Backyard Talk

Information is Power: True or False?

I often ask this question when speaking publicly about what I do at CHEJ. I’m trained as a scientist and I provide technical assistance to grassroots community groups.  People send me testing data to review,  whether it’s the chemicals found in their drinking water, the air behind their child’s school, or the soil in the park where their children play. They ask me to do this primarily because they want to know what the test results mean. But they also believe that if they gather enough information – the right information, especially- and get it into the hands of the decision makers, that everything will fall into place.

So what do you think? True or false? Is information power?  Can you solve your environmental problem by gathering information and then getting it into the hands of the decision makers?  No, you cannot.  The answer is false, information is not power.  It’s not the information by itself but rather what you do with it that can make all the difference in the world. Just gathering data and sharing it no matter how important or impactful will not likely change a bureaucrat’s or a politician’s mind.  But if you use the information to educate your community and then go the bureaucrats and politicians with a set of demands that meet the needs of your community, you have a much greater chance to be successful.

At CHEJ, we work directly with community leaders to help them become knowledgeable and proficient in understanding the technical, health, statistical and scientific aspects of chemical exposures. We also work with community leaders to help them understand how to use technical information to achieve their goals and win what their community needs to resolve its environmental problem(s). What we do includes reviewing testing data; cleanup plans; technologies for treating/disposing of hazardous waste and household garbage; reviewing plans to build new facilities; defining a community-based testing plan that includes where to test, what to test (soil, air, water), what to look for; evaluating a health study completed by a government agency or other entity; and so much more.  CHEJ also has more than 60 guidebooks and fact-packs on a wide range of topics that you can use to focus your group on what it needs to be successful.

So don’t get trapped into believing you can win over the bureaucrats or your politicians by gathering information, or become frozen into inaction until you gather just a little bit more information.  What really matters is what you do with the information you have and how it fits strategically into your organizing plan. To learn more about CHEJ’s technical assistance services, see our website at

Backyard Talk

What You Might Have Missed Over (and since) the Holidays

The past few months have been a real doozy for the vinyl chemical industry.

While you were probably indulging in a bit too much holiday egg nog or prancing underneath the mistletoe, the vinyl chemical industry was in hot water from New Jersey to Delaware to California.

“These individuals can never know how much and for how long they were exposed to vinyl chloride, a highly toxic gas known to cause fatal cancer and liver damage,” the chairman stated.

The biggest news was no doubt the train cars carrying vinyl chloride heading to OxyVinyls that derailed in Paulsboro, NJ. The accident was nothing short of a major environmental and occupational health disaster. One of the trains released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which formed a cloud of toxic gas that drifted into homes and businesses throughout the community.  More than 70 people were hospitalized after the vinyl chloride release. Air monitoring found very high levels of this chemical in the community. Hundreds of families were then forced to shelter in place and eventually evacuate their homes for days.   Since then, it’s been revealed that first responders were exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride, as it’s shown up in their bodies.  Thanks in part by the fine folks over at OxyVinyls (more on Oxy below).  You can read more about the train disaster in this op-ed I authored for the NJ Star Ledger (the largest paper in NJ!).

The same week that Oxy’s vinyl chloride was poisoning the air of Paulsboro, vinyl manufacturer Formosa Plastics was fined by the state of Delaware more than $70,000 for various air pollution violations at their plant in Delaware City.  It’s not the first time Formosa has been in hot water for violating the law.

In California the US Customs and Border Protection seized 35,000 toxic rubber (vinyl) duckies, which were in violation of the federal Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act for containing elevated levels of phthalates.  According to the feds:

“they arrived from China dressed as Santa, Snowman, Gingerbread man, Reindeer and Penguin, all 35,712, but their cute holiday flair did not deflect the scrutiny of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and import specialists, at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport.”

And that was just in December!

What will 2013 bring for the vinyl industry?

The past few weeks have shown 2013 will not be much easier for the vinyl chemical industry.

Down in Georgia, a recycling company has reduced their stockpile of PVC, after more than 400 firefighters had to battle a fire at the plant.

