Saturday, June 18, 2011

Williams Production Appalachia comes to Columbia County: An Environmental Disaster, and not just for Surgarloaf Township

To the editor,

The PE headline, ‘Fracking comes to area” hardly captures what’s coming to Columbia County now that Williams Production Appalachia (WPA) has struck gas “gold.” Let’s not speculate about the pollution threatening our wells, streams, and the Susquehanna River, the millions of gallons of water required for fracturing which will drain our rivers and creeks, further concentrating its carcinogens, the destruction of our roads, the 24/7 noise, congestion, and safety hazards produced by drilling operations and truck traffic, or that neither the gas nor the profits are destined for Pennsylvania. Let’s examine the facts:

1. The Citizen’s Voice reports that WPA is “poised to become a major player.” In fact, WPA’s spokesperson Helen Humphreys is lying to Sugarloaf Township residents. She claims WPA is “still ‘trying to determine how much gas might be in the rock formation.’” False: “State Department of Environmental Protection records show Williams has recently been issued two gas well permits for Benton and one for Sugarloaf Township in Columbia County… ‘Our plan is to develop those properties, that is, drill on those properties," Williams spokesman Jeff Pounds said…’” WPA leased 45,000 acres, mostly in Pennsylvania, paying $501 million, and added 10,00 acres in Columbia County—paying only $2,800 an acre. WPA effectively owns the PA State Game Commission who, economically strapped, continues to lease more land to the corporation in Bradford and Lycoming County. WPA owns the Gulfstream, Northwest, and Transco Pipelines—none of which deliver to Pennsylvania, and two of which deliver out of the country—raising the price of natural gas in Pennsylvania.

2. The Buffalo News reports that since 2008, “Marcellus Shale drillers in Pennsylvania amass[ed] 1614 violations,” “1056 identified as most likely to harm the environment.” WPA ranks at #11 of the 26 top violators: 32 violations/seven wells. A comparatively small operation compared to Chesapeake Appalachia (149 violations/190 wells) or Cabot Oil and Gas (93 violations/73 wells), yet 32/7 makes WPA not only a major player, but a major environmental violator. WPA’s average violation per well is 4.6, #6 of 26—well behind Cabot. Chesapeake doesn’t even make the top 26. Moreover, WPA is listed among the 55% of all gas corporations in Pennsylvania failing to meet production-reporting deadlines in 2010. Specific violations include: “Site conditions present a potential for pollution to waters of the Commonwealth,” “Pit and tanks not constructed with sufficient capacity to contain pollutional substances,” “Failure to properly store, transport, process or dispose of a residual waste,” “Failure to notify DEP of pollution incident,” and that’s just Franklin Township.

3. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts BIG GAS from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. “[S]hale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use.” Nonetheless, “fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.” Of the 29 common fracking chemicals 13 are known carcinogens, 8 are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and 24 are hazardous air pollutants. Examples: methanol, formaldehyde, naphthalene, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene xylene, lead, hydrogen chloride, ethylene glycol, 2-butoxyethanol, and diesel which, according to the EPA “poses the greatest threat to underground sources of drinking water.”

Sugarloaf Township could become the next Dimmock whose aquifer is so polluted that “one woman's water well spontaneously combusted, and horses and pets mysteriously began to lose their hair,” not to mention the obliterated property values of folks who’d like to sell their homes and move. Trouble is, some residents have already sold out. Bigger trouble is that we’re all going to pay for the environmental tsunami that’s coming if we don’t stand up NOW.

Wendy Lynne Lee

598 words

Monday, June 13, 2011

Another couple of observations about my experience in China, Or: Notes on change

The minute I spent in Yibin, China hardly counts as sufficient ground upon which to make any of the following observations. Such shan't prevent me from making them anyways, but I intend them merely as modest notes on what seems to me a slow revolution's worth of social and political change.

First, I could not but be smitten by the generosity and graciousness of my hosts. I get it that I was there as a guest, and not a tourist, but even at that the provision of an assistant/translator all my own was, well, Wow! What I came to realize too, however, was that this graciousness served a purpose well beyond guest satisfaction. It offered a strategy for shaping the narrative, for controlling the story told by the guest. Indeed, THAT I am telling a story shaped by the experience I had of that university, that city, its people, and THAT that story is itself shaped by the narrative infrastructure crafted for my experience by my hosts IS the story--in three acts: (1) my experience, (2) my reflections on HOW that experience came to be, came to have the particular content it does have, contained by the borders imposed on it, and (3) my recognition that my own experience--my comport at Yibin--itself forms part of the narrative my hosts wish to project about themselves, their university, their city, and their people.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that there's anything nefarious or "dark" about the ways in which my possible experiences were contained--even manipulated. What I am suggesting is that this effort--campaign even--to produce such a positive narrative (to plant such a meme) reflects a perhaps slow-developing, but profound, change in the ways in which one people, in this case the Chinese, see themselves in the globalized world. No longer insular, sealed off, the Other, such excellent public relations suggests a reaching out. The guest heads home with stories about the wonderful time they had. And I did--I had a wonderful time. I want to return to Yibin. And I want to return KNOWING that to some extent my very experience is permeated with precisely what they want me to see and hear, taste and feel. Why? Because as I know and my excellent hosts know as well, I'm manipulable--but not robotic. I'll experience, but I'll then think and reflect. I'll chew it all over, and then I'll tell THIS story.

