sand are shot into the shards of shale during fracking operations in order to prop the cracks open, so that the oil or gas can flow out of them.) In other words, Wisconsin is now exporting itself. The sand counties of Aldo Leopold are being loaded onto barges, trucks, and railcars headed for the fracking fields of America. Hills, bluffs, coulees: they are all going. Big parts of formerly rolling Wisconsin are now, thanks to frack sand mining, as flat as Illinois. In the process, surface water is silted, groundwater is threatened, and air fills with silica dust – a known lung carcinogen and a known cause of the disabling disease silicosis. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, drilling and fracking operations fragment millions of acres of intact, interior forests – along with the ecosystem services they provide. Nationally, thanks to fracking, energy extraction has become the number one land use; the U.S. has more acreage leased for oil and gas than planted in wheat or soy.

Against this backdrop of epic transformation of the landscape and mass industrialization of rural America, the policy discussions about fracking emerging from your respective organizations are remarkably narrow and conciliatory. Partnering with industry, Environmental Defense Fund focuses on calculating methane emissions rates from well pads and, together with the Heinz Endowments, promulgating voluntary standards for fracking based on “best practices.” The dubious notion of “sustainable shale” aside (by what definition of “sustain” can any non-renewable fossil fuel be described, let alone the methane bubbles trapped inside the Marcellus Shale, whose recoverable reserves have been re-estimated sharply downward by geologists and are now believed to provide only six years worth of U.S. gas usage), the Center for Sustainable Shale fails to consider the devastating collateral damage created by all the corollary activities that necessarily accompany shale gas extraction: strip-mining for sand, clear cutting of forests, and destruction of productive farmland are just three. While you consider industry best practices such as green completion, recycling of fracking fluid, and strict engineering standards for well casings, you entirely ignore the massive amounts of steel and cement – miles and miles of it for every well – that must be manufactured, transported, and entombed in the Earth for the one-time,short-term, un-recyclable use of shale gas extraction (in the case of the Marcellus Shale, a one-time use for six years of gas).

Should Governor Cuomo decide to pursue full development of shale gas via high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, the amount of steel alone that would be buried in New York State will exceed, by 2.5 times, the entire tonnage of the U.S. Navy Fleet(as calculated by Cornell engineer Tony Ingraffea). To my knowledge, no one has estimated the amount of steel and concrete consumed by the fracking industry on a national basis for use as well casings and casing strings. Consider, however,that the production of both materials is fossil-fuel intensive and that, on a worldwide scale, cement manufacturing along is responsible for six percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Those same resources – and the jobs they provide– could be directed toward the construction of renewable energy infrastructures and the smart grid they require.

The advocacy of “sustainable shale” is provincial not only because it fails to consider radical alterations to land use wrought by fracking and the costly sacrifice of carbon-intensive resources, but also because it utterly ignores the ongoing fracking-driven transformation of our materials economy. Fully 30% of natural gas is used not as a source of domestic energy but in manufacturing, a big chunk of which is diverted for use in petrochemical manufacturing. Fully 5% of the world’s natural gas supply is consumed to make the petrochemical fertilizer anhydrous ammonia. Natural gas is also the starting point for the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC plastic). The “wet gases,” such as ethane, that are blasted out of the ground with methane are used in the manufacture of other petrochemical plastics. And these are just a few examples. As you know, the U.S. chemical industry is experienced a parallel boom in activity as a direct result of cheap, abundant shale gas.

Accelerated petrochemical manufacture brought on by fracking has profound environmental and public health consequences. Cheap, abundant agricultural chemicals undermine the local, organic food movement and keep our nation’s farm system running onthe pesticide treadmill. Anhydrous ammonia fertilizer is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction of aquatic ecosystems throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and contamination of groundwater aquifers throughout rural America. Last Thursday’s deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in Texas – which destroyed lives and homes across a vast swath of land – reveals the inherent dangers of relying on volatile petrochemicals as a source of agricultural nitrogen. Once again: natural gas is the starting point for anhydrous ammonia manufacture (say what you will about downsides of sustainable agriculture, but green manure, compost tea, and crop rotation never blew up a nursing home). In sum, the fracking boom – whether regulated or unregulated, guided by best practices or worst – further deepens the dependency of our nation’s food system on non-renewable fossil fuels at precisely the moment when we desperately need to be calling for its emancipation. In this, natural gas is not a bridge but a perilous detour.

Likewise in chemical manufacturing, fracking, by making petrochemicals cheaper and more abundant, undoes gains in toxic chemical reform, green chemistry, and green engineering.The plastics that will be created by a proposed new cracker facility in Pittsburgh from the wet gases of fracking solve a waste disposal problem of the energy industry – and make fracking more profitable – but, at the same time, add to the burden of unbiodegradable materials that we are, as individual citizens, encouraged to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Inevitably, much of this fracked plastic will end up in the oceans, adding to garbage patches and contaminating aquatic food chains. Meanwhile the cracking facility itself will add ground-level ozone (smog) to a Pennsylvania community already in non-attainment for ozone, and thus add to the community’s burden of asthma, heart attack, stroke, and preterm birth. How is this sustainable?

