Silent Spring’s lost legacy, told in fifty parts
by Sandra Steingraber
Published in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion magazine
1. Rachel Carson, the ecologist who kicked the hornet’s nest, wrote a book that needed no subtitle. Published fifty years ago this September, Silent Spring rocketed to the top of the bestseller list, prompted a meeting with the president’s science advisers, occasioned congressional hearings, and circled her neck with medals of honor. It also let loose swarms of invective from the pesticide industry. Throughout it all, Carson remained calm. Friends and foes alike praised her graceful comportment and gentle voice. Also, her stylish suits and trim figure. Nevertheless, her various publicity photos (with microscope; in the woods; outside her summer cottage in Maine; at home in Maryland) look as if the same thought bubble hovers above them all: I hate this.
2. In the later portraits, Carson was dying of breast cancer. It was a diagnosis she hid out of fear that her enemies in industry would use her medical situation to attack her scientific objectivity and, most especially, her carefully constructed argument about the role that petrochemicals (especially pesticides) played in the story of human cancer. But behind her unflappable public composure, Carson’s private writings reveal how much physical anguish she endured. Bone metastases. Radiation burns. Angina. Knowing this, you can imagine her patience running out during the interminable photo shoots. The wretched wig hot and itchy under the lights. The stabbing pains (cervical vertebrae splintered with tumors) that would not, would not relent.
3. In the iconic Hawk Mountain photo, Rachel Carson is truly beautiful. Her smile looks natural rather than forced. Posed on a rocky summit, she is wearing a badass leather jacket and wields a pair of leather-strapped binoculars. So armed, she scans the horizon. At her feet, the whole of Berks County, Pennsylvania, unfurls, forest and valley, field and mountain, like a verse from a Pete Seeger song.
4. Hawk Mountain, along the Appalachian flyway, is an officially designated refuge for raptors. As with so many sanctuaries, it started out as a hunting ground with bounties. By the mid-1930s, it had become the spot in Pennsylvania to witness the annual fall migration of hawks. Rachel Carson loved it here. She wrote about her experiences in a never-finished, never-published essay titled “Road of the Hawks.” According to biographer Linda Lear—who gathered the fragments into the collection Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson—the essay is notable not only for its careful analysis of bird behavior and knowledge of geology but also because Carson traced the origin of her airy lookout to Paleozoic marine organisms.
And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land . . . these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting . . . were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its waters. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean—an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.
6. She sat on a mountaintop and thought about oceans.
7. The marine inhabitants of the ancient seas that once overlay Appalachia transformed, when they died, into gaseous bubbles of methane. Pressed under the accumulated weight of silt sifting down from nearby mountains, the seafloor solidified into what’s now called the Marcellus Shale, a layer of bedrock that’s located under thousands of feet of what we would call the earth, but the mining industry calls overburden: the material that lies between the surface and an area of economic interest. To extract methane bubbles from the area of economic interest, the natural gas industry is now blowing up the state of Pennsylvania.
8. High-volume, slickwater, horizontal hydrofracking would be considered a crime if the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates underground chemical injections, pertained.
9. But they don’t. In 2005, fracking was granted specific exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fracking is also exempt from key provisions within the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Chemicals used in drilling and fracking operations can be claimed as trade secrets; public release of their identity is not mandated by federal right-to-know provisions. The Environmental Protection Agency has limited jurisdiction over fracking.
10. The Environmental Protection Agency credits Silent Spring for its existence.
11. You can think of fracking as a hostage exchange program. A drill bit opens a hole a mile deep, turns sideways, and then, like a robotic mole, tunnels horizontally through the shale bedrock for another mile or more. The hole is lined with steel pipe and cement. To initiate the fracturing process, explosives are sent down it. Then, fresh water (millions of gallons per well) is injected under high pressure to further break up the shale and shoot acids, biocides, friction reducers, and sand grains deep into the cracks. Trapped for 400 million years, the gas is now free to flow through the propped-open fractures up to the surface, where it is condensed, compressed, and sent to market via a network of pipelines. The water remains behind.
12. Within the rumply state of Pennsylvania is a place called Triple Divide, where three adjacent springs feed the watersheds of three mighty rivers: the Allegheny (which flows west to the Mississippi River); the Susquehanna (which flows east to Chesapeake Bay); and the Genesee (which flows north to Lake Ontario). This area of Pennsylvania—which is the sixth most populous state in the union, which sits upwind and upstream from the eleventh most populous state of New Jersey and the third most populous state of New York—lies in the heart of the ongoing fracking boom in the eastern U.S. According to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, drillers in the Marcellus Shale amassed 1,614 violations of state oil and gas laws between January 2008 and August 2010. In one incident, a well blowout near the Punxsutawney Hunting Club in Clearfield County sent 35,000 gallons of toxic effluent into a state forest over the course of sixteen hours. Campers were evacuated.
13. Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, and grew up on the outskirts of Springdale, sixteen miles from Pittsburgh. Her lifelong devotion to the sea began as a small child when she discovered, on a rocky hillside near her family’s farm, a fossilized shell. A sea creature in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
14. Actually, only some of the frack water stays behind in the shale. The rest, now mixed with brine and radioactivity, shoots up to the surface with the gas. Finding a safe place to dispose of this toxic flowback is an unsolved problem. Sometimes, the waste from drilling is just dumped on the ground. That’s illegal, but it happens. Sometimes the waste is dumped down other holes. In 2010, 200,000 gallons were poured down an abandoned well on the edge of Allegheny National Forest. Much of the flowback fluid is trucked to northeast Ohio, where it is forced, under pressure, into permeable rock via deep injection wells. This practice, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has concluded, is the likely cause of the unusual swarm of earthquakes that shook northeast Ohio in 2011.
15. Most of the state’s fracking operations are set to take place in Pennsylvania’s forests. To be precise, 64 percent of Pennsylvania gas wells are to be drilled in forested land, which includes state forests and natural areas. For each well pad sited in a forested area, an average of nine acres of habitat are destroyed, says The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania chapter (each well pad can accommodate up to six wells). The total direct and indirect impact is thirty acres of forest for each well pad. This does not include acreage lost to pipelines. On average, each well pad requires 1.65 miles of gathering pipelines, which carry the gas to a network of larger transporting pipelines.
16. Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 wells are planned for Pennsylvania, to be built over the next few decades. The Nature Conservancy forecasts the destruction of 360,000 to 900,000 acres of interior forest habitat due to pipeline right-of-ways alone.
17. They are fracking Allegheny County.
18. They are sizing up Berks County, too.
19. Berks Gas Truth is a grassroots antifracking organization that focuses on human rights. The group is fond of quoting Article 1, Section 27, of the Pennsylvania Constitution:
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonweath shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
20. Carson had a lot to say about human rights. In Silent Spring:
If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.
In congressional testimony (June 1963):
[I assert] the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusions of poisons applied by other persons. I speak not as a lawyer but as a biologist and as a human being, but I strongly feel that this is or should be one of the basic human rights.
From her final speech (San Francisco, October 1963):
Underlying all of these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility. . . . [T]he threat is infinitely greater to the generations unborn; to those who have no voice in the decisions of today, and that fact alone makes our responsibility a heavy one.
21. Human rights were not always Carson’s focus. Indeed, her bestselling trilogy of books about the sea—Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955)—gives an adventurous account of a world in which the human race scarcely appears. If we the readers could visualize the oceanic world below the waves—full of communities of interacting creatures that possessed agency and distinct personalities—we might, the author believed, experience wonder and humility. And wonder and humility, said Carson, “do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.” By contrast, the book she longed to begin at the time of her death was going to be all about environmental destruction—and the human rights violations that occur as a result. To halt the growing contamination of the oceans, to counteract a culture of conquest and annihilation, required more than humility, Carson had come to believe. It called for confrontation and witness. Nevertheless, she was also, at the time of her death, working on a book-length expansion of an essay titled “Help Your Child to Wonder.”
22. The Springdale where Rachel Carson lived as a child was no preindustrial, Romantic garden. The stench of the local glue factory was horrible. By the time she left for graduate school at Johns Hopkins in 1929, two coal-burning power plants flanked the town and were plainly contaminating both the river and the air. “The memory of the defilement industrial pollution brought,” said Linda Lear, would remain with Carson for the rest of her life.
23. To honor Carson (and promote tourism), the Springdale Team of Active Residents coined a new slogan for the town: Where Green Was Born.
24. According to a 2010 investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, residents of Springdale have higher than average rates of death from lung cancers and heart ailments linked to air pollution. Quoted in the article, the then-director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, Patricia DeMarco, said, “We’re in a black hole here, where companies put out pollution and take in profits while the costs to our air and water quality are borne by the public.” DeMarco characterized Springdale residents as being quick to accept pollution as normal.
