Environmentalists “poured into Trenton” today, rallying to protect the Delaware River Basin, PA and beyond
As the news floods in about the flood of people who congregated, rallied and marched in Trenton today, activists are still analyzing our success in winning a huge victory in protecting the Delaware River Basin today.
“Environmentalists rally in Trenton against proposed fracking regulations,” one of the 238 media stories emerging so far, just hours after the rally ended, shows we are having no trouble getting our message across these days. Its series of succinct quotes begins with Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper:
“To them, gas drilling was just another political football,” said van Rossum. “This isn’t a political issue — it’s a public health issue and a public safety issue.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the message to [New Jersey] legislators was, “Override the veto and put pressure on the governor to vote no at the DRBC.”
Josh Fox, a documentary filmmaker who directed “Gasland,” said the [DRBC] vote today would have been illegal since a federal law requires authorities to complete a study of the area before allowing fracking.
New Jersey Newsroom has already posted a video of actress Debra Winger and actor and director Mark Ruffalo, who spoke at the rally today, beginning with congratulating both governors — Cuomo of New York and Markell of Delaware — for doing the right thing:
Actor and director Mark Ruffalo, founder of WaterDefense.org, said, “I applaud Governor Markell for admitting that there is no science to justify opening up one of North America’s important river basins to industrialization and greed. Now the rest of the commission will hear from us, the people who speak for this beautiful river not for short term profits.”
But it could be that the four elements which were key strengths of today’s rally — a marker event and turning point along the way, will not be identified in so many words among the hundreds of news accounts of today’s events. So, allow me to lay it out.
Those four elements are: broadening the circle, deepening understanding, intensifying commitment, and introducing direct action with the potential for civil disobedience into the mix of tactics and strategies.
Even the Wall Street Journal today mentioned that last item specifically:
Some opponents on Monday suggested they were prepared to engage in civil disobedience to disrupt the meeting.
But WSJ did not cover the three gatherings which took place in New York City and Trenton, Sunday evening and today, to specifically train hundreds of activists in nonviolence theory and action including de-escalation, peacekeeping skills, and scenario development. Hundreds packed crowded rooms for hours, hungry for the skills training, the discipline, and the creativity of this learning process.
Broadening: Even as the movement is adding spirited tactics, it is also broadening. Last Monday, representatives of key constituencies including labor, faith-based leaders, students, public health advocates, businesses, community groups, national organizations and environmental groups delivered 73,910 letters and petitions to all four Governors and the federal Commissioner of the Delaware River Basin Commission. Anglers, hunters, hikers and property rights advocates rounded out the group, showing that achieving greater breadth and legitimacy is itself a crucial component of a winning campaign. Every single one of those messages delivered one week ago today had its impact and represented real grassroots organizing in widening circles.
Deepening: The message as articulated by all of us working for a moratorium or ban on fracking is becoming better articulated as people become better grounded in science and in public health concerns. In particular, scientists such as Sandra Steingraber, with combined skill sets as researchers, public health advocates and lyrical speakers, help people already committed to clean water and clean air “in general” to understand the pattern of denial which must be broken through when it comes to environmentally caused illnesses. Simultaneously as faith-based leaders join in and as people with deep personal losses speak out, the already widening circle becomes better able to grasp, and hold, the enormity of the challenge we face.
At today’s rally, for example, Sandra Steingraber described the moment, decades ago, when she was recovering from anesthesia from a surgery for her cancer, which she had not previously considered might be environmentally caused. At that moment, still shaking off the anesthesia, she saw a newspaper headline about a young mother named Lois Gibbs who was involved in fighting against environmentally caused illnesses in a place called Love Canal. Steingraber became a researcher and biologist, one who understands the limits of “proof.” She described the confirmed presence of industrial chemicals in the drinking water of her hometown: “To this day, no one can say exactly how they got there…. The geology of the region should have meant those chemicals would not find a pathway into our drinking water. But there they are.”
While the industry rails about the “lack of proof” that fracking harms health, the mountain of evidence mounts steadily showing that it certainly does. This week’s Sunday New York Times centerpiece, “The Fracturing of Pennsylvania,” reveals the horrific impact of gas drilling on the lives of Stacey Haney, Beth Voyles, their families and their animals, many of whom have died. The combined impact of reading or otherwise learning about these real-life impacts inevitably deepens both the understanding and the commitment of activists. I myself spoke with one organic farmer from Western Pennsylvania last Friday who shared that she has considered suicide since finding that gas drillers dumped flowback, sky-high in fracking chemicals as measured by an independent lab, on a nearby road. A gas well is going in soon very close to her property, though she has refused to lease. Her life’s work is very near to being destroyed.
Intensifying: Another moment that left few eyes dry was the speech of Stephen Cleghorn, an organic farmer from Jefferson County in southwestern Pennsylvania. His wife Lucinda died from lung cancer just one week ago. Cancer also killed his first wife, Claire Marie. His raw grief and his determination to protect his land combined into an emotional vortex which drew everyone in. He said,
Two years ago Lucinda and I learned our land was leased to an unnamed Marcellus Shale corporation… In our research we discovered case after case of water contamination from this form of extreme energy contamination, with serious health impacts… I have one question for this industry. Is there irrefutable proof that you can drill without harm?
Cleghorn said that if necessary, if the drillers come to his land, he will form a “one man ban.” But from the looks of this particular crowd of at least 800 motivated activists, deeply moved by his remarks, there is not a chance he would face that day alone.
The final layer of intensifying comes in the form of love. The love for the river itself was unmistakable in the words of Lenape Chief Chuck Gentlemoon Demund. He spoke of his people who return for an annual ceremony in which they stand in the Delaware River, letting it flow past their bodies. From the dispersed lands of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Oklahoma, New York and Canada, he said:
No matter where we are… we come home to our river, to the beauty, the pristineness, the wonder of our river.
Using a vivid metaphor, he added:
I’ve heard gas drillers say this is an alternative fuel. If you take a knife and you rip into my right arm, and I bleed — then you go get another blade and cut my left arm — that’s not an alternative: I’m still bleeding. Stop cutting in to our Mother. Stop cutting into the Earth.
Rabbi Melissa Klein, Lynn Alexander, and Sharon Kind joined in to offer a powerful interfaith blessing after he spoke. “Educate your congregations about this issue… We need moral leadership,” they said. But a certain moral leadership was already present today, and everybody felt it.