The Ties That Bind Us

A little over four and a half years ago I was on a land hunt. It had been over ten years since I had lived on my own property. I knew I wanted wild land, and I was in the right place I thought to buy it. I lived on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska in a rented cabin that I loved but I knew I wanted my own place.

Down the road about three miles was a place where the land fell away to a huge vista, there was nothing except forest, moose, bear, and wolves. I did not know about the wolves until I looked at a particular piece of land. While wandering through the trees I spotted wolf pup prints. Along with the pup prints I heard what I thought was the mama with a kind of worried howl coming across the land as the sun set. I was ecstatic. I had not seen a wolf pack in the wild and thought, “This is the place to see them.”

I made an offer on the land. There was no usable house or cabin but an old travel trailer that the local kids had gotten into and was in possibly redeemable shape. There was also a garage that I guessed might be made into a cabin, but it was for the 8 acres of forest and the wolves that I bought the property.

The couple who owned it were living in Mexico, so it took a few long-distance communications over fax and email and I was a proud new owner of the land and run-down buildings. I should have known. They were living in Mexico. Had I been paying attention, my old favorite hang out was saying, “Maybe you would like me better, ultimately?” But who listens to signs? I did not.

Two days after closing on the property there was an article in the Anchorage paper. It was on the front cover. “Fracking off Anchor Point.” The local steward of the peninsula, the then director of Cook Inlet Keepers,  was quoted as saying he was okay with this and to clarify the issues there would be a town hall with the oil company at a date in the future. I stared at the article and thought, “Oh no, can I shut down the buy of the property? Then I thought, well maybe it isn’t that bad.” I was in love with the wolves and the trees and really didn’t want to give it up.

The small town of Anchor Point was fifty-one miles south of my new home. I had watched “Gas Land.” I knew that depending on how the oil company handled the extraction of the oil, there might be good and bad results for local owners. I was not sure of my facts.  I started to research.

It was not good news. The scientist who had first developed the process (Hydraulic fracturing) was now advocating against using the process. The oil companies were legally under no obligation to disclose their proprietary chemicals to the public. These chemicals were highly toxic said most articles. In fact, the thought was that it was these chemicals that had caused the water to light up and burn in central Wyoming.

Gas Land is a sad video. I distinctly remembered a cattle rancher, who had ranched all his life, talking about his love for his land and his cattle and how he was ambivalent about even selling the animals who were forced to drink water that he considered toxic. He talked about the beauty of this one particular spot which was now surrounded by fracking rigs. He mentioned that he and his wife used to come out to the spot for peace and relaxation. That was over.

I thought of my little eight acres. I thought of what I could do for water. I tried to figure out how to keep this land, to have it remain usable even with the fracking 51 miles away. I thought of the massive tourist business founded on the world class fishing for ‘reds.’ Of all the salmon species reds were my favorite. I wondered if they were still safe to eat.

Surely the local businesses, fishing guides and full-time residents would not go along with benzene in their water. Benzene was one of the chemicals that had been found in the water table when an area was fracked.

I started a Facebook page, “Stop Fracking the Kenai.” Surely the local folks would understand that a pristine area could be compromised by this kind of oil extraction.  I learned as I investigated that the oil companies had promised not to frack this area stating that it was too seismic to risk fracking. The Kenai Peninsula is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, as is much of south-central Alaska. To add in a process that created small ‘earthquakes’ to extract the oil in this area seemed very unwise. Or at least that was the original stance of the oil companies, or what they said publicly.

Then, I learned that the oil companies were lying. They had been planning on fracking all along and may have been fracking for about five years previously and dumping the byproducts of the process into the Cook Inlet. Those yummy salmon were looking less yummy by the day. My last catch I could not eat.

How did I learn this information about the oil companies? A combination of old articles written about a company in Homer and a bedroom conversation that one of the women I knew had repeated to me. Her lover, who was friends with a principle in the Cook Inlet Keepers, had mentioned this to her, that the companies were already fracking. It was not public knowledge but like many bedroom conversations it was true. I was unable to verify some of this at the time, but from what I learned later, it checked out.

The oil companies also had a shell game playing. They fracked and then when there were consequences, they declared bankruptcy, changed the name of the company, and moved on. The companies then did this process again. This I was able to verify, it was public record and easy to access. I was appalled that nothing had been done. I convened meetings with locals who appeared concerned. I worked on the Facebook Page. I spoke to the media. I attended the information sessions with the oil companies. I raised objections and questions publicly. With the executive director of Cook Inlet Keepers as moderator, it was evident to me that these were publicity events, a ‘sell this crap to the public process.’ I was amazed that the executive director would be willing to be involved with this. I smelled a rotten salmon early on.

In the beginning, the responses to my Facebook page were from Romania. Romania was the last place I had every thought to hear from, but all the kudos were from Romanians who had lobbied against Chevron’s fracking in their country and won. They understood the dangers. As I researched, I learned that several countries had banned fracking. My research consumed every spare moment. I desperately wanted to stop what I saw as the destruction of a beautiful and rare place.

