29 April 2010

The Maw of Our Desire

29 April 2010

The television screen sobs with the bereaving families of the workers lost in our industrial accidents; we glance, feel a touch of sympathy, and continue our days. The similarities among the recent hydrocarbon blow-outs bear some resemblance. Just as the voracious demand for drugs in one country fuels a ruthless genocide in another, so our thirst for hydrocarbons prompts this loss of life and habitat despoliation (that would be our habitat, btw.) From time immemorial, peons have been expendable in the service of the ruling classes, and so it remains. The media thrives on soap opera, which allows it to ignore the real drama, and we follow blithely along. We pause briefly in pity for the women in Louisiana and West Virginia, two of the poorest states in the USA, but give little thought to our culpability, or the devastation wreaked on our survival systems.

As I write, a hole on the ocean floor gushes vast quantities of petroleum into that ecosystem, while a “state of the art” robot will try in vain to plug it. Meanwhile, the wind will shift and blow the goo to shore, thus creating, horror of horrors, an unsightly mess. God forbid that we be discomfited by the detritus of our appetites, god forbid our ocean views be obstructed by apparati that might obviate the pollution. We would rather defer payment upon our children than curtail the slaking of our thirst. Like vampires, our consumer society sucks the essence from the planetary systems that support us, without consideration for those that slave to produce the goods or the debt being foisted upon our grandchildren.

19 April 2010


19 April 2010

Water, water, everywhere, who needs to worry about a drop to drink?

In an effort to keep tabs on the Catskills gas drilling issue and its impact on the regional water supply, up we went for another look at the activity of the pernicious gas drillers. Catskill Mountainkeeper, Wes Gillingham, Lighthawk pilot Bob Keller and yours truly, the undesignated hydro-fracking swat team out to save your drinking water.

For those who don’t know, hydro-fracking is a deep drilling technique that enables access to natural gas reserves locked in shale formations a mile or more below the surface by pumping vast quantities of water mixed with a chemical cocktail at extremely high pressure to fracture the rock formation and unlock the natural gas therein. Permits have been issued for the western Catskills, and drilling has already begun in the adjacent areas of Pennsylvania. The process uses millions of gallons of water per well, and could easily deplete groundwater and fluvial resources. And then of course are the pollution issues: these millions of gallons of chemical–laced water are being injected down through the aquifer, and back up again.

This was our third flight, so we knew the terrain and the issues pretty well, and agreed to meet at the Poughkeepsie airfield. It was a beautiful day, clear and cool (or as clear as it gets with the always-present pollution.) Always tolerant of my meanderings, Bob and Wes had agreed to a detour to look at a few coal-fired power plants and the Westchester Garbage Incinerator. So we shot the Danskammer Plant first (you can see their emissions report here if you want a little fright)

Coal Ash at Danskammer Power Plant

Our next stop on the tour was Lovett Plant in Tompkins Cove, just upriver from NYC.
When we got there, it was gone. How do you disappear a large power plant? Turns out, it was part of the Enron debacle (remember that) and was spun off to a company called Dynergy that refused to upgrade its pollution controls and was then ordered to close. Good riddance, New Yorkers can breathe a bit easier (turn off the lights before they build another one.) Here is the pollution scorecard on it.

The gas drilling sites we had photographed on our last expedition (nine months ago) were capped and closed, leaving only a giant industrial pad in the middle of the once pristine farm fields. It is amazing how fast they operate, drilling, fracking, and extracting in less than a year. I wonder if the farmers knew that they would be left with an abandoned industrial site in place of their farms. I wonder what the well water is like now?

We then moved westward to see some new sites, and were amply rewarded with some impressive drill rig towers, and then a site with a flare. Flares are generally how the really nasty stuff is burned away in petroleum refineries and drill sites, so you don’t want to live near there. (Wonder if the neighbors know about that?) Then we found a site with a continuous stream of tanker trucks filling a giant man-made pond, which gives some idea of the amount of water used in this process. As we circled, we saw several tractor trailers come and go without making a dent in the level. Assumedly, there is not enough groundwater at that location to support the millions of gallons per well, so they are likely trucking it in. But imagine if that amount of water was being removed from the aquifer as it is elsewhere. Water is so precious, and we take it for granted.

Then we happened upon a site in which fracking was in process, with numerous compressor trucks arrayed around a spider rig, looking like some industrial creature being attended by its feeder slaves. Quite fascinating, actually. The amount of pressure needed to fracture the shale formation is tremendous, and I can’t believe that pumping that water/chemical mixture down at such pressure through the aquifer is innocuous as the gas companies claim.

12 April 2010


12 April 2010

Those of us who live in New York and the suburbs don’t pay too much attention to the natural systems that surround the metro area, and I’m no exception. My friend Chris, the naturalist, has been going out on Long Island Sound for the last year or so, documenting the wildlife there, and has extended me an open invitation to join him. Last weekend I was between projects, and had all of my cameras with me, and the tides were right, so we made a plan.

Easter morning was beautiful and unseasonably warm; a perfect day for a boat ride. Leaving Stamford, we encountered a pair of osprey nesting on the harbor light, with the male rather ineptly gathering driftwood to make a nest. It’s such a pleasure to be with an expert that can explain what we see, and Chris is the best. Out of the harbor we ran in to a wall of fog so thick that it felt like being in another world. The waters there are rocky, which would make navigation impossible but for an amazing GPS that allows one to follow previous paths.

After a bit, Chris stopped the boat and announced that we had arrived. “They are right over there,” he said. Of course our senses could discern nothing but fog and the lapping of water on the boat. Slowly we drifted, and shapes began to emerge, and a glint of sunlight on marine skin defined a pair of harbor seals. They watched us with mild suspicion as we rocked and snapped away. The Marine Mammal Protection Act limits proximity, but to see these beautiful animals (on Easter Sunday) with a background of New York and the wealthy suburbs somehow gave a sense of hope of the possibility of coexistence between “civilization” and the natural world.

08 April 2010


8 April 2010

The reports of the mining disaster in West Virginia have an unreal quality, like newspaper headlines from a distant era; one in which workers were but slightly elevated from the class of serfs, and a few more dead or damaged would have little effect on the march of progress. We all feel the deepest sympathy for the families of the miners lost, and like the recent disaster in Haiti, donations and condolences will be sent, and the event soon forgotten.

{Angry invectives are sure to follow this BLOG}

The corporate owner of the mine (and its CEO) is a bad actor on many levels, from mine safety to environmental disregard. Their acts of corruption harken back to the Teapot Dome scandal in scope, and exude a disregard for law and community that invite disbelief. And speaking of tea, it is no secret that West Virginia voted overwhelmingly in favor of the previous administration, as a condoner of business corruption with its relaxed mine safety enforcement.

Meanwhile, New York City is enjoying summer weather in early April, which is a direct effect of the stuff for which those miners died.