Natural gas wells owned by Cabot Oil and Gas in Dimock, Pennsylvania, in December 2009. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times)
What can the "little person" do?
We live in a country dominated by Citizens United, by "super-PAC's," by corporate wealth and power of such vast depth and breadth that to even contemplate a challenge against such powers is paralyzing. They are watching, they are listening, and if you step on the wrong set of toes, as the song goes, "The Man come and take you away."
It is all well and good to be inspired by the words of men like Mario Savio, who said, "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop!"
All well and good, yes...but when the moment arrives to actually lay oneself upon the gears and wheels, so many of us become daunted, diminished, or simply too afraid to act.
What can the "little person" do against such might?
Recently, however, an example of courage was gifted to us all. It began in New York City with "Occupy Wall Street," and spread like wildfire across the nation. Thousands upon thousands of people laid themselves upon those gears and wheels and said, simply, No." For their trouble, they were greeted with the truncheon, the chemical spray, the taser, the punch, the kick, imprisonment, and the hard truth of state-sanctioned violence. The Occupy struggle continues, but the machine opposed by that movement still grinds on.
What can the "little person" do?
One man is about to give his answer.
I was privileged, many years ago, to become friends with a man named Patrick R. McElligott. He was once a boxer, and we first bonded over the story of the day I met Muhammad Ali. Over the years, our friendship grew as we endured, and struggled against, the mayhem and insanity of the George W. Bush administration.
Last week, I received a note from him letting me know that, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, he would be undertaking a hunger strike directed against New York State officials who are bound and determined to make the Southern Tier of the state a showcase for the effectiveness of a process called Induced Hydraulic Fracturing, or "fracking." The process, aimed at releasing buried energy sources like natural gas or petroleum, is accomplished by blasting high-pressure water and other chemicals into the ground. The industries behind fracking will tell you that the process is perfectly safe and not in need of much regulation, but Patrick McElligott knows better.
One example of his concerns:
For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.
The peer-reviewed study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stands to shape the contentious debate over whether drilling is safe and begins to fill an information gap that has made it difficult for lawmakers and the public to understand the risks.
"Our results show evidence for methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems in at least three areas of the region and suggest important environmental risks accompanying shale gas exploration worldwide," the article states.
The group tested 68 drinking water wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling areas in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York State. Sixty of those wells were tested for dissolved gas. While most of the wells had some methane, the water samples taken closest to the gas wells had on average 17 times the levels detected in wells further from active drilling. The group defined an active drilling area as within one kilometer, or about six tenths of a mile, from a gas well.
The average concentration of the methane detected in the water wells near drilling sites fell squarely within a range that the U.S Department of Interior says is dangerous and requires urgent "hazard mitigation" action, according to the study.
Mr. McElligott made many attempts to engage local political officials, on both sides of the aisle, in a dialogue on the potential hazards of this process. He was uniformly rebuffed. He wrote them repeatedly to no avail, and likewise wrote to his neighbors to explain the dangers of fracking.
Finally, when all other avenues had been exhausted, Mr. McElligott made his decision. He would lay himself upon the gears and the wheels, even as it put him in great personal peril.
On Monday, Mr. McElligott will begin his hunger strike. Earlier this week, I spoke at length with this "little person," my friend, so he could explain his motivations and his intentions.
Describe yourself in as much detail as possible.
I am your average 53-year old citizen: married to my best friend, who is a psychiatrist social worker; with four children - two sons, ages 28 and 24, and two daughters, ages 17 and 14. I am retired, due to serious physical injuries sustained "on the job" for a county mental health clinic. Due to the nature of my injuries, I lead a quiet, much less active life-style than I once did.
I grew up on a small family farm, the youngest of five siblings. Our family was poor, and so growing up, about the only thing we could afford to do was box. It's a sport that my father's family engaged in even before my grandfather came to America in 1879. I went from "bootleg" (or "backyard") boxing at age of five, to one of the best amateur boxers in the northeast in my teenaged years. I ended up fighting 329 bouts; I lost nine of those. By the time I was 13, I was being featured in boxing magazines.
