Reality, News Perception, and Accuracy

                                                                         

By WALTER BRASCH

 

She quietly walked into the classroom from the front and stood there, just inside the door, against a wall.

I continued my lecture, unaware of her presence until my students’ eyes began focusing upon her rather than me.

“Yes?” I asked. Just “yes.” Nothing more.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said peacefully. I was confused. So she said it again, this time a little sharper.

“Ma’am,” I began, but she cut me off. I tried to defuse the situation, but couldn’t reason with her. She pulled a gun from her purse and shot me, then quickly left. I recovered immediately.

It took less than a minute.

The scene was an exercise in a newswriting class, unannounced but highly planned. My assignment was for the students to quickly write down everything they could about the incident. What happened. What was said. What she looked like. What she was wearing. Just the facts. Nothing more.

Everyone got some of the information right, but no one got all the facts, even the ones they were absolutely positively sure they saw or heard correctly. And, most interestingly, the “gun” the visitor used and which the students either couldn’t identify or misidentified was in reality a . . . banana; a painted black banana, but a banana nevertheless. The actual gun shot was on tape broadcast by a hidden recorder I activated.

It was a lesson in observation and truth. Witnesses often get the facts wrong, unable to distinguish events happening on top of each other. Sometimes they even want to “help” the reporter and say what they think the reporter wants to hear.

Reporters are society’s witnesses who record history by interviewing other witnesses, and they all make mistakes not because they want to but because everyone’s experiences and perceptions fog reality.

Of the infinite number of facts and observations that occur during a meeting, reporters must select a few, and then place them in whatever order they think is most important. Which few they select, which thousands they don’t select--and, more important--which facts they don’t even know exist--all make up a news story, usually written under deadline pressure. Thus, it isn’t unusual for readers to wonder how reporters could have been in the same meeting as they were since the published stories didn’t seem to reflect the reality of the meeting.

But there are some facts that are verifiable. We know that a South American country is spelled “Colombia,” not “Columbia.” We know that Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive Republican. And we know that the current World Series champions are the St. Louis Cardinals not, regrettably, the San Diego Padres.

But, for far too many in my profession, facts and the truth are subverted by a process that has become he said/she said journalism. We take notes at meetings, recording who said what. If there are conflicting statements, we try to quote all the opinions, even the dumb ones, believing we are being “fair and balanced.” If  a news source says the world is flat, we write that, and then see if we can find someone who will say that it is round—or maybe square.

When we write features and personality profiles, we tend to take what we are told, craft it into snappy paragraphs, and hope the readers don’t fall asleep. If someone shyly tells us he earned a Silver Star for heroism during the Vietnam War, we don’t demand to see the certificate—or question how a 50 year old, who was wasn’t even in his teens when the war ended, could actually have served during the Vietnam war.

At the local level, although we’re trained to be cynical, we aren’t. If a mayor or police chief tells us something, we attribute the quote, figuring we did our duty. Maybe we ask a couple of questions, but we tend not to pursue them—we have far too many stories to write and far too little time. Besides, if the facts are wrong, we believe we’re “protected,” since it’s not we who said it but someone else. Legally, of course, we’re still responsible for factual error even if someone else said it and we accurately quote that person, but we don’t worry about the technicalities.

Adequate reporters get their facts from people in authority; the great reporters know truth is probably known by the secretaries, custodians, and other workers. We just have to find the right sources, dig out the facts, and verify them.

And now comes another presidential election, and we continue to perpetuate lies by not challenging those who spout them. Rick Santorum says California’s public colleges don’t teach American history—and we write down his lie. Mitt Romney claims he never said the Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the entire country, that Barack Obama never mentioned the deficit during his state of the union or that the President is constantly apologizing for America, and we write that without challenge. Newt Gingrich, like most Republican candidates for president and Congress, wants us to believe he’s an “outsider” and a fiscal conservative, and we go along with the fiction. Barack Obama said he’d be a leader for defending Constitutional rights, yet willingly signed an extension of the PATRIOT Act, which curtails civil liberties. Pick a candidate—any candidate, any party—and we think we’re “fair” because we record what he or she said, even of it’s a lie, a half-truth, an exaggeration, a distortion, or a misconception. Perhaps American politicians have internalized the wisdom of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Quoting people isn’t journalism—it’s clerking. We’re merely taking words, transcribing them, and publishing them. Journalism demands we challenge our sources and find the truth. As one grizzled city editor said in the late 19th century, if your mother claims to be your mother, demand a birth certificate. It was good advice then; it is even better advice now.

[In a 40-year career as a journalist and professor, Dr. Brasch has won more than 200 awards for excellence in journalism in investigative reporting, feature writing, and for his weekly column. His current book is the critically-acclaimed novel Before the First Snow, which helps explain the rise of the Occupy and anti-fracking movements. The book is available in both ebook and hardcover formats.]

 

 

Collateral Damage in the Marcellus Shale

 

by Walter Brasch

 

There’s nothing to suggest that in his 51 years Kevin June should be a leader.

Not from his high school where he dropped out after his freshman year.

Not from his job, where he worked as an auto body technician for more than 35 years.

Both of his marriages ended in divorce, but did produce two children, a 31-year-old son and a 28-year-old daughter.

June readily admits that for most of his life, beginning about 14 when he began drinking heavily, he was a drunk. Always beer. Almost always to excess. But, he will quickly tell you how many weeks he has been sober. It’s now 56, he says proudly.

In October 2008 he was in an auto accident, when he swerved to miss a deer and hit an oak tree head on. That’s when he learned MRIs showed he had been suffering from degenerative arthritis. Between the accident and the arthritis, he was off work for three months. Then, in May 2009, he was laid off when the company moved.

The pain is now so severe that after about 10 minutes, he has to sit.

Unable to work, surviving on disability income that brings him $1,300 a month, just $392.50 above the poverty line, he lives in the 12-acre Riverdale Mobile Home Village, along the Susquehanna River near Jersey Shore in north-central Pennsylvania. The village has a large green area where families can picnic, relax, or play games, sharing the space with geese and all kinds of animals.

For most of the six years June lived in the village, he kept to himself—chatting with neighbors now and then, but nothing that would ever suggest he’d be a leader. The last time he led anything was almost two decades earlier when he was president of a 4-wheel club.

On Feb. 18, the residents found out their landlord had sold the park, only after reading a story in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The landlord, who the residents say did what he could to make their village safe and attractive, later came to each of the 37 families. He told the families he sold the park and they would have two months to leave. It was abrupt. Business-like. “We knew he was planning to sell,” says June, “but we all thought it would be to someone who would allow us to stay.”

Four days after the residents were ordered to move, certified letters made it official. The owner sold the park to Aqua PVR, a division of Aqua America, headquartered in Bryn Mawr. Sale price was $550,000. It may have been a bargain—land and industrial parks that have been vacant for years are going for premium sales prices as the natural gas boom in the Marcellus Shale consumes a large part of Pennsylvania and four surrounding states.

Aqua had received permission from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) to withdraw three million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna; the 37 families of the mobile home village would just be in the way. The company intends to build a pump station and create a pipe system to provide water to natural gas companies that use hydraulic fracturing, the preferred method to extract natural gas from as deep as 10,000 feet beneath the earth. The process, known as fracking, requires a mixture of sand, chemicals, many of them toxins, and anywhere from one to nine million gallons of water per well, injected into the earth at high pressure. Jersey Shore sits in a northeastern part of the Marcellus Shale, which is believed to hold about 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Aqua isn’t the only company planning to take water in the area. Anadarko E & P Co. and Range Resources-Appalachia have each applied to withdraw up to three million gallons a day from the Susquehanna. While the Delaware River Basic Commission, and the states of New York and Maryland, have imposed moratoriums upon the use of fracking until full health and environmental impacts can be assessed, Pennsylvania and the SRBC have been handing out permits by the gross.

Most residents had only a vague knowledge of fracking and what it is doing to the earth. “They have a lot more knowledge now,” says June, as politically aware as any environmentalist.

Aqua had originally ordered the residents to leave by May 1, but then extended it to the end of the month. It dangled a $2,500 relocation allowance in its eviction.

However, the cost to move a trailer to another park is $6,000–$11,000, plus extra for skirting, sheds, and any handicap-accessible external ramps. But, most trailers can’t be moved. “These are older trailers,” says June. His is a 12-by-70, built in 1974, with a tin roof and tin siding (“tin-on-tin”); like others, it isn’t sturdy enough to survive a move. But even if it did, there would be no place to put it. The parks want the newer trailers, but most parks are full.

