I’ve been reading a lot lately about everyday Americans getting fed up with fracking — with the way that the big gas companies have been running roughshod over lush rolling hills and pristine farmland with their unsightly rigs, poisoning water supplies and polluting the air. But nothing has quite gotten to me like the simple words of a Pennsylvania farmer named Stephen Cleghorn.
Cleghorn seems by all appearances to be a man who had a simple dream. Seven years ago, Cleghorn and his wife Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez moved to an idyllic corner of northwestern Pennsylvania. After a lifetime spent mostly working in the non-profit sector helping the homeless, Cleghorn and his wife — a former college humanities teacher — bought a 50-acre property amid the hills. They called it Paradise: Paradise Gardens & Farm. It is the only organic farm in a three-county area, the only goat dairy and creamery in the entire region. Very quickly, their community table became a source of fellowship — and goat’s milk — to new neighbors and friends.
But eventually, there would be trouble in Paradise.
In 2009, the couple first learned that they lived atop the Marcellus Shale formation, a region that the natural-gas industry was coveting with its new kind of drilling technique. They couldn’t imagine it would change their life very much. Then then found out their neighbor upwind would be home to a drilling rig, just 3,500 feet away. Stephen Cleghorn began researching hydraulic fracking for the first time. He was alarmed by what he learned, about how much land was going to be bulldozed and how many tons of hazardous chemicals would be left under the ground and how many wells go bad and pollute drinking water supplies with toxins and methane. In a 2011 blog post, he wrote about the potential dangers — and the fear. “We have already lost our peace of mind,” Cleghorn wrote at the time.
The couple’s fear and their opposition grew to the point where they approached the neighbor and offered money to buy out the drilling rights. The neighbor said he thought it was worth more to him to let the fracking continue. “We’re greedy,” Cleghorn related the then-owners telling them. They also reportedly told Cleghorn and Hart-Gonzalez that someday Jesus Christ would come and make the earth whole. But Cleghorn — himself a devoted Catholic — didn’t want to wait that long. Then Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez became very ill. It turned out that she had cancer, and she passed away on May10. There’s no suggestion that the nearby fracking is what caused her illness. But what her death did do was to strengthen Stephen Cleghorn’s resolve to fight fracking with everything he had left.
He invited 50 friends to the farm for a memorial service and to scatter his wife’s ashes across the scenic hilltop where the couple use to walk with their two dogs. Beforehand, Cleghorn vowed to fight for a region-wide moratorium on fracking before more research is carried out. And he told the National Catholic Register that he is declaring his farm “off-limits from shale gas extraction and its toxic impacts, in perpetuity.”
To those who gathered to mourn the passing of his wife, Cleghorn added this prayer:
“May she who was tender and close and loving of me … come now in these ashes to mingle with earth and water below our feet, come to protect the soil and water of this farm and all the lives which they sustain. May she come now in these ashes to declare this farm forever inviolate of shale gas drilling or any other attack upon it as a living system. Here now she declares a new right of love on the surface and below this farm that no gas drill will ever penetrate. Come, be with us now, Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez. Presente.”
Cleghorn’s remarkably moving tribute to his wife captures the raw spirit of what is starting to become a mass movement in this country. Every day, I see more reports of people from every walk of life rising up and joining the fight to stop fracking, at least until it can be done safely. Some of them are rock starts like Natalie Merchant, John Sebastian, Joan Osborne, who recently joined with actors Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo for a New Yorkers Against Fracking rally. Some of them are in positions of power like Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, whose state just became the first in the nation to outlaw fracking, to “ensure that we do not inject chemicals into groundwater in a desperate pursuit for energy,” But most of them are everyday folks like Stephen Cleghorn, desperate to protect their way of life.
And the regular people are the ones who have it right. It was the so-called experts who thought it was a good idea to frack first, ask questions later. Earlier this month, Robert Jackson, a professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke University, addressed a science policy conference organized by the American Geophysical Union in Washington. He told the panel that much more scientific research should have been carried out and publicized before full-scale fracking was launched. “The technology and the production has outstripped our scientific knowledge of this,” he said. “We are playing catch-up, in terms of some of the potential consequences and understanding where problems occur, why they occur …”
It’s time to apply the brakes to fracking, especially when we still don’t know the full effects of what we’re doing to this good earth. We owe it to the American people and we owe it to Stephen Cleghorn, to the memory of his wife, Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez and to a farm called Paradise.
To read more about Pennsylvania farmer Stephen Cleghorn’s eulogy for his wife, read http://ncronline.org/blogs/eco-catholic/pennsylvania-farmer-speaks-out-against-fracking-memorial-wife
To read about the New Yorkers Against Fracking rally, go to: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505245_162-57435427/ny-anti-fracking-movement-gets-star-studded-boost/
Here is coverage of Vermont’s fracking ban: http://seekingalpha.com/article/599081-vermont-bans-fracking-will-other-states-follow
To learn more about Professor Jackson’s recent lecture in Washington on fracking science, go to: http://environmentalresearchweb.org/cws/article/news/49650
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