“It’s been almost six months since Chattooga County, Ga., was hit by its largest fire in three decades, when more than 400 firefighters battled a blaze at a plastics recycling plant in Berryton, Ga.  One thing has changed since then: The North Georgia Textile Supply Co. has whittled down its stockpile of a potentially toxic type of plastic: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. When PVC burns and firefighters spray water on it, a cloud of chlorine gas can result. Since the fire, North Georgia Textile Supply Co. has reduced the amount of PVC at the recycling facility in the old Berryton yarn mill three miles southwest of Summerville, Ga.”

EPA published the latest toxic release inventory (TRI) data, and their latest findings show that 3 of the top 5 dioxin polluters in the country were vinyl companies: OxyVinyls, Dow Chemical, and Westlakes Vinyl (with Oxy and Dow #1 and #2).

New scientific studies published continue to underscore what we know – vinyl chemicals are toxic to our health.  Studies have found dioxin delays the onset of puberty in boys, phthalates in the bodies of ants, and organotins (which are used to “stabilize” vinyl) linked to obesity, even in the grandchildren of those exposed.  Nick Kristof wrote a fantastic column about this new study in last week’s New York Times.

Finally, WFPL radio ran a heartbreaking and extremely powerful story about the families of vinyl workers who died from liver cancer, after being exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride.  This here says it all:

“But it’s too late for the workers who have already died from angiosarcoma or are suffering from liver disease. Janet Crecelius Johnson wonders why B.F. Goodrich couldn’t have erred on the side of caution. Her husband Revis was diagnosed with cancer a year to the day after he retired. He had worked night shifts for nearly 40 years, and was looking forward to spending more time with his family.

“Every time there’s a wedding, every time there’s a baby, you just think, ‘I wish he could be here.’””

Any other major stories I might have missed?

Backyard Talk

Drill Deeper on Fracking NY

“Drill deeper,
New York” said the Albany Times-Union in a recent 1/15/13 editorial, saying, “with our health and environment on the line, New York still has many issues to address before moving forward on fracking.”

“Perhaps more than any other place in New York, the Capital Region knows that science matters. An unswimmable Hudson and a half-billion dollar PCB dredging project just up the river from Albany are costly proof of what happens when we make decisions on incomplete knowledge. It’s a good time to remember this as New York winds down its review of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing — popularly known as fracking. There are disturbing signs that, even after more than four years, we don’t have the knowledge to make a fully-informed decision….

The question is simply this: What’s the risk to human health and the environment? We’re not convinced the state Department of Environmental Conservation knows — especially when some scientists and physicians are saying they aren’t sure… Scientists warn that there are many things they don’t yet know about the fracking process. They’re still learning about the effect on human health of constant noise and light from activities like gas drilling. Geologists are looking at a marked rise in earthquakes in some parts of the country where there has been an increase in fracking or deep well drilling for fracking fluid disposal. And some wonder if, when the entire production process is considered, natural gas is as clean as its proponents say.

And then there’s a potentially key document — a health study on fracking that’s being done by the state Department of Health — that has yet to be finished or made public. The state has engaged a group of scientists to review the Health Department study, but that review is secret, too. The DEC says it will consider whether the findings of the Health Department raise any significant issues.

In other words, the public, after getting less than all the information it needed to comment on fracking, could well be shut out of further comment even when that information is revealed. Under the latest timetable, the entire review could wrap up by late February. That timetable is quite simply unfair and inappropriate, given what we now know, and what we don’t.

Any fair current analysis must return, time and again, to fracking’s still uncertain cost, not just in dollars and cents, but in terms of human health, safe drinking water, and a clean environment. When the stakes are that high, everything we don’t know should be a red flag.

Backyard Talk

The Irish—My Heritage—Said “No” To Fracking

Friday Ireland’s government said, “Until the EPA study has concluded and there has been time to consider its findings, the use of hydraulic fracturing in exploration drilling will not be authorized in Ireland.” Mr. O’Dowd, the Ireland Natural Resources Minister, is acting in a precautionary manner unlike the United States.

Taking a precautionary action, Mr. O’Dowd commissioned and funded three part study that will determine of fracking is harmful to the environment. He is concerned about widespread pollution especially of water sources where fracking will take place.

The studies include a geological study which will determine the impacts that fracking may have on groundwater and bedrock, seismic impacts, whether tremors, earthquakes or subsidence, and the third will be defining regulations around the fracking process. All of these studies are to be completed within 20 months.

