An Exclusive Profile of Sandra Steingraber: A Biologist, a Journalist, an Activist, a Mother

What: This is the second article for my senior project for Ithaca College’s Writing Department. The introduction can be found here, and my first article about the New York Youth Against Fracking can be found here.

Originally Written: Primarily the end of last semester (April and May).


Standing before the judge in the Reading Town Court, Sandra Steingraber is strong, but visibly nervous. The date is April 17th. Her posture is a little forced – after seeing her speak at many rallies, I know that she usually stands straight on her own, but now I see her posture faltering a little, against her will. She seems uncertain in this environment. Clearly, she is out of her element, but for an author, mother, and an Ithaca College professor with a PhD in Biology, that isn’t a real surprise.

A resident of Trumansburg, New York at 53 years old, Sandra Steingraber is also one of the most well-known anti-fracking activists, next to Mark Ruffalo (actor), Josh Fox (director of Gasland), and Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon (musicians and creators of Artists Against Fracking.) Last April, Rolling Stone Magazine named her the “Toxic Avenger” for her work, and last Earth Day, she was named as one of two of Bill McKibben’s Earth Day Heroes. (Bill McKibben is a widely respected environmental author, journalist, and the founder of the climate change organization,


Sandra Steingraber is a member of the Seneca Lake 12, a group of twelve central New York activists who allowed themselves to be arrested while blockading an Inergy, LP facility in Reading, New York on March 18. Inergy, a natural gas company, wanted to store massive amounts of highly explosive natural gas liquids, including liquefied propane gas, methane, and butane, in the salt caverns under Seneca Lake. In other states, this practice has led to explosions and collapses of the salt caves. If this were to happen at Seneca Lake, the surface and groundwater would be contaminated, polluting the drinking water of over 100,000 people. Oh, and as an aside, one of these caverns sits on a fault line.

All of the aforementioned chemicals – liquefied propane gas, methane, butane, and other explosive natural gas liquids – are the byproducts of fracking. By Inergy’s own admission, we know that the corporation is looking to create a strategically positioned Northeast hub of natural gas storage and transportation. It just so happens that they want that hub to be located in Watkins Glen, New York, next to Reading. [Note: Since the writing of this article, Inergy has updated their website to exclude this language. It was also included in a press release, referred to here by Gas Free Seneca.]

Although there is a two year moratorium against hydraulic fracturing in New York state, there is not a moratorium barring companies from building facilities that will support the industry in other ways – for example, Inergy’s desire to store these fracking-related chemicals in the Finger Lakes region.

Sandra Steingraber and the eleven other members of the Seneca Lake 12 were not alone in their protest. Earlier that day, there was a rally of over 250 people who opposed the facility, the expansion of the natural gas industry, the potential public health risk that the facility would pose, and more. What made the Seneca Lake 12 unique, however, was that they chose to blockade the entrance to the facility in Watkins Glen after the rally.

Local police arrested each of the 12 protestors for trespassing on Inergy, LLC’s property. Each of protestor was given the choice of paying a fine ($375), or go to jail for 15 days and pay a smaller fine (a state surcharge of $125).

During her hearing, Steingraber chose to go to jail: otherwise, she said, “If I pay the fine, I’ll be awarding the community for having this facility there, and for arresting me and the others. They’ll make thousands of dollars from our acts of civil disobedience, and I don’t think the community should profit from that.”

Before the judge decided her sentence, Steingraber read a prepared statement. In it, she explained the various biological and health risks that would occur with the installation of the Inergy facility. She made special note of the concept of toxic trespass – the biological concept that refers to “the involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant,” according to her statement. She also called upon her own personal background as a cancer survivor and mother of a son who has a history of asthma. What’s more, she gave birth to her son in Watkins Glen: not only was she protecting the environment and the local citizens from pollution, but she was also protecting the birth place of her son so that he could visit it in the future.

“In closing, my actions were taken to protest the trespass of Inergy into our air, water, bodies, safety, and security,” said Steingraber. “My small, peaceful act of trespass was intended to prevent a much larger and possibly violent one.”

