Poisoning Our Own Wells
Rev. Douglas Taylor

We call our planet Mother Earth. Many people, indeed many of us here gathered feel our spiritual connection with the earth. There is that amazing photo from a generation back of an astronaut floating in space looking back at earth. In the shot we can see the astronaut’s tether line and I almost imagine it to be like an umbilical cord. It’s not a bad metaphor. I wonder how long people could live without Mother Earth.

I read Science Fiction and one of the standard formulas for such stories is space exploration. In these stories we have figured out how to synthetically manufacture what we normally rely upon the earth for: air to breath, sunlight, food, water. But I wonder: would the synthetic stuff really work over time. I don’t doubt that it can work over the span of a year or two. Astronauts have done this and have thrived. But I really wonder how far we could remove ourselves from the earth, cut the umbilical cord and float free, and still survive. Carl Sagan wrote “We are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness.” Our living is wholly and completely dependant on the earth.

I’m not saying anything dramatic or profound. But … doesn’t it seem like we take it for granted at times? Not just the beauty of it all when we pave paradise and put up a parking lot, but the basic survival necessity of it when we poison the land and the air and the water because we think of it like the lollipop (in the children’s story): disposable. We can always get another lollipop; we can always get more water, more air, more earth. It’s all over the place.

The latest example involves the Marcellus Shale region under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and other states. The region contains the largest natural gas reserve in the country. The debate over the extraction of this gas has been significant. My very fine colleague just to the south of us across the PA border, Rev. Darcey Laine, preached a sermon here recently in which she talked about the Precautionary Principle. In that sermon my colleague lifted up the wise position of proceeding with extra caution when there was a significant degree of risk, such as we face now.

There are several vocal people in this congregation who have been fighting against the planned extraction of the Marcellus natural gas. And there are people in the congregation who have sold or leased their land to the company. It reminds me of other events in the life of this church when, for example, we protested Walmart. I came out forcefully declaring my commitment to never shop at Walmart again until they changed their impoverishing ways. And yet there were people in the congregation who secretly told me they could not make a similar pledge because they could not afford to stop shopping at Walmart.

Personal economics plays a part, and good people make hard decisions. I have friends who are facing foreclosure and bankruptcy on their farm – a common story of late – and the option of selling or leasing a portion of the land for natural gas extraction is the piece that could make the difference for the family. And yet I speak out against hydro-fracking; it is a dangerous proposition and a morally short-sighted one. But I must admit I do not know what I would do if I were in my friends’ shoes facing foreclosure.

The way this religious community works is that we demand that we each live by our faith as it is made known to us, to act and choose with integrity. I can witness to what I known based on my understanding, but you are under no obligation to agree with me. You don’t have to hate hydro-fracking or support gay-marriage or oppose the war or vote republican to be a member of this congregation! Our principles lead many of us to side with the general patterns of liberal and progressive issues; but there is no creed or law or social agenda you must adhere to to be here. I “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” I speak for the streams and the wells and the health of our young. You must only heed the voice of your conscience, not the voice of an external religious authority. And I must do the same.

Let me tell you what I believe to be true. The natural gas extraction process known as hydro-fracking is dangerous to our Mother Earth and to all of us living on the earth where the process will be used. My fear is that short-sighted greed and an unhealthy gluttony for cheap energy will push our society to take high-stakes risks that threaten our environment and the public health. I am very concerned about this process and I would go so far as to say it is morally corrupt.

Hydro-fracking is not new – it’s a technique that has been used for decades. But what is new within the past few years is a twist to the technique, interestingly: pioneered by Halliburton, (according to Sandra Steingraber in Orion magazine, “The Whole Fracking Enchilada,” Sept/Oct 2010 issue) that bores horizontally through the bedrock to pump millions of gallons of chemically-laced water to chase the gas to the surface. Because this particular version of Hydro-fracking is new there is not a whole lot of regulation and oversight. And with such a huge push happening to drill immediately, the lack of regulation is grossly irresponsible.

The movie Gasland, produced by Josh Fox, is a documentary about hydro-fracking. In the Movie, Fox visits Dimock, Pennsylvania where they have been drilling for natural gas using this method for a few years now. In Dimock, Fox met families “able to light their tap water on fire as well as suffering from numerous health issues and fearing their water wells had been contaminated.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasland) On Monday evening November 1st, there will be another showing of the movie Gasland with Josh Fox at the Anderson Center.

Can’t we slow down enough to consider our options? Can we not use the precautionary principle to seriously explore and judge the risks to the environment and public health before plunging ahead? And what exactly is wrong with renewable energy sources other than the loss of income for the oil companies? Environmental activist Van Jones was clever to point out that the old way of creating energy is to pull death out of the ground, to pull coal and petroleum, plants and animals that have died and fossilized ages back. Our current energy plan is to burn death. The renewable alternatives of wind and solar energy are of life. We don’t need to wait a million years after something died to be able to turn on the light. I’m not sure why we are even considering a high-risk hunt for natural gas.