Around that same time, I began reading articles about former middleweight contender Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. He was incarcerated in New Jersey, having been convicted of a triple homicide. What I read convinced me that Rubin was innocent, and so I wrote to him, to say that I was going to do everything in my power to get him released .....and, oh, by the way, would he be interested in managing my boxing career?
That letter sparked Rubin and my 40-year friendship. This began well before Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali took up his cause. However, after I graduated from high school in 1976, Rubin told me to "hang up the gloves," and pick up some college texts. At first, I thought he was joking. He wasn't. I ended up in college, and then began a career in social work. More, that case would result in my becoming a social-political grass roots activist.
Over the decades, I've been proud to play a small part in a number of interesting cases and controversies. I organized a tenants union in Sidney, NY, which prevented the eviction of 120 families in a low-income neighborhood which was targeted for redevelopment; I've worked on some legal cases that included violent racial hate crimes, and in assisting the wrongly convicted; and I've worked on several cases to organize neighborhoods cursed with large toxic industrial waste dump sites. I assisted the EPA, for example, in a federal court case that challenged the federal municipal solid waste policy.
Perhaps the most interesting work I've done was in serving as Onondaga Chief Paul Waterman's top assistant. Paul served on the Onondaga Nation's Council of Chiefs, and on the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy's Grand Council of Chiefs. He was the leading tradition expert on burial protection and repatriation issues. The Grand Council eventually tasked him with serving as the Gauyesa Toyentha - which translates to approximately "bringer-of-the-message" on clean water. Paul worked to create a confederacy of environmentally-aware groups and individuals, at the grass roots level. He was a remarkable man, and we had many adventures.
Since retiring, I've lived a low-key, relaxed life. I enjoy spending time with my family the most. And sitting out by my pond, feeding the fish and birds. I'd prefer to spend my time in other ways, but the anti-fracking community has asked me for my assistance. That message from Chief Waterman is important. Plus, I probably have some skills in community organizing. I do not have the physical strength to do anywhere near as much as I used to do, but I try to contribute.
What is your connection to New York's Southern Tier?
The Southern Tier includes parts of Delaware and Chenango Counties. I was born in Sidney, and grew up in the suburbs of East Guilford - and live outside of East Guilford today. I have numerous relatives from both sides of my extended family throughout the Southern Tier. As a young man, I did live in other parts of the state, and country. But in terms of raising a family, my wife and I think this is the best region in the country.
So I'm am rooted in the Southern Tier. I try to do my part, however small my contributions may be, in keeping this a great area for parents to raise a family, and for youngsters to grow up in.
Why are you so deeply opposed to fracking?
When some friends and associates first contacted me about hydrofracking, I took the time to examine the benefits and the risks involved. Early on, I found out that in 2005, vice president Dick Cheney had sent some of his "former" associates from Halliburton to Albany, NY. These Halliburton attorneys lobbied to have the state government rule that the gas industry would not have to follow either state or federal environmental regulations, if they hydrofrack in our state. I suspected that would be for the benefit of the gas industry, not to protect the environment, including human beings.
I also learned that the gas industry does not have to inform the public of what toxic chemicals are used in the process of hydrofracking. Again, who benefits from that? And who is put at risk?
I've learned that many of the same toxic chemicals that were dumped at the Richardson Hill/ Sidney Landfill Super Fund Site - one of the worst environmental messes in North America - are used in hydrofracking. I'm all too aware of the damage these toxins do to the water, soil, and air quality. More, I know their effects on plants, animals, and the human population. Delaware County is the most polluted county in our state. I've helped conduct health studies on Richardson Hill, and around other toxic waste dump sites. The results are stark. The rates for various cancers and other serious illnesses is frightening.
There are two lakes on Richardson Hill, near the Super Fund Site. In 1965, a passing motorist tossed a butt in one, and the surface of the lake caught on fire. In April of 1991, three days' of rain caused every living animal in the other lake to die. I'm all too familiar with these dangerous chemicals.