The court room for the hearing was filled to capacity: 49 people, with many more standing outside the room’s large wooden doors. Almost everyone there was present to show support for Steingraber and the two other activists who were facing trial that night.

By the end of her speech, there were many sighs and sniffles in the room as people became gradually more emotional. I looked around and saw glassy eyes, frowns, and trembling lips on the activists around me.

“To bring attention to such hazards for the Finger Lakes – and for the act of protecting water, which is life itself – I trespassed,” said Steingraber at the conclusion of her statement. Her voice was became strained with emotion. “It was an act of civil disobedience. For that, and because I have deep respect for the rule of law, which Inergy company does not, I am willing to go to jail.”

[To read the statement in full, click here.]

The judge paused. He was elderly and bore chiseled wrinkles in his face. He offered a stark contrast to Steingraber, in a graceful plum dress and pearls; he wore his judge’s robes with harsh authority.

Evidently, the statement had taken him by surprise. There was a second during which the room held its breath, wondering if he would reduce Steingraber’s sentence, when he made up his mind.

“You will be sentenced to fifteen days in jail. Thank you.”


In the fall of 2009, Steingraber was invited to talk in a symposium at Cornell University about fracking. Although she had barely heard of the practice, her expertise was in some of the chemicals involved and their effects on human health. She prepared her research and attended the panel.

“When I heard what everyone else was talking about, it just seemed to click in my mind. I was like, ‘This is insane!’ I mean, really? We’re turning the earth inside out! We’re blowing it up! I could see 1,000 ways that this could be bad for public health. I was like, ‘How did I not know about this?’”

She soon realized that natural gas was connected to her previous activism to advocate safer laws in the handling and use of toxic chemicals – for example, a ban on polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, most often referred to simply as “vinyl.” Natural gas is used to create many of these toxic chemicals, and if there is a boom in natural gas production, then there would be a parallel boom in the farming of these chemicals.

After learning about fracking, she began to see how common it was – and how much it could potentially affect the lives of her and her family. She learned that 40% of the land in Tompkins County had already been leased to natural gas companies, including land immediately surrounding her home. This made her worried for her children’s safety, within good reason.

“Each one of these well heads vents all kinds of carcinogens,” said Steingraber. “They’re basically chimneys in the earth.”

In 2011, Steingraber traveled for two months with her family to work on research about hydraulic fracturing. She happened to be in Salt Lake City as Tim DeChristopher was scheduled for sentencing at a local courthouse. DeChristopher is an anti-fracking activist and co-founder of the organization Peaceful Uprising, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting climate change with nonviolent action. Three years previous, he had committed an act of civil disobedience to successfully halt natural gas operations at a nearby site.

Out of curiosity, Steingraber decided to attend the trial and watched as he was taken away in chains. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison. (Incidentally, DeChristopher is Bill McKibben’s other Earth Day Hero of this year.)

A few days later, Steingraber received a call from the Heinz Foundation notifying her that she had won the Heinz Award for her life’s work as a biologist, journalist and author. As part of this award, Steingraber received $100,000 – which she donated entirely to the anti-fracking movement in New York state because she was so moved by Tim DeChristopher’s activism.

“I had just seen this anti-fracking advocate [DeChristopher] pay this huge price,” said Steingraber. “[Donating the money] seemed like such a small sacrifice after that.”

Most of the money was used to form “New Yorkers Against Fracking,” a large coalition of non-profits and businesses that are allied in their resistance against fracking. Currently, there are over 200 member organizations and over 1,000 member businesses involved with the organization. Steingraber still sits on their Advisory Committee with Lois Gibbs (environmental activist), Natalie Merchant (musician), and Mark Ruffalo (actor).

Steingraber also donated a smaller amount of the money to associated nonprofits in New York: for example, Citizen Action, a grassroots nonprofit that tackles many major issues in the state such as health care, racial justice, and hydraulic fracturing. Steingraber’s donation enabled talented individuals like Isaac Silberman-Gorn to become directly involved in the anti-fracking movement. At 23, Silberman-Gorn is an organizer with Citizen Action, a nonprofit public activist group, and works in their anti-fracking campaign in New York’s Southern Tier.