But my complaint is not just Hydro-fracking – though certainly that is the issue of the day here in Southern Tier. The bigger piece of this, for me at least, is the systemic toxification of our environment. Why is it considered even a possibility to be pouring known hazardous chemicals down into the earth? In the book Poisoned for Profit the authors write: “Since the 1930’s the number of synthetic chemicals put into commercial use has doubled every seven to eight years.” (p21) We’re talking about pesticides and growth hormones, industrial waste and heavy metals. It’s in our food, in our water, in our air and our earth. It’s in our children and in each of us. We live in a synthetic and chemical age, does anyone else find that disconcerting?

I was certainly under the impression before doing some research that the EPA had a good handle on most of this. I was under the impression that while it was bad it was not that bad. I figured the government does regulate this stuff, after all.

But consider a few examples. Did you ever see the movie Erin Brokovich starring Julia Roberts. It’s from ten years ago and is based on the real story of investigator Erin Brokovich’s legal fight against PG&E Energy Company for allowing the industrial poison Hexavalent Chromium to leach into the groundwater and then covering it up when they found out. The Hexavalent Chromium has been linked to cancer. It’s an eye opening movie, very close to the actual events.

How about a closer example: for much of its history in Endicott, NY, IBM was leaking industrial solvents into the earth.  As I hope most of you are aware, this is what we now call the ‘plume.’ The NYS health department report tells us that “In 2002, scientists discovered a large underground chemical plume, which was releasing toxic gases into homes and offices in a 350-acre (1.4 km2) swath south of the plant. The main chemical was a liquid cleaning agent called trichloroethylene (TCE), that has been linked to cancer and other illnesses.” (http://www.health.state.ny.us/environmental/investigations/broome/health_statistics_review.htm.)

Doug Jackson is a Tennessee state senator who has a reputation as a legislator who cares about the environment. He is trying to help his community, Dickson County, deal with a TCE plume from their landfill that seems to correlate with a significant number of cases of childhood cancer. “But trying to prove causation from environmental contamination is very, very difficult,” he writes, “and legally very challenging.” Jackson goes on to explain, “We have to understand that we’re a capitalist society. To try to implement something that might be good for the public but that could create a burden, embarrassment, or hardship for the business community creates a real challenge for you if you are trying to pass legislation.” (p7)

So, proof is hard to establish. But why should the progress and profit of business take priority over public health?

Visiting Chicago during my sabbatical last year reminded me of the darker side of the city’s history that I had learned while in seminary there. Basically we took thriving marsh lands unusable to us, and transformed them into one of the renowned mega-cities of the world.  And we took land that was once beautiful to behold and transformed in into land that is literally poisonous to live in.  I remember a field trip during seminary to the south side of Chicago where we saw the public housing projects built next to the stinking sewage treatment plants. We saw a riverbank where the city refused to post a warning about the toxicity levels because they didn’t want to create panic. Did you know that things got so bad with the river, the city of Chicago needed a place to send its sewage, but couldn’t in good conscience just send in down the river into Lake Michigan, so we managed to reverse the direction the river flow.  They could so alter the natural landscape but still left the poor to live in the poisoned places.

This is a moral issue. Destroying our Mother Earth as if it is a commodity for us to use up is reprehensible. In the creation story in the Bible story of creation, God made things and each evening said it was good. God made the water and the earth and said it was good, made plants and animals and birds and fish and said it was good; made people and said it was good. (Gen 1) In the Koran God asks “The heavens and earth and everything in it, think you I made them in jest?” (23:115 and 44:38). In the Tao Te Ching, we read that from the Tao arose the Ten Thousand Things, which translates to “everything” meaning – all of it is precious, all of it is included. The earth does not include any junk. God didn’t make any junk. In the Koran, God doesn’t say, “that part over there, those people over there, I was just kidding.” No. In the Bible, it doesn’t say, on the seventh day God took the rest of the stuff and just left it lying around. No. We don’t have any junk. All of it and everyone is precious. We’re all in the solution. As grace as this all certainly seems to be, all is not lost. We can turn it around and build a new day.

We need to build a new way. And not just at the policy level, but in the grassroots as well. We have to get this one right. When we build a new energy structure in this nation with wind and solar and other renewable energy forms: we must look not only to how we can use this technology to save our economy but how we can use it to save the people too. We must seek a way to not put ourselves in the position of needing to choose between financial ruin and ruin of the good earth. We have got to say there are no throw away resources, no throw away species, no throw away toxic leftover, no throw away people, and no throw away earth.

The Precautionary Principle asks us to pause for a deep breath and consider where we can go from here. Where do we want to go from here? A new way is possible.

Together, with a focus on life, we can build a new way. Together, with a commitment to caring for our Mother Earth so that Mother Earth can in turn care for us, we can build a new way. Together, with an eye on caring for the whole planet, we can build a new way. We will build a new way, together.

In a world without end
May it be so