25 June 2009



On Tuesday, thirty people were arrested outside of Charleston, WV for protesting mountain-top removal mining. In the American media, such protestors are portrayed as fringe elements of society, vocificating against some arcane issue of little interest or importance. This is so far from reality, it is laughable. One of those arrested was James Hansen, the most knowledgeable man in the world on climate change issues. He is the NASA scientist who, in the 70s, predicted the climate situations that are occurring today, and his predictions for tomorrow are frightening. Dr. Hansen has lost faith in the will of our government to address the issue and has decided his only recourse is to truck his 89-year-old carcass out to be arrested and face the violence of the bumpkin miners who live in terror of losing the few jobs that big coal still provides. Not only are these “protestors” standing on the same philosophical and ideological grounds as those that founded our country, and not only are they the among the few that are looking out for the future of your children, but they are patriots in anther way. So much of what we are as a country and a people is defined by our natural heritage; one can hardly hum the bars of a patriotic song without it bringing to mind the shining seas or waves of grass or mountain home. But these for-profit industries are allowed to despoil that heritage, not to mention the resources our children will need for their survival. Can we pay attention? Most of us live near the coast; if we don’t change our behavior, our homes will be under water. And more alarming, all those folks who are crowded into coastal areas in third world countries will come swarming to us in the “developed world” looking to be fed.

We are sliding down into a crisis, and we are worried about the stock market? This stuff is real, which is why one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent scientists in the world is willing to get himself to WV and get in harm’s way to draw attention to this issue.

Mountain-top removal is the practice of blowing the top off of the mountain, dumping the blasted earth into the adjacent valley, taking the coal, and planting grass seed, and repeat.

It is the first step in the lengthy trail of devastation caused by the use of coal as a power source. Let’s turn off the lights and pray for Dr. Hansen.

This is an image of an MTR excavation in West Virginia, not far from the location of the protest.

22 June 2009


June 22, 2009

The Alberta Tar Sands defies comprehension on many levels, starting with the fact that most people don’t even know of their existence. It is possibly the largest oil reserve in the world, and the largest environmental disaster. The impact is systemic, affecting every facet of the environment: air, earth, and water, and causing everything from global warming to mutations. The issue is all the more egregious because the authorities are ignoring the law and allowing this travesty. As is so often the case, the public is unaware of the colossal damage done to provide the calories we crave.

The Tar or Oil Sands are found in an area in Alberta, Canada, in which there is a large volume of bitumen, a tarry hydrocarbon, trapped in the earth. Extraction involves the strip mining of vast regions that are both valuable Boreal Forest habitat and precious water resources, rendering them desolate, lifeless moonscapes for eternity. The material extracted must then be reduced to the usable hydrocarbons, a process that uses tremendous amounts of water, energy, and oceans of toxic chemicals. The largest dam in the world was constructed just to retain this toxic waste from but one of the tar sand refineries. These unlined “impoundments” leach toxins into the groundwater, and since they are really just dikes constructed of earth, this type of construction tends to fail with disturbing regularity, which would release the sea of toxic sludge they contain into the Athabasca River. Toxicity is so high in these lakes that the wildlife coming into contact with them immediately dies; the oil companies hire people to remove the dead ducks floating in the goo. Of course, just sitting there, the vast reservoirs of toxic sludge are releasing benzene, a known human carcinogen and active global warming agent. When asked, the companies involved proclaim their intentions to remediate this waste, which sounds as believable as saying they will mop up the ocean.

Refining the tar sands is done in several stages at numerous facilities in Canada and the USA, each refinery a major polluter in its own right. The first new processing facilities to be built in the USA in 30 years are being built for tar sand “synthetic crude.”

The communities near the Tar Sands operations are primarily first nations people with limited political voice and little means to fight the industrial giants operating in their lands. Cancer rates in these communities are far above the norm, with rare cancers occurring repeatedly. Doctors who try to sound the alarm are ignored or ridiculed.

08 June 2009


Wes, from the Catskill Mountainkeeper was along for the ride (and to hold up my window, which, in the Cessna 182, does not stay up with the air currents - and, let me tell you, it’s cold out there in May!) He has a great working knowledge of the area and was able to point down in to the woods and say, “that’s where the drilling permit sites will be located.” I have flown in a lot of planes, and Bob’s is the cleanest and best organized I have seen. I don’t even know how many GPS units he has. There is a funny story about the airsick environmentalist in Bob’s immaculate plane, but we won’t go there.

Some background: the northern end of the very large Marcellus Shale layer is in the Catskills, and is known to contain significant reserves of natural gas, which are located very far down and locked up in the structure of the shale. To get to this natural gas, a process has been developed involving the high pressure injection deep into the shale of tremendous volumes of water and many chemicals known to be very bad for humans; this process fractures the stone structure, releasing the gas, and leaving tremendous volumes of nasty slurry, some of it in the hole, some pumped out into pits, and inevitably, some in the aquifer through which this whole process takes place. The gas companies are coming in to this primarily agricultural area, where per capita income is not high, and offering large payments for leases to drill (farmers vie with teachers to see which can be more valuable to society and more underpaid.) It’s the modern Faustian bargain. These projects require so much effort against the prevailing public cynicism and doubt generated by ignorance and media misinformation- one can get discouraged. But better not to. Our effort here is to present the facts, all of them, in a logical line, so people can see the real, long-term consequences of this decision. Sure, it’s $100,000 easy money, but then there’s a drill rig next to your house and who knows what’s gonna happen to your well, and your neighbor’s well. Oh, did we mention that the Marcellus layer is radioactive, as is anything else brought to the surface?

After the “beauty shots,” the plan was to meet some people that had opted not to sign leases, sometimes in opposition to family members. In this era of the industrialization of food production, it was a real joy to see these farms that are still run by the same families that have done it for generations. Of course, one imagines the Norman Rockwell ideal, and it’s there, but these farmers are savvy, modern entrepreneurs, one family even had a photovoltaic solar array on top of the barn. Now that’s cool.
Imagine that you are the 5th generation steward of the family farm. Do you really want to sign a lease with some Norwegian gas company to build multiple drill rigs all over your land and run the risk of contaminating your neighbor’s well and your own? To paraphrase one of the farmers I met: “Every time I have some business with one of these companies, be it the phone company or whatnot, I turn around and they are trying to plant another pole in the middle of my field, or they are saying it’s my fault they didn’t bury their cable deep enough so my plow caught it.”



Einstein asked if God throws dice. Hawking responded that he not only throws dice, he throws where we can’t see them. Guessing the weather on one of these shoots is like playing dice with God. Arrangements must be made weeks in advance for the pilot, plane, various environmentalists, journalists, and me. And then there we are, three days before the shoot, comparing the different weather websites, hoping for the right prediction, and switching the days based on what they say. Of course, all of the weather reports are based on the same NOAA data, but somehow they all have a different story.

This was the second shoot for the Catskills Hydro-Fracing project, our plan being to first shoot the “dead zone” end of winter, when things look the worst, and then again in spring when everything is in bloom. Drilling has begun in Pennsylvania, but the process is still in the permit stage in New York, and we would be looking at both active sites and permitted sites. The first shoot had gone really well, thanks to the pilot’s (Bob Keller) astute weather observations. We were flying from the Sullivan County “International” Airport , looking up to see nothing but clouds. Bob said, “I think it will clear from the West, let’s go do the Pennsylvania sites first.” (Here, a plug for LightHawk: http://www.lighthawk.org/, the association of pilots who lend their time and aircrafts for environmental flights.) "Go West young man," he said, and we did, finding sunshine, and getting great shots of drilling sites in process.

When we returned to the Catskills, we brought the sun, and got beautiful stuff of the permit sites.

Today we were faced with a choice between two bad predictions: both the shoot day and the back-up day were iffy, but the first choice day was supposed to be clear in the morning, so we chose to stay with it. Does the fair reader need me to point out the obvious eventuality? So we got up there, and it was a cloudy, flat light; not the worst, but not great. Essentially impossible to get that amazing beauty shot of landscape if you don’t have any shadows, thus no topography.

This is a project with the Columbia University Urban Design Lab, so there is a wealth of data already, the stuff I would normally just make up ...kidding... but in all seriousness, the information usually takes much work to compile. Moreover, this wonderful cooperative effort of University, various environmental groups, and private artist is a perfect highlight of a flaw in our permit system. In the USA, for-profit entities are allowed to go ahead with a process without proper due-diligence, and the burden of proof is on us do-gooders to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the process is harmful to people and the environment.

01 June 2009


Industrial Scars and my Gray Krauss exhibit are featured in New York Magazine this week!! Check it out: http://nymag.com/arts/art/.