So, the residents began looking in the classified ads for rentals. Because the natural gas companies are bringing in thousands of employees to frack the land, there is a shortage of apartments, most with inflated prices to take advantage of the well-paid roustabouts, drivers, and technicians who moved into the area, and spend their money on local businesses eager to improve their own profits. During the past two years, rents have doubled and tripled. “None of us can pay a thousand or more a month,” says June. The current mobile home owners paid $200 a month for their lot.  

Not long after he was served his own eviction notice, June had a dream. Some might call it a nightmare; some might see it as he did, a religious experience. “It was Jesus coming to me, telling me I had to do something,” he says.

June is constantly on the move, going from trailer to trailer to help the families who were abruptly evicted. Whatever their needs, Kevin June tries to provide it, constantly on the phone, running up phone bills he knows he can’t afford but does so anyhow because the lives of his neighbors matter.

There’s Betty and William Whyne. Betty, 82, began working as a waitress at the age of 13 and now, in retirement, makes artificial Christmas trees. She has a cancerous tumor in the same place where a breast was removed in 1991. William, 72, who was an electrician, carpenter, and plumber before he retired after a heart attack, goes to a dialysis center three times a week, four hours each time. They brought their 12-wide 1965 Fleetwoood trailer to the village shortly after the 1972 flood. Like the other residents, they can’t afford to move; they can’t find adequate housing. “We’ve looked at everything in about a 30 mile radius,” they say. They earn $1,478 a month from retirement, only $252.17 above the federal poverty line. One son is in New Jersey; one is in Texas, and the Whynes don’t want to leave the area; they shouldn’t have to.

There’s April and Eric Daniels. She’s a stay-at-home mom for their two children; he’s a truck driver whose hours have been reduced. Their 14-by-70 trailer is valued at $13,200; she and her husband were in the process of remodeling it, had already paid $5,000 for improvements, and were about to start building a second bathroom. April Daniels had grown up living in a series of foster houses, “so I know what it’s like to move around, but this was my first home, and it’s harder for me to leave.” Their trailer provides a good home, but can’t be moved. “We’re pretty much on the verge of just tearing down the trailer and living in a camper,” she says. They don’t know what will happen. They do know that because of what they see as Aqua’s insensitivity, they will lose a lot of money no matter what they do.

Doris Fravel, 82, a widow on a fixed income of $1,326 a month, has lived in the village 38 years. She’s proud of her 1974 12-wide trailer with the tin roof. “I painted it every year,” she says. In June, she paid $3,580 for a new air conditioner; she recently paid $3,000 for new insulated skirting. The trailer has new carpeting. Unlike most of the residents, she found housing—a $450 a month efficiency. But it’s far smaller than her current home. So she’s sold or given away most of what she owns. She may have a buyer for the trailer, and will take $2,500 for it, considerably less than it’s worth. “I can’t do anything else,” she says. “I just can’t move my furnishings into the new apartment,” she says.  Like the other residents, she has family who are helping, but there’s only so much help any family can provide. “I never knew I would ever have to leave,” she says, but she does want to “see one of those gas men come to my door—and I’d like to punch him in the shoulder.”

Not only are there few lots available and apartments are too expensive, but most residents don’t qualify for a house mortgage; and there are waiting lists for senior citizen and low-income housing. The stories are the same.

No one from Aqua has been in touch with any resident. But, the company did hire a local real estate agency. The agency claims it has made extraordinary efforts to help the residents find other housing. The residents disagree. April Daniels says “some of the Realtors have gotten real nasty with the people in the park—they just don’t understand that we are all in a hardship, so we get mad and frustrated and take it out on them.” But there really isn’t much anyone can do. The natural gas boom has made affordable housing as obsolete as the anthracite coal that once drove the region’s energy economy.

The residents, with limited incomes, have lived good lives; they are good people. They paid their rents and fees on time; they kept up the appearances of their trailers and the land around it. They worked their jobs; they survived. Until they were evicted

And now it’s up to the residents to try to survive. They have become closer; they listen to each other; they hug each other; and, the tough men aren’t afraid to let others see them cry. “The pain in this park is almost too much at times,” says June.

If something goes wrong, the residents have to fix it; Kevin June is the one they call. If he can’t fix a problem, he finds someone who can. In this trailer park, as in most communities, there is a lot of talent—“we help each other,” says June. His job is to make sure the residents survive. I’ve had the Holy Spirit running through my veins a long time, but it’s running real deep right now,” he says.

A half-dozen families have already moved, but most say they will stay and fight what they see as a politically-based corporate takeover.

During the week Aqua PVR issued eviction notices, its parent company issued a news release, boasting that its revenue for 2011 was $712 million, a 4.2 percent increase from the year before; its net income was $143.1 million, up 15.4 percent from the previous year. But, for some reason, the company just couldn’t find enough money to give the residents a fair moving settlement. “They just expect us to throw our homes into the street and live in tents,” says June.

“I went to see a state representative to ask what he could do to help,” he says, “but his secretary just coldly told me there was nothing that could be done because whoever owns a property can do with it what he wants to do.” He never saw the state representative.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—armed with an industry-favorable law recently rammed through by the Republican-controlled legislature and eagerly signed by a first-term Republican governor who received more than $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the energy industry—has decided that fracking the earth, threatening health and the environment, is far better for business than taking care of the people.

Kevin June and 36 families are just collateral damage.

[Tax-deductible donations may be made to the Riverdale Fund, c/o Sovereign Bank, 222 Allegheny St., Jersey Shore, Pa. 17740; 570-398-1540. Dr. Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist and author of 17 books. His current book is Before the First Snow, available in hardcover and ebook editions from Greeley & Stone, Publishers; amazon; and other book stores.]

 

 

The Late Great Commonwealth: Catching Up to the Republican Primary

                                                     by WALTER BRASCH

                                                               

It’s the beginning of April, and that means I have just finished celebrating New Year’s Eve, and will soon begin shopping for Valentine’s gifts. In a month or two, I may even get around to toasting St. Patrick.

It’s not procrastination, it’s just that I’m a Pennsylvanian, and the state encourages me to be behind the times. At one time, Pennsylvania was first in just about everything-—and then Ben Franklin died. Since then, we’ve been first in ridiculous license plate slogans.

When other states, including those settled by Puritans, got rid of their “blue laws,” Pennsylvania still bans the sale of cars on Sundays. By archaic practices, it still allows municipal governments and school districts to raise taxes and create more buildings without giving the people the right of a vote, common in most states. It is also the only state that still taxes people for income, property, and their occupation. Forty-nine other states believe pigeon shoots are animal cruelty; we proudly proclaim our state as the last bastion of the right to “bear arms and blast birds.” And, we don’t allow Independents to vote in our primaries.

Iowa, with anomalies known as a straw poll and a caucus, is the first major battleground in presidential races, having usurped New Hampshire, which thought having the official primary was a birthright dating to when granite first showed up in the state. Nevertheless, whether Iowa or New Hampshire, Americans understand that the people need something to break them out of their Winter funk when snow covers what will eventually become cornfields in Iowa and the ski lifts of New Hampshire will no longer be inoperable because of blizzards.

With nothing else to do in January, the media schussed into the Hawkeye State—just as soon as they could find enough chauffeurs to drive them to wherever Iowa is. With megawatt lights and dimly-lit minds, they infiltrated the state so that the voters not only had their own individualized politicians, they also had their own puppy-dog reporters prancing brightly behind them to the coffee shop, factory, and bathroom.

Surrounded by the media who smugly said they were only telling the public what they needed to know to defend and preserve democracy—and millions in advertising revenue—the candidates played to the press, attacking each other rather than attacking the issues. In neatly-packaged seven-second sound bites, politicians and the media sliced, diced, and crunched the campaign to fit onto a 21-inch screen.

Because of an inner need to believe they matter, the media predict who will win the nomination, changing their predictions as quickly as a fashionista changes shoes. For what seemed to be decades, the ink-stained bandwagon has pulled voters and campaign dollars, and left Pennsylvania voters waiting at the altar for candidates who don’t care anymore, abandoned by the media who have found other “stories of the week.”

For all practical purposes, the Pennsylvania primaries, with large slates of uncontested local and state races, is about as useless as a Department of Ethnic Studies at Bob Jones University. By the time the 2000 primary rolled into Pennsylvania, Al Gore and George W. Bush each had 65 percent of the delegate vote needed for their parties’ nomination. In 2004, Bush and John Kerry had already locked up the nominations. In 2008, Pennsylvania became a pivotal state for the Democrats for the first time since 1976, with Hillary Clinton defeating Barack Obama before losing the nomination by June. For the Republicans, it was “business as usual,” with John McCain having already sewn up the nomination.

