30 July 2009


29 July 2009

Nothing in the world can be more detestable than a mosquito, and nothing is more annoying as having one buzz in your ear when you are trying to sleep. It’s late at night on the Peace Athabasca Delta, and we are at a fishing camp belonging to the family of our hosts, Joe and George Marcel of the Dene tribe. Outside, the air is thick with mosquitoes; so many in fact, that going out to the bathroom is an act of desperation and means being eaten alive, while inside, there are so many that the buzzing in the ears is unending. They bite through the clothes, they laugh at repellants, they drive one to distraction. Sleep is impossible, as I refuse to use deet repellants, the only thing that they even notice; but as I write, fatigue immediately clouds my mind. The dark hours are few, and soon light fills the cabin, so I contemplate grabbing the camera and going out to try to shoot some of the myriad birds whose songs filter in through the few screens but the thought fo facing the vampires is daunting, even with the body nets NRDC brought.

The Peace Athabasca Delta is one of the world’s most beautiful places, under siege from effluents of the tar sands operations, and deprived of water by a large hydro-electric dam. This part of my trip has been organized by NRDC to show journalists the contrast between this “Bio Gem” and the industrial nightmare upstream (rivers flow north here). Coincidentally, they were coming up at the same time as I, and they invited me to join them on this part of the journey. They also had a tour of one of the tar sands operations, but those companies don’t like photographers and would not allow me to join (can’t understand why.) That’s why Industrial Scars remains an “eye in the sky” project.

Joe and George, a taciturn pair, are guiding us through this spectacular place, an endless wetland teeming with flora and fauna. Most of the day is spent on a motorboat going along the Athabasca River, and getting off in various places: an old family graveyard, the place where the “winter road” runs into Lake Athabasca (this area is only accessible by ground in the winter when everything freezes.) This particular road runs over a lake for this stretch. We also hike along a trail that has been in use since time immemorial through the sand hills which are characteristic of the region. We see eagles, a moose grazing by the river, birds of every description, and, did you say mosquitoes? On the way out, we stopped and Joe fried some walleye that was so fresh and tasty, even I liked it. They navigate the maze of rivers and perform these tasks with a practiced facility that can only come from a lifetime of knowledge. They are besieged with strange cancers and dwindling clean water, all as a result of our thirst for oil.

27 July 2009


27 July 2009

Everywhere it smells like oil, a constant reminder of the force that drives this region. And the people, all polite and helpful, are defensive, because they need those jobs. How dare those environmentalists come and criticize? “What powered the car that got you here anyway?” In traveling the world, I see this over and over, fear-motivated support of environmental destruction by the populations dependent on the pillage for their jobs. My friend Larry Gibson, the David fighting the Goliath of Massey coal, holds an annual July 4th party (remember life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) at his place in WV. This year it was busted up by a gang of drunken, slovenly coal miners, threatening the women and children present. Land of the free, home of the brave. One almost feels sorry for them, because it is fear that drives this behavior. Of course, the coal companies with whom they cast their lot have repeatedly shown their willingness to enslave and abandon the workers: the stories of coal towns and indebtedness to the company stores are legendary. More recently, the mechanization of coal mining has obviated all of the jobs once provided by the mines, at a much greater environmental cost. There is a madness at work here: our heritage is being destroyed, and make no mistake, the environment is our legacy; it pervades our songs and lore. But we seem to be willing to sacrifice our children’s inheritance for trinkets and our indulgence.

Fort McMurray, the support town for the tar sands operations, has the gold-rush feel pervading everything: hotel rooms and real estate cost more than prime cosmopolitan areas, labor is scarce, so service suffers, fortunes are made (and lost) overnight, and everyone is rushing to get theirs. Meanwhile, the people downstream (the Athabasca River looks like chocolate milk) are suffering myriad cancers and birth defects, but can’t get anyone to pay attention.


25 July 2009

Like all industrial extraction processes, the culpable actors don’t want publicity. I'm driving along next to the Albian sands project, a joint venture of Shell and Chevron/Texaco, which happened to be one of the most interesting excavation projects from the air, and the “Access Interdit” signs abound, as if one could actually do damage to this ravaged landscape. Of course the only damage is to reputation: no one is more dangerous than the photographer. Meanwhile, as I drive, I listen to the local radio station, which is full of the news of a recent study commissioned by the Alberta provincial government (which is very supportive of tar sands development) asserting (for the benefit of dubious USA lawmakers (who are always on the side of the environment)) that oil from tar sands has only ten percent more global warming footprint than traditional crude. Driving through Fort MacKay, a First Nation community which, unlike many others, has embraced tar sand development, I’m impressed with the new roads and community center and school, all in a village of 450 people. Of course, given the rate of cancers and other mysterious diseases I’ve read about, one wonders who will be around to enjoy it all. Must jobs always come at the cost of environmental devastation? A resounding NO.

Meanwhile, I’m in northern Canada and the weather feels like Florida. Can we realize the problem before it’s too late?

22 July 2009


21 July 2009

The tasks somehow increase in monumentality, due to the exactitude required and the preparation, let alone the execution. Production takes more and more time, and is increasingly difficult: a clear vision of the road between concept and product would almost certainly discourage the attempt. Nonetheless I find myself rushing to Newark airport on the Pulaski Skyway (love this road) with the monumental Hudson power plant off to the right, and the series of rusted bridges over the River, with that feeling of anxiety - based on the fear of unpreparedness. It always leaves once I am in motion (and realize what I forgot, in this case the spare battery for the video camera.)

But inevitably when flying commercially, one joins the rank of “the problem,” which I spend so much energy avoiding: the carbon footprint, massive use of petrol, the tremendous waste… I devote my life to learning and documenting the hidden cost to our environment of that soda can; to then see them thrown in the rubbish as the airlines tend to do makes me crazy. And the food, or what passes for it, makes me cringe. Watching those overweight kids drink soda after soda and eat hamburgers that have such a staggering impact on the planet makes me want to grab those sodas and burgers from them and ask incredulously: “do you know what you’re doing?” But of course, that is the least effective method of persuasion, so I control myself with a beer (time for a life-cycle analysis of that, I guess.) And I hope that the images I make will educate these same people about their unwitting involvement in the desecration of our world.

But for the time being, I am part of the problem, emitting carbon and eating factory food and hoping for change.

20 July 2009


16 July 2009

Bloomberg Inc., the financial world giant has resolved to examine every aspect of its sourcing and operations with an eye to reducing the impact it makes on the planet. I don’t know the totality of the plan, but what I do know is they were specifying that purchased items should have no chrome due to the toxicity of that metal and processes involved in its manufacture. That level of specificity indicates real intent to me, and I applaud this initiative. There is a fascinating trend in businesses that realize good sustainability practices are good business practices due to reduced long-term costs. Who can argue with a concerted “turn off the lights” program that saves thousand of dollars a month?

As part of their eco awareness program, Bloomberg invites speakers from firms and environmental groups, and yes, even Soapbox Henry.

I decided to speak about “That Obscure Object of Desire,” title of course taken from the Buñuel film, meaning specifically that our desire for object, constantly cheaper than before, and frequently ridiculous items we don’t need, is desecrating the systems that sustain us. As an example, I referred to an object I had photographed years ago as part of a catalog job (the only thing I have not photographed is the Sears tool catalog). Nothing could exist that is more useless than this item, yet someone had seen fit to produce whatever minimum thousands had to be made in the surety that some devout soul would purchase them in the hope of solace. There was also a priceless angel with a light inside. I wanted to keep it.

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg presentation was packed. An estimated 500 people suffered my rants, froths, entreaties, promises, and anecdotes. As one might expect, they were intelligent, interested, and thankfully, pleased.

15 July 2009


That's right, folks, yours truly will be conducting a photographic symposium at the NYC Bloomberg L.P. headquarters tomorrow. This event will kick off Bloomberg's BGreen Speaker Series.

13 July 2009


13 July 2009

To the applause and self-congratulation of the obsequious, our elected representatives in the House passed a “climate change bill,” described by the apologist media as “a step in the right direction.” Aside from the fact that it is so minimalist as to hardly be worthy of the moniker “change,” the law is certain to be defeated in the Senate.

Meanwhile the world looks on agape as we bray and finger-point, then continue our flatulent ways. Meanwhile, the folks that really know the score are terrified and trying desperately to get our attention. This is not some fringe alarmist prattle, we are talking about the survival of our grandchildren. And the sad thing is that the fix is not a big deal. We can do this with a slight curb in our appetites. Willpower is the key. We citizens must demand action from our legislators and demonstrate a little resolve in our consumption. If we educate ourselves about the impact of our purchase decisions, and buy accordingly, we can change the world.

08 July 2009


8 July 2009

I come from the South, and am proud of my heritage. It is a wonderful place with a natural warmth and generosity unknown in the rest of the USA. No place or people have clean hands throughout history, and my home is no exception. My sense is that the issues that plague us are all interrelated, and I count myself fortunate that I can devote myself to fighting the injustices that concern me the most.

Much as I love the South, the environmental regulations there are some of the worst in the country, thus industry has used it as a haven of permissiveness and reduced costs. Time to wake up. Early in the year I began discussions with my friend Hume from SouthWings, a group of pilots that fly environmentalists and legislators to see issues first hand from the air, about doing a flight in South Carolina. We are both very concerned about the consequences of burning coal for electricity, and have done numerous flights together over Mountaintop Removal (MTR) areas. Our other objective was to provide images to the Coastal Conservation League of whatever they are currently fighting. These are both fantastic organizations that deserve your support.

Coal is bad from the beginning to the end: the MTR extraction process is destroying vast stretches of some of America’s final virgin forest and watershed areas, the combustion is one of the primary causes of global warming and releases more toxics and heavy metals into our environment than I have breath to mention, and lastly is the fly ash issue. If you don’t know about what happened at the TVA coal plant in Kingston, TN just after Christmas, you should: the largest industrial disaster in US history. When coal is burned, the exhaust coming up the smokestack is laden with tremendous amounts of the nastiest stuff known to man. The energy companies are required to scrub that effluent, the most common method being to spray a “slurry” of gypsum through it which captures much of the particulate matter. The resulting mixture is known as fly ash, and its disposal is essentially unregulated- generally power plats keep it in unlined “impoundments” close to the plant.

“Why is this important to me?” you might wonder. Glad you asked. Chances are pretty good that one of the 800 coal fired generators in the USA is close to your home; and chances are they have a big wad of fly ash slurry separated from the water supply by a poorly made earthen dam. (Coal generators are always built next to a water body to supply them with the fresh water they need for cooling). So, like the unfortunate residents who live downstream of the TVA power plant in Kingston, you are in danger of having that nastiness spill into the waterway near you and even if it does not cover your house with toxic waste, you will never eat the fish from, swim in, or enjoy that water body again. And let’s not even talk about the possibility of all those toxins contaminating your well, even if they don’t spill.

So back to the airplane. Hume was delayed leaving Asheville by a mechanical issue, and then had to fly the Nature Conservancy on a quick flight, so we were much later off the ground than I had hoped. Our first site is King Tract in Awendaw, a large undeveloped parcel that CCL is working to save. From there we went up to Lake Moultrie which has several Santee-Cooper coal fired power plants. The first had some really interesting fly ash, but the second was nothing short of amazing- a behemoth of belching, spewing global warming and toxic waste. The fly ash dump was spectacular: variegated tunnels of different liquids. I love it when the subject is simultaneously sinister and beautiful, and a toxic nightmare. Fly ash is a clear and present danger- one more essential reason not to burn coal.

From the Lake Moultrie area we navigate south to the North Charleston Industrial zone. Hume checks in with the tower, as this is getting near to the Charleston airport, and the controller is obviously stressed because of the traffic volume. It is against the law to fly around power plants, and pilots that are willing to do it must always be on the right side of the air traffic controllers. The Nucor Steel Plant is close to our position, and still out of the traffic zone, so we circle, photographing the piles of rusted steel and various minerals.

Suddenly I spot something on fire, ask Hume to circle, and it turns out to be a machine with a large bowl of molten metal dumping its contents into a pit. It dumps once, and only a bit comes out, then backs off, goes to an adjacent pit and trys again. Suddenly the entire contents come out like a volcanic eruption and cause a virtual explosion, the likes of which neither of us have ever seen. To the east is the Williams Coal Plant, and though I have shot it before, I want to again, but it is closer to the airport, and Hume tells me that the tower is starting to divert traffic around us, a situation that clearly unnerves him. Oh the disappointment. Also on that side of the river are the Mead Westvaco Paper Mill, North Charleston incinerator, and various other sites on my list. Can’t do it all in this life, I guess.

02 July 2009


02 July 2009

The EPA has just released a list of coal ash ponds in danger of bursting. This report has gone unpublished until now, as the sites are so toxic it was feared they would become a terrorist target. There are about 1,100 coal-fired power plants in the USA (you can be sure there is one near you). I’m not going to discuss the 50 tons of mercury they emit, or all of the uranium, global warming gases and the many other toxics. Today I am talking about the waste ash, of which an average plant produces 125,000 tons a year. And this is nasty stuff, including: arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium and uranium, all things you don’t want to drink. Oops, did I forget to mention that the ash is dumped in unlined ponds that leach into the groundwater? The EPA (that great protector of industry) does not regulate coal ash and is just reluctantly starting to sample groundwater around these ponds. What a surprise, many of them have contaminated the groundwater.

But wait, the story gets better: In an effort to dispose of the stuff, the Bush cabal came up with a “beneficial use” alternative to disposal. So, they are mixing this highly toxic, very nasty stuff in with sheetrock and concrete. What will they think of next? Just before Christmas 2008, one of these ponds at a TVA coal plant burst, causing the largest industrial disaster in US history, dumping 1.7 million cubic yards of this lovely stuff into the Emory River, burying the houses along the river, and doing who knows what other damage. "Don’t worry," they said, "it’s just mud" (the government is here to help you, God love 'em!)

We generate half of our electricity from coal. To get at it, we are destroying West Virginia. Burning it is the largest cause of global warming, not to mention that it is poisoning our waterways with mercury and whatever else. And when it’s done, the ash is poisoning our drinking water.

Turn off the lights.

TAR SANDS - press release

June 30, 2009


Described as a “Provocateur” by MSNBC’s Anne Thompson, photographer J Henry Fair never fails to inspire viewers with his horrifically beautiful imagery of environmental trauma. Whether his subject is the mountain-top removal mining practices of the coal industry, or the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms, Fair’s message is clear: we are all complicit in the destruction of our planet, and to repair the damage we have done means cooperation en masse.

Fair recently collaborated with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and OSI to document the gas drilling practice known as “hydro-fracing,” which will severely affect the Catskills and have a major impact on the New York City water supply if allowed to continue. This project has received significant press attention and will subsequently be published as a book. Fair now sets his sights on our Northern neighbor: the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada. The Tar or Oil Sands are a large deposit of bitumen, a tarry hydrocarbon, trapped in the earth, and has been called “The Most Destructive Project on Earth” by Environmental Defense.

In July, Fair will make his way up to Northern Alberta, so that he can capture this atrocity from his signature bird’s eye view. Working with key leaders in the Tar Sands cause, Fair’s photographs will become the centerpiece of a touring symposium which will endeavor to educate the public on this little known disaster. Set to debut this fall at Green Mountain College in Vermont, the tour will then continue on to a host of colleges, universities, and other organizations in the US and abroad.

For additional information or images, contact Katherine H. Womer Benjamin, 617.448.0007 or khwb.photog@gmail.com.