Editor’s Note: Tara Lohan is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project, Hitting Home. Follow the trip on Facebook or follow Tara on Twitter.
In the dark, early morning hours of July 7, John and Diane Pitcock heard an explosion that shook the windows of their home in rural Doddridge County, West Virginia. Peering outside, they could see multiple fires burning on the ridgetop above their house where their neighbor had leased his land for gas drilling in the Marcellus shale.
They later learned that five workers from the site, run by Antero Resources, were flown to a burn unit in Pittsburgh. Two of the workers died from their injuries, 45-year-old Tommy Paxton and 37-year-old Jason Mearns.
The same week as Paxton’s death, Antero and Frontier Drilling settled a $12 million lawsuit with a worker who snapped his spinal cord on the job, completing a task he says was unsafe. The West Virginia Gazette reported:
During a deposition, Jason Ware, a safety coordinator with Antero, according to transcripts, said that in the 36 months he had worked at the rig, 25 to 30 work-related accidents occurred that resulted in broken bones or surgeries, not counting stitches.
What else happened the same week? Jose Landeros, 50, was killed in Texas when the wastewater truck he drove for the oil and gas industry exploded as he was working on it.
Meanwhile down in the Gulf, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the deadly Deepwater Horizon disaster, a gas-drilling rig caught fire after a blowout and 44 workers were evacuated.
In Canada, a nine-week oil spill at a tar sands facility in Alberta is ongoing. Nine weeks and they’ve been unable to stop the black goo escaping from the earth.
In Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 50 people are dead and the town is destroyed, after an oil-laden train derailed earlier this month.
And the list goes on.
This much we know: The fossil fuels that power our economy take their toll, on workers, on the environment, and on those who live near areas of extraction, transportation, processing, and burning—which, these days, is a whole lot of people.
We have all the science we need to know that the effects will be long-term. We’re locking ourselves into a future of climate changes that are shaping up to be catastrophic. Already we’re seeing increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather, including heat waves, floods, drought, and hurricanes.
Between 1999 and 2009, more than 7,000 people died from heat-related deaths. During last year’s superstorm Sandy, 39 people drowned, half of them in their own homes. The West, through a combination of factors, including climate change, is plagued by deadly wildfires. The deaths of 19 elite firefighters is the latest in the tragic toll.
What are we doing?
For much of the country it’s business as usual. But not for everyone. Dozens of grassroots groups have organized under the banner of Fearless Summer and 350.org’s Summer Heat, to stage protests in their communities calling for a national movement against extreme energy, like fracking, tar sands mining and mountaintop removal mining. Events are taking place all summer long and are already spilling over into the fall’s Powershift in Pittsburgh, October 18-21 and the Global Frackdown on October 19. In August there are events from Maine to Alaska.
Around the U.S. and around the world, people are stepping up to take direct action to halt the expansion of fossil fuel development. On Wednesday in Sussex, UK 250 activists peacefully blockaded the first day of exploratory operations for a shale gas facility. Two days later in Washington DC, more than 50 activists risked arrest by occupying the office building of Environmental Resources Management, a consultant hired by the State Department to determine the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline. ERM has been accused of conflict of interest and corruption in the project.
“Civil disobedience can open up a space in our culture to have a conservation we can’t otherwise have,” said Sandra Steingraber in a recent AlterNet interview. Steingraber, a biologist and author, was arrested this spring in an act of civil disobedience on Seneca Lake, in upstate New York near her home. She’s been active in raising awareness about the health risks of fracking and drilling operations and its related infrastructure.
“Is this really the way forward—are we going after the bottom of the barrel of hydrocarbons and willing to put at risk our children, our air, our water?” Steingraber asked. “Or are we going to draw a line in the sand here and say, enough, and demand renewables? This is the point where we’re not going to take the risks anymore.”
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