25. Silent Spring predated the nation’s cancer registry program, which came into being under Richard Nixon and mandated that all states track cancer incidence within their populations. Without registry data—and the information about the changing rates of cancer they provide—Carson was left with only case studies and mortality data to work with. She also lacked sophisticated geographic information systems (GIS) and computer mapping programs that can generate visually compelling pictures of potential cancer clusters and other spatial patterns for statistical analysis. In 1960, there were no right-to-know laws, pesticide registries, or Toxics Release Inventories. There were no statewide women’s breast cancer groups that monitor public and academic research. Carson painstakingly pieced together the evidence available to her—reports of farmers with bone marrow degeneration, sheep with nasal tumors, spray-gun-toting housewives with leukemia—and concluded that cancer was striking the general population with increasing frequency. She believed that she was seeing the early signs of an epidemic in slow motion. She was especially concerned with the apparent rise in cancers among children. And she was right.
26. April 2012 was a silent spring in Pennsylvania. Funds for a statewide heath registry—which would track illnesses in residents who live near drilling and fracking operations—were quietly removed from the state budget. At the same time, a new state law, Act 13, went into effect, which allows a physician in Pennsylvania access to proprietary chemical information for purposes of treating a possibly exposed patient—but only if he or she signs a confidentiality agreement. Confounded, Pennsylvania doctors began asking questions. Does that mean no contacting the public health department? What about talking to reporters or writing up case studies for the New England Journal of Medicine? Can a physician who signs the nondisclosure agreement (in order to treat a patient) and then issues an alert to the community at large (in order to fulfill an ethical obligation to prevent harm) be sued for breach of contract? The president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society registered her objections, to which Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Sam Smith furiously counter-objected. Denying that Act 13 constitutes a medical gag order, Smith’s spokesman accused objecting doctors of yelling fire in a crowded theater.
27. Still waiting for the Pennsylvania Medical Society to point out that, verily, the theater is burning.
28. Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1960, although she would not find out until the following December. Her physician did not tell her the results of the biopsy. Her cancer rapidly metastasized. With her next surgeon, she insisted on full disclosure. She knew the news would not be good. Nevertheless, she wrote to him in February 1963, “I still believe in the old Churchillian determination to fight each battle as it comes. (‘We will fight on the beaches—’ etc.)”
29. In 2011, Chesapeake Energy, a top producer of natural gas, was a corporate sponsor of the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition. In response to questions about possible conflicts of interest, the coalition’s executive director Heather Hibshman said, “I’m not a scientist. I’m not a researcher. I run a nonprofit. I’m going to leave it at that.” Hibshman also said that she was unaware of any correlations between fracking and breast cancer.
30. Fracking for the cure.
31. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson pointed out that pesticides were rapidly rolled out after World War II not because of some unmet pest-control need (like, say, farmers suddenly overrun with bugs and weeds). Rather, abundant leftover stockpiles from wartime use were in need of a domestic market. And so, with the help of Madison Avenue, one was created. DDT, a military weapon, was thus repurposed for domestic use without any premarket testing for safety. An abundance of former military planes that could be cheaply converted into spray planes—and an abundance of former military pilots who loved to fly them—helped seal the deal.
32. In March 2012, it was announced that the town of Monaca, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania (twenty-eight miles northwest of Pittsburgh), would be the site for a massive new ethylene cracker facility—the first in Appalachia—that will create chemical feedstocks for the plastics industry out of the other hydrocarbons that come up with the gas when Marcellus Shale is fracked. Most notably, ethane. This plant is being rolled out not because of some unmet need for more plastic. Rather, it is being built to solve a disposal problem for the energy industry and—of course—to create jobs. Petrochemical crackers are notorious air polluters, and the air of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, already exceeds legal limits for ground-level ozone (smog) and fine particles, which is the very sort of pollution that crackers create. Michael Krancer, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection secretary, is not worried. “The plant will be state-of-the-art and built by a world-wide, world-class, environmentally responsible company.”
33. That company would be Shell Oil.
34. The biggest repository for plastic waste is the ocean. It was Captain Charles Moore who discovered, in 1999, that the mass of plastic fragments in the central Pacific now outweighs the zooplankton by a factor of six. Sunlight and wave action break the fragments into smaller and smaller bits, but no one knows how small the bits can become or how long they last. It’s possible that some common plastics never degrade in the ocean. It’s possible that these plastic particles absorb organic toxicants. It’s certain that plastic particles are consumed by marine organisms, including the fish that are then consumed by us. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the best way for individuals to address the problem of plastic waste in our oceans is to use less and recycle more. Blocking a convoy of fracking trucks is not on its list of recommended actions.
35. Rachel Carson’s final speech, “The Pollution of Our Environment,” was delivered six months before her death. By then, her pelvis was pocked with tumors and she walked with great difficulty. To her audience, a convocation of 1,500 physicians and medical professionals, she asked why. Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence of human harm, do we continue to pollute? Why do we pretend that alternatives to defilement and risk do not exist, even when other courses of action are available to us? Or, to use Carson’s framing, why do we behave “not like people guided by scientific knowledge, but more like the proverbial bad housekeeper who sweeps dirt under the rug in the hope of getting it out of sight”?
