Author says fracking is a human rights issue

Erin Grogan

Its official name is high-volume, slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Most people skip the mouthful and call it fracking.

Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author, used personal and scientific data to describe the effects of fracking on the environment and human rights during her keynote address at the third annual Women and the Environment Symposium. The event was held Friday at Grand Valley State University.

Steingraber read excerpts from her essay “Coffee in Jail,” which describes her time in Chemung County Jail in Elmira, NY. She was held for civil disobedience after protesting fracking.

“I want to speak of (fracking) as kind of an emblem of our environmental situation, but also literally,” Steingraber said. “It’s a source, I think, of our problems at this moment right now in human history.”

Fracking is the process of obtaining natural gases trapped inside shale rock formations under the earth and removing them for use on the surface. For horizontal fracking to work, water, chemicals and sand need to be pumped into the shale.

“As a form of fossil fuel extraction it turns the earth inside out and buries the resources that are vital to life — namely our fresh drinking water,” Steingraber said. “And it brings to the surface subterranean substances like methane, but also radioactive material and heavy metals, that were once locked away and will now need to be contained. We haven’t solved that problem at all. In fact, it’s an unsolvable problem.”

Toxic chemicals released during the process can leak into the water system and soil around the areas where fracking takes place. Fracking does not only affect the environment, Steingraber said, it also affects human rights and health.

Steingraber said fracking has been linked to asthma, cancer, heart attacks and stroke. In addition, she said, there is emerging data linking it to preterm births, low birth rates and increased risks for cardiac birth defects among newborns.

“I want to suggest a framework for the environmental crisis,” Steingraber said. “And I want to suggest we think of the environmental crisis as a human rights crisis.”

She discussed whether fracking should be limited or completely banned. One option often discussed is mitigated fracking, or making fracking less harmful through monitoring and regulations.

“Mitigated fracking may indeed kill fewer people than non-mitigated fracking, but it still kills more people than no fracking,” she said. “I would argue that killing people is still wrong.”

Steingraber ended her speech with advice to women in the audience.

“You all have different skill sets,” she said. “You’re all majoring in different things and we need those skills. If you get overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem, just remember that it’s not your job alone to take care of it alone. We’re going to need all of us. We’re all musicians in this great human orchestra. It’s time to play to save the human symphony.”

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