A Republican needs 1,144 delegate votes to get the nomination. Mitt Romney, America’s best runner-up, has 568; two-term senator Rick Santorum, recovering from a blistering loss to a moderate Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 2006 Senate campaign, has 273; Ron Paul, who may or may not be a Republican, has 50. Newt Gingrich has 135 delegates; however, this week he announced he downsized his staff and campaign, and is layin’ low—except, of course, for the times he can get free TV time to lambaste Romney and Santorum who are engaged in a vicious personal battle that has bubbled out of the TV ad cauldron.

The April 3 primaries will add a maximum of 98 delegates. And that brings Super Northeast Tuesday, April 24. The Republican leftovers and their never-ending TV ads will blitz Pennsylvania, which might even become relevant.

Even if Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island—and Pennsylvania with 72 of the 231 delegate votes—go for Romney, it won’t be enough to get him the nomination. However, it will be enough to cause major financial backers to pull their support for Santorum and what’s left of the Gingrich campaign, leaving Romney to flip-flop into the Republican nomination convention, Aug. 27, in Tampa, Fla.—which seems to be the Republicans’ destiny.

[Dr. Brasch has covered political campaigns for more than three decades. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed fast-paced mystery Before the First Snow, available at amazon.com and his publisher, Greeley & Stone.]Within the next week, another nine states voted.

 

 

FRACKING: Corruption a Part of Pennsylvania’s Heritage

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

(part 3 of 3)

           

The history of energy exploration, mining, and delivery is best understood in a range from benevolent exploitation to worker and public oppression. A company comes into an area, leases land in rural and agricultural areas for mineral rights, increases employment, usually in a depressed economy, strips the land of its resources, creates health problems for its workers and those in the immediate area, and then leaves.

It makes no difference if it’s timber, oil, or coal. In the 1970s and 1980s, the nuclear energy industry promised well-paying jobs, clean energy, and a safe health and work environment. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima Daiichi, and thousands of violations issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, have shown that even with strict operating guidelines, nuclear energy isn’t as clean and safe as claimed. Like all other energy industries, nuclear power isn’t infinite. Most plants have a 40–50 year life cycle. After that, the plant becomes so radioactive hot that it must be sealed.

In the early 21st century, the natural gas industry follows the model of the other energy corporations, and uses the same rhetoric. James M. Taylor, senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, claims on the Institute’s website, “The newfound abundance of domestic gas reserves promises unprecedented energy prosperity and security.”

The energy policy during the eight years of the George W. Bush–Dick Cheney administration was to give favored status to the industry, often at the expense of the environment. In addition to negating Bill Clinton’s strong support for the Kyoto Protocol, signed by 191 countries, to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, former oil company executives Bush and Cheney pushed to open significant federal land, including the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), to drilling that would disrupt the ecological balance in one of the nation’s most pristine areas.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), published in 2004 concluded that fracking was of little or no risk to human health. However, Wes Wilson, a 30-year EPA environmental engineer, in a letter to members of Congress and the EPA inspector general, called that study “scientifically unsound,” and questioned the bias of the panel, noting that five of the seven members had significant ties to the industry. “EPA’s failure to regulate [fracking] appears to be improper under the Safe Water Drinking Act and may result in danger to public health and safety.”

The following year, the Energy Policy Act of 2005—on a 249–183 vote in the House and an 85–12 vote in the Senate—exempted the oil and natural gas industry from the Safe Water Drinking Act. That exemption applied to the “construction of new well pads and the accompanying new roads and pipelines.” The National Defense Resource Council noted that the EPA interpreted the exemption “as allowing unlimited discharges of sediment into the nation’s streams, even where those discharges contribute to a violation of state water quality standards.” The exemption became known derisively as the Halliburton Loophole, named for one of the nation’s major energy companies, of which Cheney, whose promotion of Big Business and opposition to environmental policies is well-documented, had once been the CEO.

Bills introduced in the U.S. House (H.R. 2766) and U.S. Senate (S. 1215) in June 2009 to give federal regulatory oversight under the Safe Water Drinking Act to hydraulic fracturing languished. New bills (H.R. 1084 and S. 587), introduced in March 2011 in the 112th Congress, are also expected to die without a vote.

The natural gas industry has a long history of effective lobbying at the state and national level. America’s Natural Gas Alliance has four former Congressmen as lobbyists, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Through various political action committees (PACs), the industry has contributed about $238.7 million in campaign contributions, about three-fourths of it to Republican candidates, since 1990, according to the CRP. For the 2008 election, the gas and oil industry contributed $27.4 million, including contributions from individuals, PACs, and soft money, according to CRP data. Total contributions for the current election cycle, as of mid-March, are $20.6 million, with almost 90 percent of it going to Republicans.

At the federal level, the top recipients of oil and gas contributions during the current election cycle, according to the CRP, are former presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry of Texas ($833,674), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst of Texas ($650,850), presidential hopeful Mitt Romney ($597,950), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ($264,700), and Sen. John Barasso of Wyoming ($225,400), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Every one of the top 20 recipients is a Republican.

Barack Obama, although significantly more environmental friendly than his predecessor, had opened up off-shore drilling just prior to the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast in April 2010. He has repeatedly spoken against the heavy use and dependence upon fossil fuels, and sees the expanded use of natural gas as a transition fuel to expanded use of wind and solar energy. Nevertheless, he has still received funding from the natural gas industry. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he received $920,922 from the oil and gas industry, according to data compiled by the CRP. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, according to CRP, accepted $2,543,154.

In contrast, the 1.4 million member Sierra Club, since August 2010, has refused to accept any donations from the natural gas industry. The Sierra Club, which has actively opposed the development of coal as an energy source, had received $27 million since 2007 from Chesapeake Energy. By 2010, “our view of natural gas [and fracking] had changed [and we] stopped the funding relationship between the Club and the gas industry, and all fossil fuel companies or executives,” says Michael Brune, Sierra’s executive director.

 

Mixed into Pennsylvania’s energy production is not only a symbiotic relationship of business and government, but a history of corruption and influence-peddling. Between 1859, when an economical method to drill for oil was developed near Titusville, Pa., and 1933, the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Pennsylvania, under almost continual Republican administration, was among the nation’s most corrupt states. The robber barons of the timber, oil, coal, steel, and transportation industries essentially bought their right to be unregulated. In addition to widespread bribery, the energy industries, especially coal, assured the election of preferred candidates by giving pre-marked ballots to workers, many of whom didn’t read English.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times in March 2011, John Wilmer, a former attorney for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), explained that “Pennsylvania’s shameful legacy of corruption and mismanagement caused 2,500 miles of streams to be totally dead from acid mine drainage; left many miles of scarred landscape; enriched the coal barons; and impoverished the local citizens.” His words serve as a warning about what is happening in the natural gas fields.

Pennsylvania’s new law that regulates and gives favorable treatment to the natural gas industry was initiated and passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The House voted 101–90 for passage; the Senate voted, 31–19. Both votes were mostly along party lines.

In addition to forbidding physicians and health care professionals from disclosing what the industry believes are “trade secrets” in what it uses in fracking that may cause air and water pollution, there are other industry-favorable provisions. The new law guts local governments’ rights of zoning and long-term planning, doesn’t allow for local health and environmental regulation, forbids municipalities to appeal state decisions about well permits, and provides subsidies to the natural gas industry and payments for out-of-state workers to get housing but provides for no incentives or tax credits to companies to hire Pennsylvania workers. It also requires companies to provide fresh water, which can be bottled water, to areas in which they contaminate the water supply, but doesn’t require the companies to clean up the pollution or even to track transportation and deposit of contaminated wastewater. The law allows companies to place wells 300 feet from houses, streams and wetlands. The law also allows compressor stations to be placed 750 feet from houses, and gives natural gas companies authority to operate these stations continuously at up to 60 decibels, the equivalent of continuous conversation in restaurants. The noise level and constant artificial lighting has adverse effects upon wildlife. As a result of all the concessions, the natural gas industry is given special considerations not given any other business or industry in Pennsylvania.