In my home state of Illinois – where no fracking is currently occurring – the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council has joined hands with industry to draft model regulations for fracking (which are not as strict as those that we rejected in New York). The Sierra Club’s subsequent endorsement of the fracking regulatory bill now under consideration by the State legislature has allowed pro-fracking forces in both government and industry to claim that Sierra Club has endorsed regulated fracking. In separate conversations this year with both Frances Beineke of NRDC and Michael Brune of Sierra Club, I was told that a nation-wide ban on fracking – or even moratoria in all states – would be “unrealistic” for political reasons. What seems to me less realistic – politically – is to imagine that the oil and gas industry, which has already exempted itself from federal laws and surrounds itself with secrecy, would willfully follow any regulations or voluntary standards of any kind. Ironically, the very states that are most vulnerable to fracking for reasons of economic desperation are those least able, because of massive budget cuts, to enforce regulations and provide oversight for an industry whose wells and infrastructure will be distributed across the landscape.

Meanwhile, land in Missouri and up and down the Illinois River is being readied for sand stripmining in anticipation of fracking’s debut in Illinois, and the Shaunee National Forest, a haven of biodiversity, in southern Illinois, is being opened for drilling activity. The results will neither be sustainable nor regulatable.

With fracking, the mainstream environmental community has lost its way, aligning itself with those who believe that now is not the time to embrace renewable energy and declare the fossil fuel party over.

The voices that cry “wait” and capitulate to powerful industry forces through their willingness to trade one fossil fuel for another are taking us down a perilous path. It is time to say now – grassroots groups and big green groups together – that the unholy trinity of coal, oil and gas is part of a ruinous past and; that further investments in new techniques to blast these deadly fossils from the bedrock are a waste of time, money, water, air, trees, health and farmland; and that well-intentioned attempts to regulate and police the resulting mess is a waste of human ingenuity that could be better spent re-imagining and retooling our economy and our culture for the post-carbon age.  We don’t need to design filters for cigarettes – they provide only false assurances of safety and only delay the initiation of entirely new habits and attitudes. Because I have now run out of paper –

With respect and toward the unfracked future,

Sandra Steingraber

Photo @Gas Free Seneca

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Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 2

April 19, 2013

“Why I am in Jail on Earth Day”

This morning – I have no idea what time this morning, as there are no clocks in jail, and the florescent lights are on all night long – I heard the familiar chirping of English sparrows and the liquid notes of a cardinal. And there seemed to be another bird too – one who sang a burbling tune. Not a robin–wren? The buzzing, banging, clanking of jail and the growled announcements of guards on their two-way radios – which also go on all night – drowned it out. But the world, I knew, was out there somewhere.

The best way to deal with jail is to exude patience, and wrap it around a core of resolve and surrender. According to New York state law, all inmates upon arrival are isolated from the general population until they are tested for tuberculosis and that test comes back negative. Typically, that takes three days. Isolation means you are locked inside your cell with no access to the phone (the phone for cell block D happens to be located, tantalizingly, four feet from my bars – just out of reach); no access to books (the two books I have in my cell, lent to me by an empathetic inmate, are the Bible and Nora Roberts’ Carolina Moon, which is a 470-page paperback whose opening sentence is, “She woke in the body of a dead friend.”); and, of course, no access to wi fi, cell phones, e-mail or the internet.

I am writing with a borrowed pencil on the back of the “Chemung County Inmate Request Form,” which is a half sheet of paper. I am writing small and revising in my head. (Forgive the paragraphing – I’m trying to save space.)

Yesterday, I was told that no medical personnel were available to administer my TB test. When I was called down to the nurse this morning, she asked why I didn’t have my TB test yesterday. Of course, she was available yesterday. The resulting delay means that I will join the prison population and be released from 24 hour lock-down on Monday, rather than Sunday.

Frustration will be counter-productive and place me closer to despair. Let–it–go surrender, ironically, keeps me in touch with my resolve.

So, Monday, which is Earth Day, I will emerge from my cell and join the ecosystem of the Chemung County Jail, where the women’s voices are loud and defiant. Stingray (not her actual nickname), broke a tooth yesterday. When she showed it to officer Murphy’s Law (that’s his actual nickname) and said, “the other half is in my cell,” Murphy’s Law replied, “So, you think the tooth fairy’s going to come?” And then he left.

But she stood at the iron door and called for pain meds, over and over in a voice that I use for rally speeches. Full oration. Projecting to the rafters. Stingray is six months pregnant.

She got her pain meds.

