Editors Note: This is the third piece in Wendy’s “The Good Ole’ Boy Extraction Club: The Pseudo-Patriotic and Pervasively Patriarchal Culture of Hydraulic Fracturing” Series. Part 1 and Part 2 can be found on the hyperlinks.
The Department of Environmental Protection at Riverdale (Former) Mobile Home Community: The Failure to Inspect for Asbestos
May 31st, 2012, the residents of Riverdale Mobile Home Community held a vigil to recognize their collective decision to engage in non-violent direct action on behalf of the 32 families evicted from their homes—many of which they owned.
PVR/Aqua America had purchased the land from Skip Leonard for the construction of a three million gallon per day water withdrawal facility for transport to fracking operations in the Williamsport/Jersey Shore region. While there is a great deal to be said about the ensuing defense of Riverdale by activists from Occupy Well Street, Earth First! And Occupy Wall Street—events that proved to be transformative for many of us—for now I’d like to focus on just one aspect of this history-making occupation and its tragic aftermath.
After our thirteen day encampment was raided on June 12th by private security forces, local fire-fighters, and the state police, forcing the activists out of the park, it was a matter of hours before a demolition crew—Alan A. Myers— moved in to clear Riverdale of its remaining homes, yards, play sets, etc.
In fact, three families—including three children— were still living in the park and did not leave until they each reached a settlement with Aqua America on July 12th.
The settlement, it should be noted, included a gag order. Demolition occurred throughout this period. On a tip from a fellow fractivist, I began to investigate whether the federally required asbestos inspections had been completed. What I realized was that because the occupiers had prevented anyone representing the industry from entering the park throughout for the previous thirteen days, and because the number of hours elapsed between the police raid and the demolitions was fewer than fifteen, no such inspection could have been conducted—much less completed. I called the new DEP-Williamsport Air Quality Control office June 21st. I explained why an asbestos inspection could not have been done. DEP-agent Aaron Weaver was sent to take samples on that day. I called and spoke to Weaver who was surprised to hear that people were still living in the park, an admission that did not inspire confidence that he had taken any serious walk through it. It was Summer, and all three children would likely have been there. I received a return phone call—after a number of attempts—on August 1st from Andrea Ryder, DEP Air Quality District Supervisor. She reported to me that a sample was taken July 6th—nearly three weeks after Aaron Weaver’s—and that the results came back negative for friable asbestos July 11th 2012. It remains unclear whether two samples were taken or only one.
Ryder then reported that Alan A. Myers was ordered to stop demolition between 6.21-7.11. As I have photo-documented, they did not.
Moreover, they did not perform an asbestos inspection until, as reported by DEP, July 9th. These results were not given to DEP until July 19th. When I reported the failure to stop the demolitions to Ryder, her repeated response was a kind of “no harm, no foul,” that we should be glad they found no asbestos—but even if they (or DEP) had it would result in no sanction or fine against Myers or Aqua America since it could be presumed that the corporation would opt to litigate, that their lawyers would argue that the asbestos could have been released when residents, under the pressure of the eviction notices, stripped their mobile homes for materials they could sell to make their deposits on apartments or lot rents. Alternately, she pointed out, the corporations could argue that because some of the residents smoked, cigarettes could be the source of the asbestos. In any case, said Ryder, it would not be worth DEP’s time to pursue any punitive course of action since, as she put it, the aim of DEP in such cases was not to “penalize,” but to “educate.” Moreover, such violations were like “seat-belt infractions,” she explained. Aqua would do better next time.
When I protested that the issue was not (or not exclusively) simply whether asbestos had been found, but whether federal law had been violated, Ryder demurred, insisting again that DEP’s primary function was only to “monitor.” Such a response is inadequate for the following reasons:
1. No inspection for asbestos would likely have been done at all were it not for a citizen who demanded it.
2. That the original inspection conducted by DEP was conducted without any recognition that people were living in the park is troubling. Asbestos is a serious carcinogen implicated in mesothelioma among other cancers, and exposure can have life-long consequences.
3. That the ultimate and decisive inspection was not conducted until July 9th, not reported to DEP until July 19th, and was conducted by the very corporation (or its contractors) in violation of federal law regarding asbestos inspections is also troubling; it’s another version of the fox guarding the henhouse
4. That DEP’s response was foot-dragging, both with respect to failing to insure that the demolitions were halted, and with respect to their refusal to impose any penalty either for failing to perform the inspections or for failing to halt the demolitions indicates, I think, precisely where DEP’s allegiances lay—and it is not with the workers responsible for the demolition or with the security guards posted at the park gates 24/7, or with the remaining residents at the park. Indeed, as far as I’m aware, DEP did not check to see whether the demolitions had been halted.
We might be tempted to conclude that while such accounts clearly signify economic class as a relevant factor in addressing the question how negligence like this can happen, gender seems less a factor. But when you consider that some studies do show that asbestos may be linked to breast cancer, that economic class is closely associated with gender, and that the record that DEP has amassed thus far suggests a consistent refusal to take seriously the charge that fracking—from cradle to grave—generates significant opportunities for exposure to many forms of carcinogen, we have, I think, to conclude that gender as well as class status are factors in such stories of flagrant negligence and failure of oversight. That water withdrawal is not directly connected to fracking chemicals or produced water is irrelevant. Indeed, given that produced water cannot be returned to the water table, that only 3% of the earth’s water is potable, that women—whether in the first or the developing world—remain principally responsible for the cooking, cleaning, and bathing that depends on clean water, and given that water security stands among the most pressing and urgent of social issues in many countries, it cannot be denied, I think, that fracking in all of its phases takes a particular and heavy toll on women, especially poor women.
Some of the bravest among those who resisted Aqua America during the occupation of Riverdale were women. Deb Eck, the leader of the resistance among the residents, was finally forced out of her home July 12th.
The irony is that while she was forced to sign a gag order preventing her from exercising her constitutional right to publicly protest Aqua America (much less sue them, say, for potential exposure to asbestos), she was also forced by the necessities of her 60 hour (at least) per week job to move to a trailer court next to a two lane highway where endless frack-trucks compete for road space with school buses, where within an hour’s drive exist at least two more water withdrawals, active frack operations, transmission lines, and compressor stations.
This is how corporate America comprehends its citizens. We’re expected to applaud the corporation who assures us that energy security is national security, that the good American is she who’s willing to suffer life in the sacrifice zone as emblematic of her patriotic pride. Yet, we know that even this is a lie. Deb Eck’s sacrifice was not for country, but for the profitability of global markets whose sale of natural gas, LPG, petroleum and coal fuels the economies of the highest bidder—regardless their feelings for America or Americans.
The tragedy for Deb Eck is that while we expect such reprehensible behavior from the corporations that brought us the BP disaster, contribute to climate change, and convert our public lands into private real estate, we ought to be able to expect better from the representatives we elect to uphold our state constitutions and embody our democratic decision-making. DEP not only failed Deb Eck and her children, but in fact acted on behalf of those who have failed Deb Eck a thousand times: mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly men.
Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University