Each well is expected to generate about $16 million during its lifetime, which can be as few as ten years, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC). The effective tax and impact fee is about 2 percent. Corbett had originally wanted no tax or impact fees placed upon natural gas drilling; as public discontent increased, he suggested a 1 percent tax, which was in the original House bill. In contrast, other states that allow natural gas fracking have tax rates as high as 7.5 percent of market value (Texas) and 25–50 percent of net income (Alaska). The Pennsylvania rate can vary, based upon the price of natural gas and inflation, but will still be among the five lowest of the 32 states that allow natural gas drilling. Over the lifetime of a well, Pennsylvania will collect about $190,000–$350,000, while West Virginia will collect about $993,700, Texas will collect about $878,500, and Arkansas will collect about $555,700, according to PBPC data and analyses.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from suburban Philadelphia, says he opposed the bill because, “At a time when we are closing our schools and eliminating vital human services, to leave billions on the table as a gift to industry that is already going to be making billions is obscene.” State Rep. Mark Cohen, a Democrat from Philadelphia, like most of the Democrats in the General Assembly, agrees. The legislation, he says, “produces far too little revenue for local communities, gives the local communities local taxing power which most of them do not want, because it pits one community against the other, and gives no revenue at all to other areas of the state.”

The new law is generally believed to be “payback” by Corbett and the Republican legislators for campaign contributions. The industry contributed about $7.2 million to Pennsylvania candidates and their PACs between 2000 and the end of 2010, including $860,825 to the Republican party and $129,100 to the Democratic party, according to data compiled by Common Cause. In addition, the natural gas industry contributed about $1.6 million to Corbett’s political campaigns during the past 10 years, about $1.1 million of that for his campaign for governor, according to Common Cause. Rep. Brian L. Ellis (R-Butler County), sponsor of the House bill, received $23,300. Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati (R- Warren, Pa.), the senate president pro-tempore who sponsored the companion Senate bill (SB 1100), received $293,334. Of the 20 Pennsylvania legislators who received the most money from the industry since 2001, 16 are Republicans, according to Common Cause.

Rep. H. William DeWeese (D-Waynesburg, Pa.), received $58,750, the most of the four Democrats. DeWeese, first elected in 1976, had been Speaker of the House and Democratic leader.

It’s possible that the significant campaign contributions didn’t influence Pennsylvania’s politicians to rush to embrace the natural gas industry and its controversial use of hydraulic fracking. It’s possible that these politicians had always believed in fracking, and the natural gas industry was merely contributing to the campaigns of those who believed as they do. However, with the heavy amount of money spent by the natural gas lobby and, apparently, willingly accepted by certain politicians, there is no way to know how they might have voted had no money or lobbying occurred.

Tom Corbett’s first major political appointment after his election in November 2010 was to name C. Alan Walker, an energy company executive, to head the Department of Community and Economic Development. The Pennsylvania Progressive identified Walker as “an ardent anti-environmentalist and someone who hates regulation of his industry.” A ProPublica investigation revealed that Walker had given $184,000 to Corbett’s political campaign.

Shortly after taking office, Corbett repealed environmental assessments of gas wells in state parks. The result could be as many as 2,200 well pads on almost 90 percent of all public lands, according to Nature Conservancy of Pennsylvania.

Corbett’s public announcements in March 2011, two months after his inauguration, established the direction for gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

In his first budget address, Corbett boldly declared he wanted to “make Penn­syl­va­nia the hub of this [drilling] boom. Just as the oil com­pa­nies decided to head­quar­ter in one of a dozen states with oil, let’s make Penn­syl­va­nia the Texas of the nat­ural gas boom. I’m deter­mined that Penn­syl­va­nia not lose this moment.” Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley would later boast, “The Marcellus [Shale] is revitalizing our main streets in downtowns.”

Within the budget bill, Corbett authorized Walker to “expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.” This unprecedented reach apparently applied to all energy industries. That same month, Corbett created an Advisory Commission, loaded with persons from business and industry. Not one member was from the health professions; of the seven state agencies represented, not one member was from the Department of Health. 

Between 2007 and the end of 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued 1,435 violations to natural gas companies; 952 of those violations related to potential harm to the environment. In March, Michael Krancer, the new DEP secretary, also a political appointee, took personal control over his department’s issuance of any violations. By Krancer’s decree, every inspector could no longer cite any well owner in the Marcellus Shale development without first getting the approval of Krancer and his executive deputy secretary.

“It’s an extraordinary directive [that] represents a break from how business has been done” and politicizes the process, John Hanger told ProPublica. Hanger, DEP secretary under the Ed Rendell administration, said the new rules “will cause the public to lose confidence entirely in the inspection process.” He told the Scranton Times-Tribune the new policy was the equivalent of every trooper having to get permission from the state police commissioner before issuing a traffic citation.  Because the new policy is so unusual and broad “it’s impossible for something like this to be issued without the direction and knowledge of the governor’s office,” said Hanger. Corbett denied he was responsible for the decision. Five weeks after the Krancer decision was leaked to the media, and following a strong negative response from the public, environmental groups, and the state’s media, the DEP rescinded the policy—which Krancer claimed was only a three-month “pilot program.”

“When state agencies say they will ‘regulate’ or ‘monitor’ hydraulic fracturing to reduce known threats, we should not accept this as a guarantee of any kind,” says Eileen Fay, an animal rights/environmental writer. Fay argues that because of legislative corruption, it is a responsibility of citizens to protect their own health and environment by “putting pressure on our legislators.”

In February 2012, Corbett proudly signed Act 13, a merger of the House and Senate bills.

HB 1950 had initially included a provision to provide up to $2 million a year in funding to the Department of Health for “collecting and disseminating information, preparing and conducting  health care provider outreach and education and investigating health related complaints and other uses associated with unconventional natural gas production activity.” That provision, strongly supported by numerous public health and environmental groups, was deleted in the final bill.

The Pennsylvania Constitution (Article I, section 27) declares: “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

However, unlike New York state, which placed a moratorium on well permits while it is evaluating the health and environmental risks, Pennsylvania has rushed to embrace the natural gas industry and its use of fracking, apparently disregarding its own Constitution. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has routinely approved requests from drillers to remove millions of gallons of water each day from the river, although the commissioners have not requested any health impact statements or undertaken a complete cumulative impact study, according to Iris Marie Bloom, an environmental writer and activist. Because of the nature of the Marcellus Shale deposit in Pennsylvania, as opposed to neighboring states, natural gas companies have to transport the wastewater to other states for re-use or disposal or take it to sewage treatment plants. The plants then discharge the treated wastewater into the state’s rivers. However, present methods can’t remove the salt and some other chemicals and radioactive elements. Currently, about 11 million gallons of wastewater a day are taken from the Susquehanna for fracking operations; about three times that amount is anticipated when fracking reaches its peak in the state, according to Paul Swartz, Commission executive director. In contrast, the Delaware River Basic Commission has put a moratorium on taking water from that river until studies have been completed.

Pennsylvania is “handing out permits almost like popcorn in a theater,” says Diane Siegmund, a psychologist from Towanda. Between Jan. 1, 2005 and March 2, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 10,232 permits, and denied only 36 requests.

Siegmund is frustrated by what she sees not only as state government’s acceptance of fracking but of numerous local governments in the Marcellus Shale region from speaking out on behalf of the preservation of health and the environment. When she went to the Bradford County commissioners with stacks of research about problems with fracking, “all they did was to thank me and claim it’s not their problem.” She says residents are beginning to believe that local governments are operating in collusion with the energy companies.

But it isn’t just governments. The issue of fracking has divided towns like Dimock, Pa. In November 2009, 15 residents sued Cabot Oil and Gas, charging that the company contaminated their drinking water. Tests conducted by the DEP during the last years of the Ed Rendell administration had revealed there was higher than expected methane gas in 18 water wells that provided drinking water to 13 homes near the drills. The build-up of methane gas had also led to well explosions and DEP warnings to citizens to keep their windows open. Among the provisions of a consent order, the state required Cabot to provide fresh water to families whose water had been affected by the excess methane gas. Cabot denied its fracking operation was responsible for the elevated levels. On Nov. 30, 2011, after the DEP, now under the Tom Corbett administration, declared the water to be safe to drink, Cabot stopped delivering water.

And then something strange happened. The town of Binghamton, N.Y., about 35 miles north, said it would provide a tanker of fresh water. However, the supervisors of Dimock Twp., supported by most of the 140 residents who attended the meeting, most of them with some economic ties to the natural gas industry, refused the offer. According to reporting in the Scranton Times-Tribune, when Binghamton mayor Matthew T. Ryan asked “Why not let people help?” he was rebuffed by one of the township’s three supervisors who snapped, “Why should we haul them water? They got themselves into this. You keep your nose in Binghamton.”