The process was quite a learning curve for me. As a result of several private conversations (mentioned above) and the willingness of the administration of the Cook Inlet Keeper’s to present the oil company in a positive light, I realized that the local environmental protection administrative may have known about the plans to frack or the active fracking for some time. This man was respected by many. I do not believe I have ever felt such contempt for an individual. What price was he offered I wondered? What price would be necessary to sell out public trust and the Kenai Peninsula? A national group that protected wildlife (Center for Biological Diversity) had been unwilling to work with this man stating that they did not trust his integrity or the integrity of the group. This is when I knew my information was correct. Thank you, Center for Biological Diversity for validating what I had guessed.

I kept waiting for the locals, the people with a vested interest in the area to step up. Very few did. To be fair not everyone had gone down the rabbit hole of information that I had.

The small group of people who did protest were unlikely to influence much. Nothing stopped the oil company. This was a small place in a big land and all the protests and articles did not stop anything. The economic gains were too great.

Nine months after buying the land, in the middle of winter, I moved south. I did not sell the land immediately. I held onto it hoping that magic would happen and that the people, the State, someone would stop the fracking. That fall there was a 7.2 earthquake in the area. I wondered if this was at least, in part, due to the fracking. There were a few articles that speculated that the uptick in local earthquakes might be related to fracking. No matter my efforts, and I lobbied everyone, there was no protection for the wolves and salmon. No protection for the aquifer, no protection for the Inlet.

I left Alaska after thirteen years of loving her wild beauty. Ironically, I moved into an area that is also near fracking sites and is also seismic. Can’t keep the girl away from the oil, I guess. I continue to contribute regularly to the Center for Biological Diversity. They have integrity and I am glad they are still working to bring awareness about the mess that is being created environmentally.

Now, we are experiencing another part of the mess: Covid-19. As the States open, anxious about the economic consequences of “stay at home” orders, the cases go up. Arizona, I last heard, is at 80% of all critical care beds available being used, which means their capacity for treating people with Covid-19 will likely time out as the last 20% of the beds are used. Then come the decisions as to who gets treatment and who doesn’t. Italy had to do this, Spain had to do this, New York had to do this. In this scenario, if you are likely to die, then you do not get treatment. The medical resources are not available to treat you. In the middle of this friends of mine in Arizona tell me few people are wearing masks. In other words, the public is playing Russian Roulette with someone’s life. The person not wearing the mask may not die but their contacts may. This is a reality many do not comprehend.

So, what about the ties that bind us? As humans encroach on wild areas there are consequences. If you pour Benzene into the Cook Inlet, then eat the salmon that swim through the Inlet, you get sick. The doctors may not know, or think to ask, do you eat a lot of salmon? Even if you were asked and the answer was yes, no connection would necessarily be made between Benzene and the cancer you now have. Not all doctors in Alaska know that you have been eating Benzene laced salmon. The ties between our illnesses, our greed and what we do to the environment are clear to some. These are the ties that bind us, all of us.

Steven Galster who has worked to shut down the ‘wet markets’ in Southeast Asia commented that he has know for years that a pandemic was coming and that it would be linked to these markets. He was correct, it did, Covid-19 is now here. “This is mother nature’s revenge,” he states, and quite the revenge it is. At this point it is unknown how many people will die from Covid-19 and how much of an economic consequence there will be. As if June 18, 2020, according to the New York Times, 117,743 people have died of Covid-19 in the United States. It cannot be estimated how many will die worldwide. Mother nature is taking her pound of flesh. Are we as a species paying attention? I doubt it. 

The connections between animal transmitted diseases (Zoonotic diseases) and encroachment into what once were wild areas, areas in which animals, not humans, lived and thrived, have been made by several people. If people insist on killing and eating wild animals there is a consequence evidently. If people insist on dumping Benzene and other fracking chemicals into the water systems, there will be and probably currently are, consequences. Based on a Judeo-Christian value system, we insist that we are the dominant species on this planet. This will kill us. So far, the tally is over 117,000 dead in this country and an economic recession. I think Mama Nature is ramping up the stakes.

Have we learned from any of the current consequences? So far not much. It is a small minority of people worldwide that are concerned that if we continue to encroach on wild lands there will be a consequences, not only for the land and animals but for us. It is a small minority that is alarmed about climate change. The melting glaciers of Alaska and the Himalayas are far from most American’s sight. The connections between the warming of the atmosphere and running out of drinkable water are being made by only a few. The die off of the bees does not concern most people, they do not realize that the food they eat will not be available if the bees are extinct. We are currently in the Sixth Extinction and this extinction is us. That we will take down a lot of other innocents is all part of how this is likely to play out. My sad attempt to stop fracking on the Kenai Peninsula did not work, Alaska’s government and now the Federal government has rolled back protections for land, water, and all living beings in Alaska. Yes, Mabel, this means you.

Meanwhile, people are going back to work in the middle of a pandemic, to keep themselves and the economy afloat.  ‘Buy more cars folks’ is the message. Buy more of what will eventually doom you.

Author’s note: There are many resources that discuss these issues, far too many for me to name in this short piece but be assured the research is being conducted and the facts are in. If we do not make the choice to care well for this planet it will shed itself of us. It will survive, we will not.

References:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, Picadore

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Laurie Garrett, Penguin Press

The Uninhabitable Earth, Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells, Tim Duggan Books

60 Minutes Australia, March 8, 2020, Journalist goes undercover at ‘wet markets,’ where the Coronavirus started

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