Feminism and Fracking: Activist speaks at Pitt


Even after twice spending more than two weeks in jail, Sandra Steingraber emits passion — but not anger — when she talks about her opposition to fracking. 

Steingraber, a biologist, author of four books and grassroots activist, spoke to more than 100 people about the roles she and other women play in the anti-fracking movement on Monday at 7 p.m. in the William Pitt Union.

In her lecture, “Fracking Is a Feminist Issue: Women Confronting Fossil Fuels and Petrochemicals in an Age of Climate Uncertainty,” Steingraber spoke about the 15 days in 2013 she spent in a Chemung County, N.Y., jail for trespassing after she blocked trucks from entering a natural gas facility in upstate New York. 

Crestwood Midstream, then Inergy, wanted to use this facility to store fracked natural gas in old salt mines under the banks of Seneca Lake, she said. Storing natural gas under Seneca Lake could potentially contaminate this vital source of clean drinking water, according to Steingraber.

After continuing her protests in defense of Seneca Lake, Steingraber was arrested again in November 2014 and spent another 15 days in jail.

“I could be a better mother to my children in jail than out of jail,” Steingraber said of her repeated acts of civil disobedience.

In March, Steingraber and her fellow activists prevailed in a Reading, N.Y., town court after members of her “We Are Seneca Lake” protest group had been arrested a total of 216 times.

“The judge agreed to dismiss our charges in the interest of justice,” Steingraber said to loud applause.

Steingraber is also the cofounder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, a group that helped lead grassroots opposition to fracking in New York, culminating in that state’s 2014 fracking ban. She stressed the impact fracking may have on women’s reproductive systems. 

“This is a feminist issue because [the chemicals used and released in the fracking process] are largely reproductive toxins,” Steingraber said. She listed medical conditions, such as asthma, testicular cancer and reduced age of puberty in girls, which she said fossil fuel dependence has exacerbated.

“Are we using women and their infants as nonconsenting subjects in an uncontrolled human experiment?” Steingraber asked.

Animals, specifically livestock, exposed to fracking material often have trouble reproducing after exposure, according to a 2012 study “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health.” The authors, Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, added that the impact fracking has on human subjects is inconclusive because humans are not exposed to fracking at the same rate as livestock. 

Kate Fissell, a computer programmer who works on brain imaging projects at Pitt, attended the lecture after reading Steingraber’s 2011 book “Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.”

“I got the impression from her attitude that she can convey information she’s passionate about without getting angry about it,” Fissell said, regarding Steingraber’s calm disposition during the lecture. 

Jack Collop, a sophomore economics major, decided to attend after he saw a flyer promoting Steingraber’s lecture and was intrigued.

“I really liked the comprehensive explanation of global warming and how fracking figures into that,” Collop said after the lecture.

Steingraber said the current environmental crisis should be thought of as a tree with two branches: planet and people. The planet suffers from floods, droughts and extinctions, while people are subjected to the various diseases and birth defects caused by toxic pollutants.

“Our problems aren’t manifold,” Steingraber said, arguing that people should look past the various effects the “unholy trinity” of fossil fuels causes to see that most of these issues come from the same place.

“It all comes down to this ruinous dependency on fossil fuels,” Steingraber said.