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Bill Moyers: A Mother's War Against Toxic Trespassers

With government captured by the very industries it’s supposed to regulate, the time for direct action is now.

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome.This week in the streets of Boston, we were reminded once again that civilization is too often a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart, with those who would commit acts of violence trying to disrupt and even destroy the fragile commons we call society. Fortunately, there are people who will not be deterred from the work of civilization, who will even from time to time go up against authority in peaceful disobedience, taking a nonviolent stand for a greater good. People like Sandra Steingraber, my guest.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: Fight! Fight! Fight!

BILL MOYERS: We met for this conversation the day before she was to be sentenced to jail. It's quite a story. At the age of 20, Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Several other family members also had the disease, but it couldn't be genetic because she’s adopted. So Steingraber suspected something toxic in her Illinois hometown’s drinking water and that led to an unusual wager. She talked about it in this 2010 documentary:

SANDRA STEINGRABER in Living Downstream: As a college undergraduate, I made a bet. I bet that my cancer diagnosis had something to do with the environment in which I lived as a child. And I think I was right about this. Ten years ago, in the fall of 1998, I gave birth to a child. I became a cancer patient at twenty and a mother at the brink of forty, which I know isn’t how most people’s lives are ordered, but that’s how mine worked out.

I am betting that in between my children’s adult lives and my own, an environmental human rights movement will arise. It’s one whose seeds have already been sown. I am betting that my children, and the generation of children that they are a part, will by the time they are my age – they’ll consider it unthinkable to allow cancer-causing chemicals to freely circulate in our economy. They will find it unthinkable to assume an attitude of silence and willful ignorance about our ecology.

BILL MOYERS: Sandra Steingraber wouldn't stay silent, today she is at the very heart of the environmental human rights movement that she prophesied. She's fighting to identify and eliminate carcinogens in our air, water and food, and to stop fracking, that controversial extraction of natural gas from deep beneath the earth.

She is one of the Seneca Lake 12, a group of activists who last month blocked the gates of a natural gas storage facility in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of New York State. On a bitterly cold day in March they were arrested as they demonstrated against the environmental dangers of fracking and the storing of natural gas in nearby abandoned salt mines. For now, New York has declared a moratorium that prohibits fracking in the state while studies are completed, but there’s no guarantee that gas obtained by fracking elsewhere won’t be stored in those salt caverns.

As you can see, for Sandra Steingraber, there is no line between her life and her cause. When her cancer went into remission, she became a biologist and wrote the book “Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.” Her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Faith, led to this combination memoir and study of fetal toxicology, “Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood”. And her son’s childhood inspired her latest work, “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.”

Sandra Steingraber is a visiting scholar at Ithaca College. Welcome.