A number of university studies have documented that unacceptable levels of these poisons are being released in the process of hydrofracking. The water supplies in parts of Pennsylvania are being ruined, and there is no known technology that can repair the damage being done. That's a crime: maybe it doesn't violate man's laws, but it certainly violates Natural Law. So I'm opposed to hydrofracking, because I know the harsh consequences.
Describe your efforts to open a dialogue with your local officials, and what led to this hunger strike.
I've always tried to keep open lines of communication with local and regional politicians. That includes both democrats and republicans, for we all live in these communities together, and want what is best for the younger generations. So I've communicated in person, in phone calls, and in letters and e-mails.
The issue of hydrofracking has created a high level of tension in our communities. There are people on both sides, who consider those with opposing views as "the enemy." That is dangerous. So I have made a point of communicating with the pro-hydrofracking people, to the extent possible. There are some individuals who are not interested in anything that I have to say, of course.
I went to school - from grade school to high school graduation - with two fellows who are big in the energy business. As adults, we remain friends. We have enjoyed watching our children and our nieces and nephews compete in high school sports. They are opposed to my hunger strike, primarily, I believe, because they are concerned with my health. But they understand that I have to do what I have to do. It does not keep us from being friends.
On the other hand, Governor Cuomo has refused to meet with anti-fracking people. We know that he has a committee planning for a possible run for the presidency in 2016. I've told his former brother-in-law, environmental attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr., that unless Andrew Cuomo plans to run on the Dick Cheney-wing of the Democratic Party, he needs to rule against hydrofracking in New York.
Governor Cuomo and NYS Senator Tom Libous have a plan to make the Southern Tier the "showcase" for hydrofracking in our state. Cuomo apparently wants to allow it everywhere, except near the Syrace and NYC watersheds. If it isn't safe for them, how can it be safe for the rest of us? We've written and called both Cuomo and Libous, and asked for an opportunity to sit down with them - not in a tense public hearing, but in a relaxed setting - to talk shop. Cuomo's office ignores us. Libous sent me a letter recently, which made clear that he has no interest in what we have to say.
I think it is important that elected representatives listen to everyone, not just those who agree with them on a given issue. I know that Libous meets regularly with representatives of the energy corporations, including my two friends. I believe that it is important that he meet with me and a couple other grass roots leaders, and perhaps a representative of the Onondaga Nation. My hunger strike will put the ball in his court. It also shows that I trust him to do the right thing.
In Ohio, the fracking industry has dumped millions of dollars into a push to open that state to this process, and especially to make it as unregulated as possible. Are you aware of similar big-money interests who are targeting the Southern Tier?
Hydrofracking involves numerous multinational corporations. Last spring, the New York Times ran a story on how some of the investors are playing a "shell game" with it. I know that the company that is investing in the Hanehan Well, which is on the mountain I live on, is from Canada. They are involved in a plan with the Mirabito Fuel Group and a Corning, NY fuel company, to build what is known as the Leatherstocking Pipeline. So two of the wealthiest groups in our state - actually, in the northeast - are invested in hydrofracking locally.
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation's proposed hydrofracking guidelines are actually far weaker than those in neighboring Pennsylvania. And those in Pennsylvania are terrible, as documented in the film "Gasland."
Do you see any connection, no matter how broad, between your action and the larger national Occupy movement?
Yes, I certainly do see a connection with the Occupy Movement. For years, on a democratic internet web site, I've said that our society had reached the point where we needed to revisit Martin Luther King, Jr.'s planned Poor People's Campaign. King was planning to have people go to Washington, DC, not for an afternoon's rally, with signs and speeches, but to occupy the city. I believe that King would strongly approve of the current Occupy Movement.
A few weeks ago, I attended an anti-fracking rally in Binghamton. Some young people from the local Occupy Movement were there. The rally was followed by a public hearing by the NYS DEC. A few of the anti-fracking people were worried that these young folks would be disruptive. I strongly disagreed. If there is a threat of disruption, it doesn't really come from within the Occupy or anti-fracking movements - it comes from the opposition, and potential attempts to infiltrate, disrupt, and discredit us.