There's great irony here too: In the very effort to appear more global, more cosmopolitan, more Western--indeed, in order to accomplish this very objective--the experience of the Western guest must be contained, directed, and thereby limited to a specific trajectory that tells the story, and only the story, this particular configuration of Chinese academics wants told. But of course, far more than this story is told; for example, the one I am telling right now. Are such "containment" objectives nefarious? No, certainly not. Orchestrated to a specific advertising? Sure. And perhaps not really different from what "we" do. Or rather: There's much more to be said about how impressions/experiences/attitudes are shaped and imbued for the foreign guest, but whatever more this is, it's not just about being or not being in a "free" country. No, it's about a lot more.

Second, "containing" might be one way to describe the function of my assistant/translator. I didn't go out without him, and was subtly discouraged from doing so. But "containment" isn't at all adequate; it deflates the very human quality of my young friend Shu's comport towards me. In short, he liked me, and I liked him too. I found him charming, helpful--and a kid. That is, a young man--a kid--like any young men I've known over my many years as a teacher. A young man with aspirations, worries, fears, and desires for a meaningful future. And this observation, methinks, is as important to the future of China as could be any. This too isn't just about being or not being in a "free" country; it's not just about what it means to live or not live in a democracy. There is a "more" here as ineluctable and murky as is the United States relationship with China. What I do know is that there IS such a relationship, that it IS changing, that our old stereotypes about, as the inimitable Rush Limbaugh puts it, the "Chi-Coms" are more absurd now than ever; we remain stuck in this stereotype at our own political peril.

The moral of this story: Stepping off a plane radically changes your world.

Impressions from China. Or: Why being open to the beautiful, messy, tortured world matters

There are really two stories here. The first one is the travel log of one very lucky girl who, along with her Canadian and Continental Indian colleagues was treated like a rock star by her Chinese university fellows. This story canvasses the very long travel time, the effort to reach across a daunting language barrier, the busy conference schedule, the incredible generosity of her hosts, and perhaps the food--that she really REALLY tried to like, and struggled with a bit.

And that story's got some great moments in it, some funny scenes, and some pathos.

But it's one that might be told of many places.

The second story is about her impressions of CHINA--those so-hard-to-capture moments, the ones her pictures hint at but can't exhaust, those feelings, sensations, and experiences that, perhaps in the case of this travel experience more than any she has had to date, have changed something in her--have engraved something new on her sense-of-the-world, have infused her feel-of-things with a new color.

One story of a hundred: Thirty-one hours of travel, the sense that I need to wash, happy just to get off the plane, greeted by the smiling face of my excellent friend and colleague Ming Shao (who has nearly single-handedly made it possible for me to travel to Yibin at all), and being "gifted" with a personal assistant and translator--my new young friends Joanna and Shu--almost overwhelming. I kept trying to SEE everything I could take in on the way to the hotel--warm day, city smog, walls with flowers growing over them, license plates, Chevys, a distinctive smell (not food, not grease, not car-exhaust, not flowers--all of these), high rise apartment buildings, billboards with Chinese characters and Pepsi, Rickshaws, activity much color among things; so flat and grey the smoggy backdrop. Two hours to prepare for my first "lecture," now in scare quotes. What good will a lecture be--no matter how interesting the subject matter (how environmental deterioration disproportionately affects women and children in the developing world, and why we should care about this)--if I cannot reach my audience? A blown up color glossy full-sized poster announcing my visit greeted my in the courtyard just outside the lecture hall--confirming my responsibility to Reach My Audience. Chuck any prospect of reading. Think in terms of accessible language. Get out from behind the damnable lectern. Get off the stage. Walk. Talk. Go. Laugh. Gesticulate. Wave. Demand. Ask questions. REACH THEM. My audience was composed mostly of English language education students--200 of them. Attentive, interested, expectant. THIS was an opportunity like I might never have again. REACH THEM. THIS MATTERS. REACH THEM. REACH THEM. REACH THEM.

I don't know that I have ever "worked a room" harder in my life. I don't know that I have ever loved teaching more. Struggling to understand--to UNDERSTAND--not just words, but sensibilities, sentiments, cadences, fears. How do I capture this? We spoke to each other--across culture, age, ethnicity, class, language, sex, and education. Spoke. To. each other. They were as (or more) interested in the curiously tattooed middle aged white woman as in anything she had to say. Thing is, the curiously tattooed middle aged white women IS what she has to say. This IS the meaning of a philosophical life: trying to BE what one says. My tattooing disrupts stereotypes of my class, age, sex, and education. My refusal to be contained to a lectern disrupts what a "professor" is supposed to look like/be like. My "husbandlessness"--though I suspect scandalous by Chinese standards--was a magnate to many of the young women in this room. How odd, I kept thinking, I must seem to them. And not odd at all--human. From another place. An example of one human life. A moment of listening and reaching and holding-on to a present irreplaceable by any other. I am holding onto it right now.

However bedraggled and just wiped out (WIPED OUT) I might have been by the end of this night, this moment with these students in this place mattered. This was not a learning that could be tested, charted, "outcome-assessed" or any of the other now fashionable manifest bullshit that passes for education. No. No. No. This WAS education. THIS was unforgettable.

This was the beginning of my week in Yibin.