Additionally the commission has asked for the public to suggest the terms of reference to be given to researchers. Wow, the Irish get a say in the study design and methodology.

Friday, Irish Eyes Were Smiling.

Other countries have banned the process as well, while the U.S. continues to move forward in ways the mimic the wild, wild, west. The cost of fracking in the U.S. has shown us that this extraction process is too expensive. We’ve seen environmental damages, poisoned water and water that ignites, health care costs increasing from victims as well as the migrant workers who are uninsured and use county facilities, lost land values and property values and the list goes on.

Not only is fracking moving forward at light speed compared to other industries’ ability to get permits and begin to set up their facility, the fracking industry has historically played dirty with communities by threatening, suing and attempting to undercutting local leaders credibility. However, the U.S. Frackers just recently said they’ll stop being bullies (my words not theirs) and try a new approach—civil communications.

In a strategy paper on combating the anti-fracking movement, analyst Jonathan Wood of Control Risks, a global consulting company, advised drillers to acknowledge that communities have legitimate grievances, in order to begin to repair a “crippling trust deficit.” Wood advised, among other things, openness, voluntary disclosure and “meaningful consultations” with communities, rather than “didactic information sessions to market the presumed benefits of drilling.”

Jim Cannon, whose job at Range focuses on local government relations has changed his ways. He recently said, “We’re probably more active listeners now, so we’re probably better able to hone in on what local governments need from us. A couple years ago, maybe we weren’t as sensitive to it. … Now we recognize how vital it really is.”

We’ll see if that happens. It is difficult to overcome “crippling trust deficit but maybe the companies can begin by taking down the bill boards along the PA highways that claim if you think fracking is dangerous “You’ve been Slimed.” I believe, and it has been my personal experience, that it will be difficult to come back from being a bully in the community to having people sit around the table and have a trusting meaningful conversation. It’s not easy after you have been beaten, robbed and violated to come back and trust those who did the nasty deeds.

The answer is for the industry to stop what they’re doing, not just be more open in communications, and follow the lead of the Irish and other countries. Step back, take a breath, take time to understand what you are actually going to do to communities, the environment, water sources and decide what to do based upon real studies, real science to determine how and if we should move forward.

Today I’m proud to be an Irish woman.

For more information see:

Backyard Talk


Dear fellow New Yorkers and anyone else.
For weeks now, I’ve been trying to finish a letter to you, but interruptions have been frequent. Here’s what I’ve got.
Dec. 7, 8:00 pm
After days of wild, record-breaking weather, our village winter festival was cancelled because of rain and flood warnings. When I told Elijah the bad news on the walk home from school, he began to cry. I told him I was sorry and that I knew how much he was looking forward to the festival.
He said, I’m not upset about the festival. I’m upset because the planet’s dying. I know this is all because of global warming. Just like the hurricane.
And this is what I heard myself say: Mom is on the job. I’m working on it. I’m working on it really hard, and I promise I won’t quit.
Now you are all my witnesses.
Dec. 26, 5:00 pm
These words are being written in a cinema bathroom. I’m the chaperone for my 14-year-old daughter and her friends—the movie is rated R—but I’ve snuck out of the theater to read the proposed revised draft regulations for fracking. There are 328 pages of them, and we’ve been given only 30 days to offer public comments—right in the middle of the holiday. Pretty much all I’ve done since December 12 is read regs and help people create comments. To that end, I’ve dreamed up an Advent calendar project called Thirty Days of Fracking Regs.
It’s tough sledding. None of us has access to the previous draft of the regulations—which was removed from the DEC website—so we can’t judge how it’s been revised. We don’t have access to the environmental impact statement that’s supposed to serve as the scientific basis for the regulations. That study is not even finished yet. But, as a last-minute maneuver to avoid blowing a deadline, the Department of Environmental Conservation released a huge batch of regulations anyway. They are hastily drawn and full of glaring errors. They are legal placeholders in the march toward fracking in New York State, which makes the whole exercise of submitting comments absurd and maddening.
But this I know: silence is consent.
It’s Day 15 in the regs comment calendar. I need to finish tomorrow’s post (Section 560.6, on the use of diesel fuel in fracking fluid) before the movie ends. Happily, it’sAnna Karenina. I can only hope that Leo Tolstoy and Tom Stoppard are keeping the sex and violence quotient under control.
Am I a terrible mother?
Dec. 27, noon
The deadline for finalizing the regulations is exactly two months from today: February 27.
It’s weird to see people shopping, heading out for the gym, and meeting for lunch as though life were normal. As though an army were not massing on the border with plans for occupation. Is that a crazy thought? But that’s how the gas industry talks: The shale army has arrived. Resistance is futile. Those were the actual words of Bill Gwozd, vice president of gas services for the Ziff Energy group.
I choose not to believe the second half of that statement.
The shale army is an accident-prone, carcinogen-dependent industry with no boundaries. The shale army seeks to use our land as its beachhead, our water as its battering ram, and our air as its receptacle for its toxic fumes. The proposed regs for New York are no defense. They do not prohibit flare stacks, open pits, or indefinite venting of toxic gases.
My son has a history of asthma. The land all around us is leased.
My daughter will be learning to drive soon. By that time, our rural roads could be filled with fleets of eighteen-wheelers hauling hazardous materials. Data from other states show that the arrival of drilling and fracking operations brings sharp upticks in traffic fatalities.
Resistance is not only necessary, it feels like a fundamental responsibility of parenthood.
This is what I tell my kids: Until further notice, mom is on anti-fracking detail. That’s where all our money is going. That’s where all my time is going. You’ll have to pack your own lunch. We’re on wartime footing now.
Am I a terrible Quaker?
Dec. 31, 11:00 pm
New Year’s Eve with the regs. It’s quiet. I’m working on Section 750.3 tonight. As I type, I see my father’s hands. He was an amazing typist. When I was a girl, he let me practice on his prized Selectric, and he challenged me with typing drills: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. Over and over I typed those words. Faster and faster.
My father was a life-long Republican. He believed that the words “conservative” and “conservation” shared more than etymology. So do I.
Jan. 3, 2:00 am
I was about to go to bed when a story broke: someone just leaked a document from the NY Department of Public Health. It’s an eight-page analysis—drafted last February—that looks to be the beginnings of the health study that is being carried out in complete secrecy. If so, it confirms the worst fears of Concerned Health Professionals of New York. In letters to the Governor, in policy papers, and at press conferences, we’ve been calling for a transparent Heath Impact Assessment with public participation. This document repudiates that request.
In fact, this document repudiates the power of science altogether. In a series of assertions unencumbered by data, it seems to say that the health effects of fracking are both unknown and unknowable. A Health Impact Assessment is unnecessary because the uncertainties are too great to analyze, therefore the risks can be safely mitigated.
That’s not a scientifically sound line of reasoning.
Meanwhile, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are reporting an alarming 9 percent leakage rate from drilling and fracking operations. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—way more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Methane leaks like that, if typical, would mean shale gas is a worse enemy to our climate than coal.
What role will science play in Governor Cuomo’s decision on fracking in New York, which grows ever nearer?
Jan 5, 1:00 pm
This is what I want to tell you:
Please come to Albany on Wednesday. The Governor is giving his annual State of the State speech, and the New Yorkers Against Fracking coalition is calling all New Yorkers to a rally outside the auditorium where he will be speaking. Buses are coming from all over our state. In those buses will be farmers, students, faith leaders, elected officials, scientists, doctors, nurses, parents, teachers, children, grandparents.
I want you on the bus. With all your friends. With signs and banners. With love and fierce resolve. Change all your plans and come.
There is nothing more important. Not your kid’s soccer practice. Not your yoga class. Not your career. We still have a chance here—in the still unfractured state of New York—to stop a brutal and extreme form of fossil fuel extraction, to show the world how to build a green energy economy, and to help Governor Cuomo keep his promise to lead on climate change. All that necessitates saying NO to fracking. Our children’s lives depend on our success.
To paraphrase my friend, Derek Jensen: The New Yorkers who come after us will not care how busy we were, nor how much we worried or grieved about their future. They are only going to care whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. They’re going to care whether the land is healthy enough to support them.
The Marcellus Shale is our Greensboro lunch counter. It’s our Stonewall riot. It’s our Seneca Falls Convention. This is our moment, and it hangs in the balance.