In January 2012, after declaring that the water “contains levels of contaminants that pose a health concern,” the EPA decided it would bring water to residents in Dimock. The response by Cabot was that the EPA was wasting taxpayer money in its investigation of Cabot environmental and health practices. The response by Pennsylvania’s DEP was almost as inflammatory as the water in the taps. Michael Krancer, DEP’s head, not only disagreed with the EPA findings, he called the agency’s knowledge of fracking to be “rudimentary.”

In mid-March, following preliminary tests on several of the wells serving Dimock residents, the EPA found that the water “did not show levels of contamination that could present a health concern.” However, it acknowledged arsenic, some metals, and potentially explosive methane gas remained in the water. A ProPublica investigation revealed that four of the five water samples it obtained showed methane levels exceeding Pennsylvania standards.

“We are deeply troubled by Region 3’s rush to judge the science before testing is even complete, and by their apparent disregard for established standards of drinking water safety,” said Claire Sandberg, executive director of Water Defense. She questioned why EPA Region 3’s handling of the Dimock case differed from how other EPA regional offices handled similar cases in Texas and Wyoming when it didn’t release the information until all testing was completed. Dr. Ron Bishop, professor of biochemistry at SUNY/Oneonta, told ProPublica, “Any suggestion that water from these wells is safe for domestic use would be preliminary or inappropriate.”

The extraction of natural gas has also led to the development of other industries—and the exploitation of the people. In Jersey Shore, Pa., about 20 miles west of Williamsport, Aqua PVR bought a 37-unit mobile home village, with plans to build a water withdrawal plant to provide up to three million gallons a day to the natural gas industry. The day the purchase was completed on Feb. 23, 2012, Aqua told the residents their leases were terminated “immediately,” according to reporting in the Sun-Gazette. The company gave residents until May 1 to leave. To sweeten what may be seen as a callous corporate action, Aqua said it would give $2,500 to each resident who moved by April 1, and $1,500 if they moved by May 1. However, as the Sun-Gazette reported, the cost to move each mobile home ranged from $5,000 to $12,000. Many of the residents lived in the village more than a decade; one was there 38 years. The newspaper reported that most trailer parks in the area were already at maximum occupancy, and others would not accept the older trailers.

“Residents are afraid to speak up,” says Diane Siegmund, who points out there is “a lot of fear” among the residents, those whose lives are being uprooted, those whose health is being compromised, and those whose economic benefits may be compromised if fracking operations are reduced.

“As long as the powers can keep the people isolated and fragmented,” says Siegmund, “the momentum for change can never be gained.” The experience in Dimock and Jersey Shore is seen throughout the Marcellus Shale region.

It’s not unreasonable to expect people who are unemployed or underemployed to grasp for anything to help themselves and their families, nor is it unreasonable to expect that persons—roustabouts, clerks, truck drivers, helicopter pilots, among several hundred thousand in dozens of job classifications—will take better paid jobs, even if it often means 60 hour work weeks under hazardous conditions. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that families living in agricultural and rural areas, who are struggling to survive, will snap at the lure of several thousand dollars to lease mineral rights and some of their land to an energy company, which will also pay royalties. But what is unreasonable is that government allows corporations to flourish at the expense of the people and their environment.

The Sierra Club urges that the country needs “to leapfrog over gas whenever possible in favor of truly clean energy. Instead of rushing to see how quickly we can extract natural gas, we should be focusing on how to be sure we are using less—and safeguarding our health and environment in the meantime.”

Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, calls for more research studies that “include all the ways people can be exposed [to health hazards], such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals.”

In November 2011, the Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Energy concluded: “The public deserves assurance that the full economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing public health, environmental protection and safety.”

When the history of natural gas exploration in Pennsylvania is finally written, the story will be that it was a cheaper, cleaner energy source, and that it temporarily helped some people in rural areas, and brought some well-paying jobs into the state. But history will probably also record that the lure of immediate gratification led Pennsylvania’s politicians to willingly accept political donations that led them to sacrifice their citizens’ health and the state’s environment.

 [Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, were Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee. Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His current book is Before the First Snow, a critically-acclaimed novel that looks at what happens when government and energy companies form a symbiotic relationship, using ‘cheaper, cleaner’ fuel and the lure of jobs in a depressed economy but at the expense of significant health and environmental impact. The book is available at amazon.com and from the publisher, Greeley & Stone.]

 

 

 

FRACKING: Health, Environmental Impact Greater Than Claimed

 

By WALTER BRASCH

 

 (This is Part 2 of 3. Part 1 looked at a state gag order on physicians; Part 3 examines why Pennsylvania is giving special consideration to the natural gas companies.)  

 

The natural gas industry defends hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, as safe and efficient. Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-industry non-profit organization, claims fracking has been “a widely deployed as safe extraction technique,” dating back to 1949. What he doesn’t say is that until recently energy companies had used low-pressure methods to extract natural gas from fields closer to the surface than the current high-pressure technology that extracts more gas, but uses significantly more water, chemicals, and elements.

The industry claims well drilling in the Marcellus Shale will bring several hundred thousand jobs, and has minimal health and environmental risk. President Barack Obama in his January 2012 State of the Union, said he believes the development of natural gas as an energy source to replace fossil fuels could generate 600,000 jobs.

However, research studies by economists Dr. Jannette M. Barth, Dr. Deborah Rogers, and others debunk the idea of significant job creation.

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says “no evidence directly connects injection of fracking fluid into shale with aquifer contamination.” Fracking “has never been found to contaminate a water well,” says Christine Cronkright, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Research studies and numerous incidents of water contamination prove otherwise.

In late 2010, equipment failure may have led to toxic levels of chemicals in the well water of at least a dozen families in Conoquenessing Twp. in Butler County. Township officials and Rex Energy, although acknowledging that two of the drilling wells had problems with the casings, claimed there were pollutants in the drinking water before Rex moved into the area. John Fair disagrees. “Everybody had good water a year ago,” Fair told environmental writer and activist Iris Marie Bloom in February 2012. Bloom says residents told her the color of water changed (to red, orange, and gray) after Rex began drilling. Among chemicals detected in the well water, in addition to methane gas, were ammonia, arsenic, chloromethane, iron, manganese, t-butyl alcohol, and toluene. While not acknowledging that its actions could have caused the pollution, Rex did provide fresh water to the residents, but then stopped doing so on Feb. 29, 2012, after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said the well water was safe. The residents vigorously disagreed and staged protests against Rex; environmental activists and other residents trucked in portable water jugs to help the affected families. Jospeh P. McMurry of the Marcellus Outreach Butler blog (MOB) declared that residents’ “lives have been severely disrupted and their health has been severely impacted. To unceremoniously ‘close the book’ on investigations into their troubles when so many indicators point to the culpability of the gas industry for the disruption of their lives is unconscionable.”

In April 2011, near Towanda, Pa., seven families were evacuated after about 10,000 gallons of wastewater contaminated an agricultural field and a stream that flows into the Susquehanna River, the result of an equipment failure, according to the Bradford County Emergency Management Agency.

The following month, DEP fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000, the largest amount in the state’s history, for allowing methane gas to pollute the drinking water of 16 families in Bradford County during the previous year. The DEP noted there may have been toxic methane emissions from as many as six wells in five towns. The DEP also fined Chesapeake $188,000 for a fire at a well in Washington County that injured three workers.

In January 2012, an equipment failure at a drill site in Susquehanna County led to a spill of several thousand gallons of fluid for almost a half-hour, causing “potential pollution,” according to the DEP. In its citation to Carizzo Oil and Gas, the DEP “strongly” recommended that the company cease drilling at all 67 wells “until the cause of this problem and a solution are identified.”

In December 2011, the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking operations could be responsible for groundwater pollution.

“Today’s methods make gas drilling a filthy business. You know it’s bad when nearby residents can light the water coming out of their tap on fire,” says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. What’s causing the fire is the methane from the drilling operations. A ProPublica investigation in 2009 revealed methane contamination was widespread in drinking water in areas around fracking operations in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania. The presence of methane in drinking water in Dimock, Pa., had become the focal point for Josh Fox’s investigative documentary, Gasland, which received an Academy Award nomination in 2011 for Outstanding Documentary; Fox also received an Emmy for non-fiction directing. Fox’s interest in fracking intensified when a natural gas company offered $100,000 for mineral rights on property his family owned in Milanville, in the extreme northeast part of Pennsylvania, about 60 miles east of Dimock.

“Some of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing—or liberated by it—are carcinogens,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber told members of the Environmental Conservation and Health committee of the New York State Assembly. Dr. Steingraber, a biologist and distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, pointed out that some of the chemicals “are neurological poisons with suspected links to learning deficits in children,” while others “are asthma triggers. Some, especially the radioactive ones, are known to bioaccumulate in milk. Others are reproductive toxicants that can contribute to pregnancy loss.”