On Monday, I expect some of the Occupy people to attend my press conference in front of Senator Libous's office. I welcome them, and appreciate their support.
Where exactly will you be doing this?
On Monday, we'll hold the press conference outside of the State Office Building. It's very close to Binghamton's Martin Luther King., Park. There is going to be a celebration there, put on by the local branch of the NAACP, which will start shortly after my press conference ends.
I've let Senator Libous's office know what we've planned, and assured them that I am not planning to do anything to disrupt the peace.
Binghamton is about a half-hour's drive from my home. So I will be able to be there frequently. He also has an office in Norwich, which is ten minutes away. I'll be going there, as well. I might also visit his office in Albany.
You initially planned to do this alone, but several people have pledged to join you. Tell me about them.
I'll attempt to answer this, by telling a story. Back in the early 1990s, Chief Waterman and I were involved in a struggle to preserve a sacred mound in the town of Sidney. But the local "political machine" was a bulldozer, set to use this mound for gravel to cover a toxic industrial waste dump site.
At one Town Board meeting, Chief Waterman's sister, Clan Mother Audrey Shenandoah, was addressing the board, and the audience of maybe one hundred people. Now, Audrey has spoken at the United Nations. Her wisdom was sought by world leaders, from George H. W. Bush to Gorbechev, on environmental issues. But a representative of the Town Board cut her off, and told her to "shut up."
There are a lot of women who have had similar experiences when they have approached local or state elected representatives about their concerns with hydrofracking. It is part of the experience of women in our culture - "shut up." And most of the women who I have met in the struggle to preserve the environment are not willing to be quiet any more.
Some of them have said they will support me on the hunger strike. Maybe they will fast for a couple days. I'm not sure. I can only say with certainty that our society cannot be balanced and healthy, if we do not listen to what these women - who are actually the clan mothers in non-Indian extended families - have to say.
Hunger strikes are no joke. How are you preparing yourself for the ordeal, and how concerned are you for your own well-being?
I think the self-discipline from when I used to box helps. Boxing is an individual sport. Even if you train with a group of people, you are alone. And you go through phases - first, feeling lonely, and questioning yourself. Then, you become comfortable being yourself, and put all of your focus on how to reach your goal. Pretty soon, you are up there in the ring - which is lonely, indeed - in front of a crowd. And boxing is a brutal sport, so even if you win, you come out hurting.
This issue of hydrofracking is a lot more important than any sports contest. And a hunger strike is difficult. If there was someone else taking this step, I'd gladly step aside. But I think it is what I am supposed to do, now. So I've spoken to my doctors and nurses. I've discussed it with my family. I'm ready.
What can people do to support you materially, spiritually and on an activist level (i.e., those who are too far away to lend a direct hand)?
Well, I think it would be really nice if people would call NYS Senator Tom Libous, and tell him that they think he should talk to the leaders of the grass roots groups that are opposed to hydrofracking. That doesn't mean that he will change his position on fracking. But an elected representative should be willing to listen to people he disagrees with. He really should welcome the opportunity, even if he isn't going to change our positions.
People can also call Governor Andrew Cuomo on this. You do not have to be a New York State resident. His phone number is: 518-474-8390.
Governor Cuomo has appointed his ex-brother-in-law, environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to an advisory position on hydrofracking in New York State. Robert disappointed the environmental community by initially being pro-fracking, except near the NYC watershed. He's taken a somewhat different position since the summer. Robert has the Governor's ear, and he knows me. It would be good if people called his office at Pace University, and tell his secretary, Mary Beth Postman, to have Robert call Cuomo on this issue. That number is: 914- 422-4343.
What else? Believe in the power of ideas. Have faith in the power of yourself. Act upon your ideas. Take steps to protect the environment, work for social justice. There may well be people who tell you to shut up, and who try to discourage you. Trust yourself. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.