Silent Spring’s lost legacy, told in fifty parts.
1. Rachel Carson, the ecologist who kicked the hornet’s nest, wrote a book that needed no subtitle. Published fifty years ago this September, Silent Spring rocketed to the top of the bestseller list, prompted a meeting with the president’s science advisers, occasioned congressional hearings, and circled her neck with medals of honor. It also let loose swarms of invective from the pesticide industry. Throughout it all, Carson remained calm. Friends and foes alike praised her graceful comportment and gentle voice. Also, her stylish suits and trim figure. Nevertheless, her various publicity photos (with microscope; in the woods; outside her summer cottage in Maine; at home in Maryland) look as if the same thought bubble hovers above them all: I hate this.
2. In the later portraits, Carson was dying of breast cancer. It was a diagnosis she hid out of fear that her enemies in industry would use her medical situation to attack her scientific objectivity and, most especially, her carefully constructed argument about the role that petrochemicals (especially pesticides) played in the story of human cancer. But behind her unflappable public composure, Carson’s private writings reveal how much physical anguish she endured. Bone metastases. Radiation burns. Angina. Knowing this, you can imagine her patience running out during the interminable photo shoots. The wretched wig hot and itchy under the lights. The stabbing pains (cervical vertebrae splintered with tumors) that would not, would not relent.
3. In the iconic Hawk Mountain photo, Rachel Carson is truly beautiful. Her smile looks natural rather than forced. Posed on a rocky summit, she is wearing a badass leather jacket and wields a pair of leather-strapped binoculars. So armed, she scans the horizon. At her feet, the whole of Berks County, Pennsylvania, unfurls, forest and valley, field and mountain, like a verse from a Pete Seeger song.
4. Hawk Mountain, along the Appalachian flyway, is an officially designated refuge for raptors. As with so many sanctuaries, it started out as a hunting ground with bounties. By the mid-1930s, it had become the spot in Pennsylvania to witness the annual fall migration of hawks. Rachel Carson loved it here. She wrote about her experiences in a never-finished, never-published essay titled “Road of the Hawks.” According to biographer Linda Lear—who gathered the fragments into the collection Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson—the essay is notable not only for its careful analysis of bird behavior and knowledge of geology but also because Carson traced the origin of her airy lookout to Paleozoic marine organisms.
And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land … these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting … were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its waters. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean—an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.
6. She sat on a mountaintop and thought about oceans.
7. The marine inhabitants of the ancient seas that once overlay Appalachia transformed, when they died, into gaseous bubbles of methane. Pressed under the accumulated weight of silt sifting down from nearby mountains, the seafloor solidified into what’s now called the Marcellus Shale, a layer of bedrock that’s located under thousands of feet of what we would call the earth, but the mining industry calls overburden: the material that lies between the surface and an area of economic interest. To extract methane bubbles from the area of economic interest, the natural gas industry is now blowing up the state of Pennsylvania.
8. High-volume, slickwater, horizontal hydrofracking would be considered a crime if the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates underground chemical injections, pertained.
9. But they don’t. In 2005, fracking was granted specific exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fracking is also exempt from key provisions within the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Chemicals used in drilling and fracking operations can be claimed as trade secrets; public release of their identity is not mandated by federal right-to-know provisions. The Environmental Protection Agency has limited jurisdiction over fracking.
10. The Environmental Protection Agency credits Silent Spring for its existence.
11. You can think of fracking as a hostage exchange program. A drill bit opens a hole a mile deep, turns sideways, and then, like a robotic mole, tunnels horizontally through the shale bedrock for another mile or more. The hole is lined with steel pipe and cement. To initiate the fracturing process, explosives are sent down it. Then, fresh water (millions of gallons per well) is injected under high pressure to further break up the shale and shoot acids, biocides, friction reducers, and sand grains deep into the cracks. Trapped for 400 million years, the gas is now free to flow through the propped-open fractures up to the surface, where it is condensed, compressed, and sent to market via a network of pipelines. The water remains behind.
12. Within the rumply state of Pennsylvania is a place called Triple Divide, where three adjacent springs feed the watersheds of three mighty rivers: the Allegheny (which flows west to the Mississippi River); the Susquehanna (which flows east to Chesapeake Bay); and the Genesee (which flows north to Lake Ontario). This area of Pennsylvania—which is the sixth most populous state in the union, which sits upwind and upstream from the eleventh most populous state of New Jersey and the third most populous state of New York—lies in the heart of the ongoing fracking boom in the eastern U.S. According to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, drillers in the Marcellus Shale amassed 1,614 violations of state oil and gas laws between January 2008 and August 2010. In one incident, a well blowout near the Punxsutawney Hunting Club in Clearfield County sent 35,000 gallons of toxic effluent into a state forest over the course of sixteen hours. Campers were evacuated.
13. Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, and grew up on the outskirts of Springdale, sixteen miles from Pittsburgh. Her lifelong devotion to the sea began as a small child when she discovered, on a rocky hillside near her family’s farm, a fossilized shell. A sea creature in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
14. Actually, only some of the frack water stays behind in the shale. The rest, now mixed with brine and radioactivity, shoots up to the surface with the gas. Finding a safe place to dispose of this toxic flowback is an unsolved problem. Sometimes, the waste from drilling is just dumped on the ground. That’s illegal, but it happens. Sometimes the waste is dumped down other holes. In 2010, 200,000 gallons were poured down an abandoned well on the edge of Allegheny National Forest. Much of the flowback fluid is trucked to northeast Ohio, where it is forced, under pressure, into permeable rock via deep injection wells. This practice, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has concluded, is the likely cause of the unusual swarm of earthquakes that shook northeast Ohio in 2011.
15. Most of the state’s fracking operations are set to take place in Pennsylvania’s forests. To be precise, 64 percent of Pennsylvania gas wells are to be drilled in forested land, which includes state forests and natural areas. For each well pad sited in a forested area, an average of nine acres of habitat are destroyed, says The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania chapter (each well pad can accommodate up to six wells). The total direct and indirect impact is thirty acres of forest for each well pad. This does not include acreage lost to pipelines. On average, each well pad requires 1.65 miles of gathering pipelines, which carry the gas to a network of larger transporting pipelines.
16. Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 wells are planned for Pennsylvania, to be built over the next few decades. The Nature Conservancy forecasts the destruction of 360,000 to 900,000 acres of interior forest habitat due to pipeline right-of-ways alone.
17. They are fracking Allegheny County.
18. They are sizing up Berks County, too.
19. Berks Gas Truth is a grassroots antifracking organization that focuses on human rights. The group is fond of quoting Article 1, Section 27, of the Pennsylvania Constitution:
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 Commonweath shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
20. Carson had a lot to say about human rights. In Silent Spring:
If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.
In congressional testimony (June 1963):
[I assert] the right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusions of poisons applied by other persons. I speak not as a lawyer but as a biologist and as a human being, but I strongly feel that this is or should be one of the basic human rights.
From her final speech (San Francisco, October 1963):
Underlying all of these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility… . [T]he threat is infinitely greater to the generations unborn; to those who have no voice in the decisions of today, and that fact alone makes our responsibility a heavy one.