An investigation by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, based upon thousands of unreported EPA documents and a confidential study by the natural gas industry, concluded, “Radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.” Urbina learned that wastewater from fracking operations was about 100 times more toxic than federal drinking water standards; 15 wells had readings about 1,000 times higher than standards.

Research by Dr. Ronald Bishop, a biochemist at SUNY/Oneonta, suggests that fracking to extract methane gas “is highly likely to degrade air, surface water and ground-water quality, to harm humans, and to negatively impact aquatic and forest ecosystems.” He notes that “potential exposure effects for humans will include poisoning of susceptible tissues, endocrine disruption syndromes, and elevated risk for certain cancers.” Every well, says Dr. Bishop, “will generate a sediment discharge of approximately eight tons per year into local waterways, further threatening federally endangered mollusks and other aquatic organisms.” In addition to the environmental pollution by the fracking process, Dr. Bishop believes “intensive use of diesel-fuel equipment will degrade air quality [that could affect] humans, livestock, and crops.”

Equally important are questions about the impact of as many as 200 diesel-fueled trucks each day bringing water to the site and then removing the wastewater. In addition to the normal diesel emissions of trucks, there are also problems of leaks of the contaminated water.

“We need to know how diesel fuel got into some people’s water supply,” says Diane Siegmund, a clinical psychologist from Towanda, Pa. “It wasn’t there before the companies drilled wells; it’s here now,” she says. Siegmund is also concerned about contaminated dust and mud. “There is no oversight on these,” she says, “but those trucks are muddy when they leave the well sites, and dust may have impact miles from the well sites.”

Research “strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife,” according to Dr. Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Dr. Robert E. Oswald,a biochemist and professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University. Their study, published in New Solutions, an academic journal in environmental health, documents evidence of milk contamination, breeding problems, and cow mortality in areas near fracking operations as higher than in areas where no fracking occurred. Drs. Bamberger and Oswald noted that some of the symptoms present in humans from what may be polluted water from fracking operations include rashes, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and severe irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. For animals, the symptoms often led to reproductive problems and death.

Significant impact upon wildlife is also noted in a 900-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) conducted by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and filed in September 2011. According to the EIS, “In addition to loss of habitat, other potential direct impacts on wildlife from drilling in the Marcellus Shale include increased mortality . . . altered microclimates, and increased traffic, noise, lighting, and well flares.” The impact, according to the report, “may include a loss of genetic diversity, species isolation, population declines . . . increased predation, and an increase of invasive species.” The report concludes that because of fracking, there is “little to no place in the study areas where wildlife would not be impacted, [leading to] serious cascading ecological consequences.” The impact, of course, affects the quality of milk and meat production as animals drink and graze near areas that have been taken over by the natural gas industry.  

Research by a team of scientists from Duke University revealed “methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems [that is] associated with shale-gas extraction.” The data and conclusions, published in the May 2011 issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that not only did most drinking wells near drilling sites have methane, but those closest to the drilling wells, about a half-mile, had an average of 17 times the methane of  those of other wells.

Before a Congressional hearing, Michael Krancer, Gov. Tom Corbett’s DEP secretary, claimed studies that showed toxic methane gas in drinking water were “bogus,” and specifically cited as “sta­tis­ti­cally and tech­ni­cally biased” the Duke University study. Two of the study’s researchers fired back. In an OpEd article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh suggested, “Rather than working to discredit any science that challenges his views, the secretary and his agency should be working to get to the bottom of the science with an open mind.”

As if water pollution wasn’t bad enough, fracking operations may also impact the air and increase greenhouse gas levels. A team of researchers from Cornell University determined that the leaking of methane gas into the air from fracking operations could have a greater negative impact upon the environment than either oil or coal. In the May 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed Climatic Change Letters, environmental biologist Dr. Robert Howarth, engineer Dr. Tony Ingraffea, and ecology researcher Renee Santoro, conclude, “The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”

The response by the industry and its political allies to the scientific studies of the health and environmental effects of fracking “has approached the issue in a manner similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer,” say Drs. Bamberger and Oswald. Not only do they call for “full disclosure and testing of air, water, soil, animals, and humans,” but point out that with lax oversight, “the gas drilling boom . . . will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.”

Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician in Coraopolis, Pa., says she doesn’t want her patients “to be guinea pigs who provide the next generation the statistical proof of health problems as in what happened with those exposed to asbestos or to cigarette smoke.”

[Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, were Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee. Dr. Walter Brasch’s current book is Before the First Snow, a critically-acclaimed novel that looks at what happens when government and energy companies form a symbiotic relationship, using “cheaper, cleaner” fuel and the lure of jobs in a depressed economy but at the expense of significant health and environmental impact. The book is available at amazon.com and from the publisher, Greeley & Stone.]

 

 

Star Gazing: Comets, Actors, and Angelina’s Right Leg

 

 

 

                                                     by WALTER BRASCH

 

In 1973, some friends and I went to the rooftop of our apartment building to watch Comet Kahoutek, touted by astronomers and the media as the comet of all comets. We were sure we’d see it since we had the requisite equipment—binoculars and beer.

But we didn’t see the comet. Not that night nor the next night. What we did see was a lot of universe. And while we talked about the ungrateful comet that barely shone against a perfect sky, we explored a lot of questions about life, relationships, and our place in the universe. And we realized that no matter how egocentric we were, or how many kudos we earned from our peers, the universe must have a greater mission or reason for being than just to provide support for a few college students.

Growing up and working in Southern California, stars have been a part of my life. I could go to the Griffith Park and Mt. Palomar observatories; I could also hang around places where stars, near-stars, and pretend-stars walked, shopped, and ate.

Probably, that’s why I have a number of concerns about stars that are light years away and stars that are as far away as a TV or movie screen.

I’m concerned about our planet’s own star. Astrophysicists—the kind who actually know what warp speed means and why Scotty can’t give Capt. Kirk any more power—have determined that the sun is five billion years old, and will burn out in another five billion years. I’m concerned that no one knows how to treat a star for mid-life crises.

And speaking of stars with mid-life crises, I wish the media would stop wasting ink and airtime about every 50s- or 60s-year-old male actor who dates a 20-something female? If they want to date someone who scratches her head when the name Paul McCartney comes up, and then, as if two brain cells connected, suddenly asks if McCartney wasn’t that old guy in some band named Wings—well, that’s their own business.

I’m concerned that weeks before the Academy Awards, entertainment media know-it-alls tell us their predictions, encapsulated by a “who should win/who will win” story of erudite nonsense. Minutes after the ceremony, they trumpet their few correct predictions and mute their pomposity by telling us that such-and-such Oscar was a major upset, as if some magical fairy changed the votes without telling them.

I’m concerned that TV reporters parade their “intimacy” with the stars by calling them by their “close-friend-only” names. We all know about “Sly” Stallone, “Bob” Redford, and “Bobby” Duvall. The media called Elizabeth Taylor “Liz,” possibly because they had trouble pronouncing a four-syllable word; Taylor hated to be called Liz, but that made little difference. Maybe some of the stars should call reporters by their nicknames. Maybe we’ll learn about “Speed Bump,” “Jerkface,” and “Cuddles.”

The pre-Oscar runway special focuses not upon the art and craft of acting or movie making, but upon fashion. This year, ABC-TV sent five co-anchors (three of them fashion experts) onto the red carpet to interview the A-list. There was so much they could ask, and so much that the stars would have preferred to have been asked, but most of the questions revolved around, “Who are you wearing?” Clad in $10,000 one-of-a-kind dresses donated by designers in exchange for the free publicity, the stars gave names and tried to look excited rather than incredulous when asked, “So are you excited?” When not asking about the who, the co-anchors asked questions that focused upon looks. Frankly, it was nauseating to hear Tim Gunn twice tell Melissa Rivers that she had buns of steel, and Rivers saying that women who don’t squeeze their own buns won’t attract men who will squeeze them.

Finally, a week after the ceremony there aren’t many who remember the dresses or the winners, especially who won the Oscars for writing the Best Original Screenplay and the Best Adapted Screenplay. But, probably everyone remembers Angelina Jolie’s right leg. Jolie, who announced the award, wore a split dress, and brazenly showed her right leg. By the end of the awards show, there was a Twitter account (@angiesrightleg). Within two days, the leg had more than 35,000 followers, and was the subject of thousands of stories, parodies, and comedy monologues. For awhile, the skinny knock-kneed leg on one of the most beautiful actors and humanitarians allowed people to temporarily forget rising gas prices, layoffs, and a vicious presidential political campaign. It did for the people what movies and the other mass media do—it provided an enjoyable and temporary escape from reality.

