Stories of Local Leaders

Mama Bear to Leading Activist: Living Room Leadership with Gillian Graber

By: Simone Lewis, Communications Intern
When Gillian Graber and her husband bought their home in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, she didn’t expect to become a full time activist fighting to keep her neighborhood safe from fracking. She was focused on being a stay-at-home mom, caring for her kids. This vision was quickly disrupted when smoke from their neighbor’s wood stove began permeating Gillian’s home and affecting her children’s health, causing her three and five year-old children to become sick with acute sinusitis. Gillian began to learn more about air pollution and the legal tools she could use to ensure environmental safety for her family. After a year and a half long court battle, the Graber family was assured the right to clean air in their home. The victory was big, but punctuated by bigger news: the same week in late 2014, they received a notice in the mail about two proposed fracking well pads within a half mile from her house. 
“That really got us to realize that our surroundings and things that happen in our environment will impact us negatively health wise and impact our quality of life. I’m a mama bear and I will fight for my kids”
Well pads used for industrial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, can contain five to twenty individual drill sites at which millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped at high pressure thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. This process fractures the shale rock formations, releasing fossil fuels as well as radioactive material and chemically contaminated water. 
Gillian was tired from her long court battle, but she got to work researching hydraulic fracturing and found it could expose her community to known carcinogens, heavy metals, and a slew of other toxic chemicals. She knew first-hand the impacts of their surrounding environment on her family’s health and quality of life, and she felt that she had to do something. She made flyers, followed the school bus up the hill to inform other parents, and organized a meeting in her living room. That’s how she started Protect PT, a citizen’s group working to protect the Penn-Trafford area and surrounding communities from the effects of unconventional gas development. With a background in communications and a refusal to give up, Gillian volunteered her time for two years before receiving the grant that allowed her to assume her current role of executive director. 
With the looming well pad proposal, Gillian worked to gather information and supporters. The citizen’s group participated at local hearings to question the gas company and persuade the municipality not to accept the well pads. In 2015 as the proposal was increased from two pads in their township to twelve, Protect PT secured three outright denials from the township – a big win.
The industry was shocked: “They weren’t expecting the resistance. They weren’t expecting us to know what we were doing. They weren’t expecting us to be prepared”
After the local government refused to accept the well pads proposal, the industry turned around and sued the township in federal court for 380 million dollars on the basis of violation of their constitutional rights. Although the municipality would have won such a case in court, the industry was able to pressure the government into approving the proposal without the thorough review it required through the threat of this massive cost. The residents knew that their constitutional rights to clean air and clean water were being violated by the fracking industry every day in Pennsylvania, and this series of events was undoubtedly discouraging and destructive to the community. Gillian, however, did not give up the fight. 
“You can’t bury your head in the sand. It’s not an option if you want to maintain the integrity of your community and you want to maintain your property rights. We all need to understand that we have power too.”
She continued to use her experience and her platform to fight against the oil and gas companies and to help others do the same. Protect PT created a home resource guide on everything from state and local laws to the science of pollution to help people understand what they might be facing and how to fight it. They hold online workshops, consistently produce educational and advocacy materials, and partner with other organizations on action items to stop fracking and protect communities. After six years, Gillian shares, the oil and gas industry is starting to recognize that residents will oppose them and hold them accountable for infringing on their rights. 
Gillian continues to lead her community in the fight to protect their economic, environmental, and legal rights and to advocate for people in extractive areas. Her advice to those getting involved: “Do your research first and listen to the people that have been through it because you can learn from their experiences.”
Learn more about Protect PT and how you can support their mission here
Photo Credit: Connor Mulvaney/PublicSource