36. Says Businessweek, “The preferred way to dispose of the brine and fracking fluid . . . is to pump it out of sight, out of mind into deep, cavernous wells.” At last count, Ohio, with its permeable bedrock, has 176 such wells into which 511 million gallons of flowback waste have been injected.
37. To her audience of doctors, an ailing Rachel Carson offered three explanations for our collective reluctance to give up on poisonous technologies. First, she said, we wait too long to evaluate the risks. Once a new technology is deployed and a vast economic and political commitment has been made, dislodging it becomes impossible.
38. Second, we fail to acknowledge that nature invariably has its own (unpredictable) way with harmful pollutants. Because ecosystems are dynamic, chemicals released into the environment do not stay where they are put, nor do they remain in their original form. Instead, they are transported, metabolized, concentrated, oxidized, methylated, and otherwise reassembled. They enter cycles and pathways. They are sent up food chains and passed down generations. Look, said Carson (who delivered her remarks while seated), the earth is alive. And living things interact with their environments. There are no compartments.
39. Third, we act as though the evidence for harm in other animals does not apply to us even though we share biological ancestry and are thus clearly susceptible to damage from the same forces. This, in spite of the fact that “it would be hard to find any person of education who would deny the facts of evolution.”
40. Oh, Rachel.
41. No comprehensive study on the human or animal health impacts of fracking has ever been conducted. However, using a case study approach, veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and Cornell biochemist Robert Oswald have been studying the impact of gas drilling on livestock, horses, pets, wildlife, and people who live in the gaslands of Pennsylvania. Nondisclosure agreements, trade secrets, litigation, and a general atmosphere of intimidation make their investigation difficult. So far, as described in a paper published in the environmental policy journal New Solutions, the team has documented widespread evidence of health and reproductive problems. In cattle exposed to fracking fluid: stillborn calves, cleft palates, milk contamination, death.
42. In cats and dogs: seizures, stillbirths, fur loss, vomiting.
43. In humans: headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, vomiting.
44. In a private letter, Rachel Carson suggested another explanation for the prevalence of pollution. Scientists are cowards. Especially scientists who work in government agencies. The ones who are privy to the disconnect between the state of the scientific evidence and the policies that ignore that evidence. The ones who stay silent when they should be blowing whistles.
45. Rachel Carson died in Silver Spring, Maryland, on April 14, 1964. Cause of death: breast cancer and heart disease. She was fifty-six.
46. In May 2012, Stephen Cleghorn, a farmer, scattered the ashes of his wife, Lucinda—who died of lung cancer—on their farm in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania, which is in Jefferson County. The ceremony was unusual. It included a press conference, during which Cleghorn announced that, with this deposition of ash, he was hereby consecrating his land and declaring it off-limits to fracking in perpetuity. From here on out, the widower averred, “surface rights” (a concept whereby ownership of the surface land is separated from the mineral rights below) would refer to the rights of all beings whose lives are sustained at the surface and depend upon the clear, clean water that runs upon and below it:
May she who was tender and close and loving of me—now made dust and distant from me by cancerous death—come now in these ashes to declare this farm forever inviolate of shale gas drilling or any other attack upon it as a living system. Here now she declares a new right of love on the surface and below this farm that no gas drill will ever penetrate.
The goats bore witness.
47. We will fight on the beaches—etc.
48. In February 2012, Berks Gas Truth brought financial analyst Deborah Rogers to the Episcopal Church in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Rogers lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and serves on the Advisory Council for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. To her audience in Kutztown, Rogers argued that the economic fundamentals of shale gas were shaky. Gas reserves were smaller than projected, life spans of producing wells shorter. The leasing frenzy and subsequent speculation had produced financial bubbles. She pointed out that solar panels on a tract of land the same size as a well pad would generate electricity for twice as long as a shale gas well would bring methane up from bedrock. Rogers also noted that 94 percent of the gas wells in the Barnett Shale play in Texas emit benzene. Three months after Rogers’s lecture, researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health found elevated benzene levels in the ambient outdoor air of communities located near drilling and fracking operations in rural western Colorado. For residents living close to wells, benzene levels were high enough, according to the authors, to create acute and chronic health effects.
49. Memo to the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition: it’s been known for some time that benzene exposure causes leukemia and birth defects. As for a link between benzene and breast cancer, that possibility was affirmed by the Institute of Medicine in December 2011.
If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring