Biologist to address 'climate emergency' that she calls 'a huge human rights crisis'

Biologist, author and anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber will be at Lenox High School on Dec. 2 to talk about the effects of fracked gas and PCBs on human health and the environment.

LENOX — Sandra Steingraber doesn't give PowerPoint presentations. No, she won't bore you to death with slides about the science of hydraulic fracturing and its dangers, or about how plankton stocks are declining in warming oceans — stocks that supply us with half the oxygen we breathe.

She doesn't want you to die of boredom. She wants you to fight in a movement that, she said, has to act fast, before it's too late. She said we've got about 10 more years to contain a "climate emergency" before we're sunk in ecological and public health disaster.

"It's a huge human rights crisis," Steingraber said in a phone interview from her Trumansburg, N.Y., home in the Finger Lakes region. "We are now in the eleventh hour."

What biologist, poet, advocate and author Steingraber will do is take you on a little storytelling trip that starts with fossilized corpses of animals deep in the Earth and their voyage to our stove burners and the whoosh of igniting methane.

And she'll do it Dec. 2 at Lenox High School, where, she said, she will tailor her talk to the Berkshires. She will tackle the PCB contamination that plagues the Housatonic River. And she'll talk fracked methane, since a natural gas pipeline just completed in Sandisfield is still sparking controversy.

She will also screen a trailer of "Unfractured," a documentary directed by Chanda Chevannes that follows Steingraber's work as an eco-warrior.

Steingraber, a founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking and Concerned Health Professionals of New York, said the fossil fuel industry is keeping everyone trapped in an archaic and dangerous cycle.

"It's like we're all still using the rotary dial phone," she said. "We have the energy equivalent of the iPhone, but industry has put us all in a time capsule and is holding us hostage."

But Steingraber said there's not much time left to make changes now hindered by a powerful oil and gas industry.

"I see this as a kind of battle between the future and the past," she said. "We have good data to show that we could entirely run our economy on wind, water and solar, and save lives — we would solve a whole bunch of problems at once."

The rest of the world is advancing, she added, while American industry keeps to its old-fashioned ways.

"The fossil fuel industry isn't voluntarily exiting the stage, so they'll have to be pushed off," she said.

Already doing the pushing are activists in a growing movement that is drawing in many different people and groups as it rolls along. Her role in this activism is to translate the science so people can understand how threats to the climate become public health threats.

She does it poetically as she connects groundwater and raindrops to human blood plasma and cerebral spinal fluid. In some places, the water source is a well; in others, surface water.

"We're all 65 percent water by weight."

It goes in us before we urinate — before it is recycled again into drinking water.

"All the world's water is a big wheel," she said. "We have an intimate relationship with water that you can't opt out of."

And this is why she said the water protectors, an activist movement born fighting an oil pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota "have made sense."

"Water is life," she said, repeating the water protector catchphrase, one heard often at pipeline protests in Sandisfield.

Steingraber's four books include "Living Downstream: A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment" and "Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis." "Living Downstream" was made into a film in 2010.

Her foray into illness and research sparked something in the tenacious scientist's mind. Activism was unavoidable.

"I'm a scientist for the people — for activists but also the general public, who need an entry point," she said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 declared a statewide ban on fracking, in large part because of the efforts of the anti-fracking group she helped start. The group had produced a compendium of all the dangers and harm of fracking, which involves shattering shale bedrock to extract methane, of which most of natural gas is composed.

"Cuomo had to decide whether to dis the industry or dis his constituency," she said. "I saw how science could be a really powerful tool."

The organization had assimilated more than 500 groups, including churches, synagogues and politicians. Steingraber said she used $100,000 she received as an award from The Heinz Family Foundation as seed money to start the group. She was chosen for the award for her work in framing the environmental emergency as a hit on human rights.

Steingraber also knows how to get herself handcuffed for that cause.

She was arrested twice during a two-year fight over a Texas-based company's plan to store methane gas in defunct salt mine pits near Seneca Lake, in New York State's wine-making country.

The gas company called it quits after a big resistance, one that also saw the arrests of "93-year-old great-grandmothers." But activists are still fighting the company, Crestwood, over their plans to store another kind of gas in the mines, which could leak and pollute the water source for 100,000 people and a massive wine tourism industry, she said.

Steingraber thinks it might have been the activism that stopped the methane plans. And she thinks activism might be the only leverage left to get an industry to change.

"People are resurrecting a tool deployed for civil rights and the rights of women to vote," she said. "It's being played out at every pipeline construction site. There are thousands of battlefields in the same war. How do we turn the fossil fuel industry story into the tobacco story? Kids don't even know what ashtrays are anymore."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or @BE_413-329-6871.