Stingray is my inspiration. How can I use my time here – separated from the whole human race by the layers of steel and concrete – to speak loudly and defiantly about the business plans of a company called Inergy that seeks to turn my Finger Lakes home into a transportation and storage hub for fossil fuel gases? It is wrong to compress and bury explosive gases in salt caverns beside and beneath a lake – Seneca – that serves as a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. It is wrong to construct a flare stack on the banks of this lake, which will contribute hazardous air pollutants, including death-dealing ozone, into the air. It is wrong for DEC and EPA and FERC to turn a blind eye to a company that has, for the last 12 quarters, exceeded its permitted discharge of chemicals into this lake. It is wrong for a company to claim that basic geological knowledge about the bedrock itself, is a proprietary trade secret and hide it from the public and from the scientific community. It is wrong to deepen our dependency on fossil fuels in a time of climate emergency.

I could express these ideas more eloquently if there were coffee in jail. There is not.

I was led to cell #1 in block D of the Chemung County jail by three things. One is the decision of Inergy to industrialize the Finger Lakes region where I live and, in so doing, aid and abet the fracking industry by erecting a massive storage depot near the birthplace of my son. I consider this an act of desecration. That’s what biologists call the proximate cause of my decision to commit an act of trespass by blockading the Inergy’s compressor station driveway.

The ultimate cause is a commentary published last fall in the journal that all biologists read – Nature – by Jeremy Grantham, who is not a scientist, but an economist. (www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/491303a) He noted that all the projections for climate change – even the worst case scenarios – were being overtaken by real-life data. In other words, our climate situation is worse than we thought – even when we assumed the worst. Mr. Grantham then exhorted scientists who have this knowledge to be bold – noting that no one is paying attention to this data: “Be persuasive, be bold, be arrested (if necessary).”

So, here I am, ringing the alarm bell from my isolation cell on Earth Day. May my voice be as un-ignorable as Stingray’s.

The third reason is this one: seven years ago, when my son was four years old, he asked to be a polar bear for Halloween, and so I went to work sewing him a costume from a chenille bedspread. It was with the knowledge that the costume would almost certainly outlast the species. Out on the street that night – holding a plastic pumpkin will with KitKat bars – I saw many species heading towards extinction; children dressed as frogs, bees, monarch butterflies, and the icon of Halloween itself – the little brown bat.

The kinship that children feel for animals and their ongoing disappearance from us literally brought me to my knees that night, on a sidewalk in my own village. It was love that got me back up. It was love that brought me to this jail cell.

My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.

The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?

Photo: Margie Rodgers. Reading Town Court, Schuyler County, NY. April 17, 2013

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Sandra Steingraber: Letter from Chemung County Jail, Part 1

April 18, 2013

When Henry David Thoreau spend a night in jail for civil disobedience – defining the term in the process – he was served chocolate and brown bread for breakfast. The tray that was slid under my bars at 5:00am this morning contained nothing as tasty. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to say what the ingredients were. Packets of instant hot cocoa (artificial) are available from the commissary for a price – along with ramen noodles, decaf coffee, Jolly Rogers, shampoo, pencils, envelopes and paper.

There is no window in my cell. The lights are on all night. The television is on all day. Through the bars that make up the fourth wall of my new living quarters, I have a view of the catwalk, which is patrolled by guards, and then another wall of bars, and beyond those bars is a window made up of small panes of opaque glass. At about seven o’clock, one of the inmates asked for fresh air, and the guard, whom everyone calls Murphy’s Law, cranked open the grid of panes, just a little.

Now, I can stand at my own bars, and move my head in different directions – jumping up and down works the best – and see through the scrims of multiple layers of bars – a glimpse of the outside world. There are row houses with windows and no bars – which in fact suddenly seems miraculous – and I thought I saw a bird fly by. No trees through; only slinky–like concertina wire. Somewhere, beyond the shouting of the television, there are church bells.

Thoreau said, about his own experience with incarceration, that the confinement of his physical self was inconsequential; that freedom was a state of mind. Or something like that. I have neither the book, nor Google, to help me fact-check. But I am very aware of my physical self, and sense that my biological life in jail is part of my message. Even though I am entirely cut off from everything, I know and love – my children and my husband, the April return of birdsong and wildflowers and pollination and photosynthesis. I believe this is the place to speak about fossil fuel extraction in general and fracking infrastructure in specific.

I now inhabit an ugly, miserable, loud and ungraceful world. There are no flowers; no local, delicious food; no tranquil landscapes; and not even coffee or tea.

If we do not want New York to become a prison of wellheads, pipelines and compressor stations; if we do not want the violence of climate change instability and mass species extinction; if we do not want to leave our children a diminished world bereft of frog song, bees, coral reefs, sea ice; then coming to a place as far removed from the rhythms of the natural world as a jail cell is not an inappropriate place to say so.

Henry David Thoreau portrait by Robert Shetterly, @Americans Who Tell the Truth

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