[For those who care, the winners of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay was Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris. The winners of the Best Adapted Screenplay were Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash for The Descendants. In other news, Dr. Brasch was recently named a finalist in the USA Book News competition for Before the First Snow, and is a nominee for both the Eric Hoffer and Benjamin Franklin awards for literary excellence.]

 

Tanness, Anyone? Oscars and the Bronze Beauties

 

                                  by WALTER BRASCH

 

It’s the end of February, and one of my friends is still sporting a summer tan. I know it’s phony—and she knows I know it’s phony—but I have long ago stopped teasing her about it. In her never-ending quest to appear to be beautiful and healthy, she has slathered skin tanning lotion into every pore of her body, laid out on roofs and beaches to catch whatever ray was passing by, and goes to a tanning salon once a week. I’m not sure she’s ever stepped into the surf.

For decades, I have endured the scorn of these fake-skin friends, their skin tanned to the color and consistency of obsidian, as they sweat their lives away. Nevertheless, I have always been content to know I don’t need to cremate myself on a rooftop to be healthy.

Once, women desperately wanted to look pale. Ashen was to be admired. Pallid was wonderful! The lighter the skin, the healthier they believed they were, even if it meant hiding in a basement and fighting any attempt by Vitamin D to force its way into their lives. These women would read Macbeth and admire the ghost.  Any darkness of the skin reflected that they weren’t women of leisure, but (horrors!) working women—the kind who go out of doors and have to (shudder!) do things.

 

Then, in the 1920s fashion designer Coco Chanel became bronze, and the Western world decided that suntanned bodies identified women of leisure and privilege. When they couldn’t find enough sun to char their skin and fry their brains, they bought sunlamps, reflectors, and gallons of sprays, gels, powders, and amino acids, guaranteed to make their friends believe they had just returned from a decade in Bermuda—or Nigeria.

In the late 1970s tanning salons became popular in the United States. In the semi-privacy of a casket, people could pay a few bucks for a few minutes of UVA rays, slather on even more lotion, and look even healthier! Have you ever seen what a couple of hours a day in the sun can do to an unprotected body over a few years? If you don’t have to chase knife-wielding scouts from the Tandy Leather Factory from trying to skin you, then you have a chance to live until a ripe old age of at least 50. And if Tandy doesn’t get you, there’s a pile of melanoma waiting. Ever see what cancer of the eye or ear looks like? Ever see a jellyfish on a rotting log?

 Cancer scare? There’s still sunblock. Just pick a number. Any low number. You’ll “protect” yourself and darken up just like that Bain de Soleil model—and look just as good. After all, would advertising agencies lie?

 

While many people desperately want to have dark skin, they aren’t willing to appear to be “ethnic.” So, just in case someone could confuse them with being Black, Hispanic, Jewish, or any other genetically dark-skinned type, they dye their hair screaming saffron blonde. Just as they believe that the advertising agencies wouldn’t deceive them, they believe blondes have more fun. If that great American philosopher Lady Clairol said it, it must be so. And, of course, there are about 65,000 solutions on the market just designed to make you have fun while you lose every follicle in your genetic pattern.

Because of genetics—and wise use of suntan lotion—I can spend hours splashing in the ocean and not have to endure boiling red skin, peeling off in painful layers, and spend half my week visiting expensive suntan parlors and dermatologists.

Sunday, at the annual Academy Awards show hundreds of women will have spray-tanned and baked themselves into looking like brownies. They will have hair styles and colors as natural as what passes as reality on the “Jersey Shore.” Having already gone on extreme diets to look more photogenic, they will stuff what’s left of themselves into designer dresses and designer shoes, and decorate themselves with jewelry that could finance a revolution in a small Asian country. Every woman nominated for an Oscar is talented, but they exist in an industry forged by hype and image.

The day after the awards ceremony, TV shows, both entertainment and news, will feature the stars; newspapers and magazines will open full pages to show tanned women in their $10,000 dresses.

Throughout America, giggly and awe-struck pre-teen girls, their lives fixated upon Disneyesque princesses, will be absorbed by what the mass media show as rich and successful. And they will want to look just like the stars, fake tans and everything else.

[In a 40-year journalism career, Walter Brasch has covered everything from the presidency to awards shows in California. His current book is Before the First Snow, an autobiographical novel set in the counter-culture.]

                       

 

 

Fewer Words; Less Filling

 

                                    by WALTER BRASCH

 

The Reduced Shakespeare Co. cleverly and humorously abridges all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays to 97 minutes. Short of having a set of Cliff’s Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it may be the least painful way to “learn” Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader’s Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren’t safe.

For more than six decades, Digest editors have been grinding four books into the space of one, calling them “condensed” or “selected,” and selling them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society’s more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on “Jersey Shore” or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wall safes, dictate shorter films, with more “action-paced” scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn’t uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots because producers believe viewers don’t have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100–150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, has largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim and USA Today.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today’s format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

When the newspaper industry was routinely pulling in about 20–30 percent annual profits, the highest of any industry, publishers were routinely delusional, believing that was the way it was supposed to be and would always be. Instead of improving work conditions and content, they increased shareholder dividends and executive bonuses. When advertising and circulation began to drop, they made numerous changes to keep those inflated profits.

Publishers downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Newspaper page width has dropped to 11–12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s.

Faced by advertising and circulation freefall the past decade, publishers cut back the number of pages. More significantly, they began a systematic decimation of the editorial staff, cutting reporters and editors.

Faced by heavier workloads and tight deadlines, many reporters merely dump their notebooks into type, rather than craft them and then submit the story to a copyeditor to fine tune it so it is tight, has no holes, and no conflicting data. In the downsized newspaper economy, stories often pass from reporter to a quick scan by an editor and then into a pre-determined layout, all of it designed to cause fewer problems for overworked editors.

The solution to the “newspaper-in-crisis” wailing, with innumerable predictions that print newspapers will soon be as dead as the trees that give them nourishment, may not be in cutting staff, and replacing the news product with fluff and syndicated stories that fill pages, but are available on hundreds of websites, but in giving readers more. More reporters. More stories. And, most of all, more in-depth coverage of local people and issues, with each article well-reported, well-written, and well-edited.

[In a 40-year career in journalism, Walter Brasch has been an award-winning  newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, syndicated columnist, multimedia and TV writer-producer, and tenured full professor of mass communications. He says he’ll keep doing journalism until he gets it right. His current book, BEFORE THE FIRST SNOW, is an autobiographical mystery novel that includes a number of media observations.]

 

 

 

Labor Pains: A Fable for Our Times

 

                             by Walter Brasch

 

Once, many years ago, in a land far away between two oceans, with fruited plains, amber waves of grain, and potholes on its highways, there lived a young man named Sam.

Now, Sam was a bright young man who wanted to work and save money so he could go to school and become an electrician. But the only job open in his small community was at the gas station. So, for two years, Sam pumped gas, washed windshields, checked dipsticks and tire pressure, smiled and chatted with all the customers, gave them free drinking glasses when they ordered a fill-up, and was soon known as the best service station attendant in town.

But then the Grand Caliphs of Oil said that Megamania Oil Empire, of which they all had partial ownership, caused them to raise the price of gas.

“We’re paying 39 cents a gallon now,” they cried, “how can you justify tripling our costs?” they demanded.

“That’s business,” said the Chief Grand Caliph flippantly. But, to calm the customer fury, he had a plan. “We will allow you the privilege of pumping your own gas, washing your own windows, checking your car’s dipsticks and tire pressure, and chatting amiably with yourselves,” said the Caliph. “If you do that, we will hold the price to only a buck or two a gallon.”

And the people were happy. All except Sam, of course, who was unemployed.

But, times were good, and Sam went to the local supermarket, which was advertising for a minimum wage checkout clerk. For three years, he worked hard, scanning all groceries and chatting amiably with the customers. And then one day his manager called him into the office.

“Sam,” said the boss, “we’re very pleased with your work. You’re fired.” From corporate headquarters had come a decision by the chain’s chief bean counter that there weren’t enough beans for their executives to go to Europe to search for more beans.

“But,” asked Sam, “Who will scan the groceries?”

“The customers will,” said the boss. “We’ll even have a no-hassle machine that will take their money and maybe even give change.”

“But won’t they object to buying the groceries, scanning them, bagging them, and shoving their money into a faceless machine?”

“Not if we tell them that by doing all the work, the cost will be less,” said the manager.

“But it won’t,” said Sam.

The manager thought a moment, and then brightly pointed out, “We’ll just say that the cost of groceries won’t go up significantly if labor costs were less. Besides, we even programmed Canmella the Circuit-enhanced Clerk to tell customers to have a nice day.”

Now, others may have sworn, cried, or punched out their supervisor, but this is a G-rated fairy tale, and it wouldn’t be right to leave Sam to flounder among the food. By cutting back on luxuries, like food and clothes, Sam saved a few dollars from his unemployment checks, and finally had enough to go to a community college to learn to become an electrician. After graduating at the top of his class, an emaciated and homeless Sam got a job at Acme Industries.

For nine years, he was a great electrician, often making suggestions that led to his company becoming one of the largest electrical supplies manufacturers in the country. And then one day one of the company’s 18 assistant vice-presidents called Sam into a small dingy office, which the company used for such a day. “You’re the best worker we have,” the AVP joyfully told Sam, “but all that repetitive stress has cut your efficiency and increased our medical costs. In the interest of maximizing profits, we have to replace you.”

“But who can do my job?” asked Sam.

“Not who,” said the manager, “but what. We’re bringing in robots. They’re faster and don’t need breaks, vacations, or sick days. Better yet, they don’t have union contracts.”

“So you are firing me,” said Sam.

“Not at all. We had to let a few dozen other workers go so there would be room for the robots, and we won’t be hiring any new workers, but because of your hard work, we’re reassigning you to oil the robots. At least until we design robots that can oil the other robots.”

For three years, Sam oiled, polished, and cleaned up after the robots. Sometimes, he even had to rewire them. And then the deputy assistant senior director of Human Resources called him into her office.

“No one can oil and polish as well as you can,” she said, but the robots are getting very expensive and we still have several hundred workers who are taking lobster and truffles from the mouths of our corporate executives, “so we’re sending all of our work to somewhere in Asia. Or maybe it’s Mexico. Whatever. The workers there will gladly design and assemble our products for less than a tenth what we have to pay our citizens.”

“You mean I’m fired?!” said a rather incredulous Sam.

“Not fired. That’s so pre-NAFTA. You’ve been downsized.”

Downsized?!”

“If you want, we can also say you’ve been outsourced. How about right-sized. That’s a nicer word. Would you prefer to be right-sized?”

By now, Sam was no longer meek. He no longer was willing to accept whatever he was told. “The work will be shoddier,” said Sam. “There will be problems.”

“Of course there will be,” said the lady from HR. “That’s why we hired three Pakistani goat herders to solve customer complaints.”

“Our citizens won’t stand for this,” said a defiant Sam.

“As long as the product is cheaper, our people will gladly go to large non-union stores and buy whatever it is that we tell them to buy.”

And she was right.

[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and former university professor. His latest book is the social issues mystery novel, Before the First Snow, available at amazon and other book dealers.]

 

 

The Lowly Groundhog: Long May They Live

 

by Walter Brasch

 

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, Thursday.

That means there will be an additional six weeks of winter.

Or, it means there will be an early Spring.

It doesn’t make much difference. Phil has an accuracy rate of about 39 percent, according to the StormFax Weather Almanac. That’s probably about the same as TV weather forecasters.

StormFax has tracked Phil’s predictions since 1897, the year he (with the help of the Punxsatawney Spirit) made his first trip to Gobbler’s Knob, about two miles from the town in the northwest part of Pennsylvania.

The name, Punxsutawney, is probably derived from an Algonquin or Delaware Indian name which loosely translates as “village of sand fleas.” The name, Phil, is a tribute to Philip Freas, a staff writer for the Spirit, who wrote dozens of stories about what would become one of the most enduring tourism attractions in the country.

The festival is based upon a German superstition and a Celtic celebration. The superstition relates to hibernating animals; when they leave their den, if they see their shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter; if they don’t, it’s an early spring. The Celtic festival (known as Imbolc) was midway between the winter solstice (usually about Dec. 21–22), and the Spring Equinox (usually March 20). The date set for Phil’s annual prediction is always Feb. 2, midway between the beginning of Winter and the beginning of Spring. This, of course, means that among the millions who now watch the ceremony in person, by webcam, or on the TV news, none are groundhogs. Except for Phil, they hibernate in well-constructed underground burrows from October to early Spring.

The name, woodchuck, an alternate for groundhog, is probably from “wojak,” a Native American word.

The second most famous ground hog is Gus. Unlike the furry Phil, who lives with his wife, Phyllis, in a library for most of the year, Gus is a cute little animatronic animal whose primary mission is to lure Pennsylvanians to spend money on the state lottery. Television commercials have assured Gus of his own celebrity. However, unlike Phil, he doesn’t make personal appearances.

Groundhogs in captivity have life spans that average 10–14 years. However, faced by several predators—including wolves, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, eagles and man—groundhogs usually live only two or three years in the wild.

Phil and Gus are just about the only two groundhogs that people feel any warmth for. The Pennsylvania Game Commission treats groundhogs as nuisance animals. Every day but Sunday is open season on the animals that weigh only about five to nine pounds. Even a cursory look at Google shows that several hundred thousand posts about groundhogs focus upon ways to kill them, with thousands of people bragging about how many they killed, and with what kind of trap, gas, or gun. There is no fur or meat value to humans.

Hunters and trappers kill groundhogs near roads and fields, and go from farm to farm. However, hunters and trappers often believe that in their own enjoyment of killing a gentle species that poses no threat to humans they may be doing some kind of a service to mankind. Many believe that killing groundhogs will keep them from overpopulating the environment. However, such is not the case. “Studies show that even when all the woodchucks are trapped out of an area, others from surrounding areas quickly move into the vacated niche,” says Laura J. Simon, field director for the Urban Wildlife Program of the Humane Society of the United States. But there is also another problem. In Spring and Summer, baby groundhogs live in the underground tunnels. Killing their mother will lead them to starve to death.

Natural predators keep the balance of nature to reduce overpopulation. Like most animals, groundhogs have a sense that allows them to breed to keep the species alive in areas of extreme danger; as the danger is removed, instead of breeding, groundhogs will actually stabilize population growth.  Hunters and farmers claim groundhogs leave holes that can damage tractors or cause injuries to horses and livestock. However, the perceived reality of that happening may be far greater than the actual risk, according to Simon.

The second major reason people kill groundhogs is because of fear. “At least half the calls we get,” says Simon, “is because people are afraid that groundhogs will attack them.” But, groundhogs, says Simon, “are benign shy animals that will retreat to their burrows when they see humans, even small children, coming close.”

The third major reason people want to kill groundhogs is because the animals, in search for food, will destroy gardens. Ironically, the deforestation of America has allowed groundhogs to flourish. They prefer to build their complex multi-level burrows on open ground at the edge of forests. This open view gives them protection from predators, while providing sources for their appetite for grub, grasshoppers, earthworms, berries, and various fruits and some vegetables; for water, they eat grasses and leaves. But as agricultural land is also destroyed to allow the construction of everything from parking lots to condos to supermarkets, groundhogs, like most species, are shoved from their own homes. That’s when homeowners see the holes in their lawns and some garden crops chewed up. Animal-friendly gardeners will plant extra so animals and humans can share the food.

Some of the methods to get rid of groundhogs cause more injuries to humans than to groundhogs. People have also used broken glass or poured concrete into the entrance and exit holes of the burrows. But, these methods, says Simon, don’t work.

There are several non-lethal humane ways to effectively discourage the animals. One of the best is to enclose the garden in a three foot high mesh fence, “with the top part left wobbly to discourage the animals from climbing,” says Simon. To discourage groundhogs from burrowing under the garden and then coming up to munch, the Humane Society advises homeowners to purchase a four-foot tall roll of green garden fencing. The lower 12 inches of mesh should be bent at a 90 degree angle and run parallel to the ground, away from the garden, to create a “false bottom,” and secured to the ground by landscaping staples. Homeowners can also discourage groundhogs by placing objects that reflect sunlight and continually move in the breeze, such as tethered Mylar party balloons. Simon says ones with big eyes “seem to work best because they create a predator image.”

Groundhogs and people can co-exist, with neither harming the other. Killing groundhogs just because we can is never a good reason.

[For further information about humane methods to deal with groundhogs, contact the Humane Society at www.hsus.org or by phone at 203-393-1050.  Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist. His latest book is the critically acclaimed mystery thriller, Before the First Snow.]

   

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