“[Steingraber] has this background as a biologist,” said Silberman-Gorn. “knowing this incredibly hard science, and then she’s this brilliant speaker – and a really good strategist, too, which I think she’s developed over the past few years as being one of the spokespeople for [New Yorkers Against Fracking]. She’s absolutely phenomenal to work with.”

Since donating the money from the Heinz Award, Steingraber’s life has been a whirlwind of activism. She is most well-known in the anti-fracking universe for her speeches at rallies and other events. Her speeches are often regarded as memorable based on their seemingly effortless weaving of Steingraber’s biological and personal background.

“She says what needs to be said in a beautiful way, frankly,” said Silberman-Gorn. “Everyone I know who has heard her speak has nearly been moved to tears. She’s an unbelievable speaker. In terms of putting things out, laying things out in this beautiful, poetic way – she’s absolutely one of a kind.”

Because of this style, the Sierra Club has called Steingraber the “new Rachel Carson,” and she received the Rachel Carson Leadership Award in 2001. It’s actually all very fitting, as Steingraber herself has cited Rachel Carson as being her biggest influence and role model in her work.

The similarity between both Rachel Carson and Sandra Steingraber is clear: both came from a background in the sciences to write about an environmental problem that poses a huge risk to human health. They both do so in beautiful, poetic language, that is still ultimately rooted in a clear and concise explanation of science. And, lastly, both were diagnosed with cancer: Rachel Carson with breast cancer, and Sandra Steingraber with bladder cancer.

When Steingraber was 20 years old and still in college, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Although her cancer is in remission, being a cancer survivor still affects her life today.

According to one of her best friends, Jan Quarles, her cancer diagnosis has made her appreciate her life. Quarles and Steingraber have been friends for 16 years, and Quarles has helped to take care of Steingraber’s children for many years. Their bond is so deep that Quarles was present while Steingraber gave birth to her son. Quarles, who lives near Sheldrake Point, NY, is also an anti-fracking activist. She is the chairperson of Back to Democracy, a nonprofit organization that promotes citizen empowerment and education in issues surrounding social justice, clean energy, sustainability, and other progressive topics. With Steingraber’s cancer diagnosis, Quarles notes, came the expectation that she wouldn’t live past a few years.

“She feels that every single day she gets is a bonus day,” said Quarles. “She doesn’t assume that she’s going to have more days. Each day that she’s alive and she wakes up, she says, ‘This is great, I have one more day where I can help work at this.’”

Besides, as a biologist, Steingraber is fully aware of the potential health risks from environmental toxins. (She received her PhD in Biology from the University of Michigan.) She wrote her 1997 book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, about her personal investigation into the potential causes of her cancer. She learned that there were solvents and other carcinogens that had leached into the local water supply from a local dry cleaner in her home town; although it’s impossible to tell if this caused her cancer, it does stand out as a strong possibility. (As an aside, Living Downstream was also released as a feature-length documentary in 2010.)

The legalization of hydraulic fracturing has reportedly caused similar health problems in individuals living near the fracking facilities. So, to say that Steingraber has a personal connection to the fracking movement is not an overstatement.

This isn’t her only connection to the movement, though – when she was an infant, Steingraber was adopted by her parents, the details of which have been hidden from her by the state of Illinois for the majority of her life. This secret has impacted her worldview dramatically. Steingraber was born in 1959, and was adopted by her parents shortly after her birth. She grew up in central Illinois. Her mother had also studied biology in college, but given the time period, she wasn’t legally allowed to be a full-time adoptive mother and an employed researcher. It was emotionally hard for her to give up her passion, but she became a “knowledgeable housewife” whose love of the natural world left a marked influence on Steingraber and on her own biological studies.

However, despite Steingraber’s bond with her parents, learning that she was adopted was still very difficult for her.

During 1959, it was Illinois state practice to seal away the original birth certificate and adoption papers of an adopted child. These records were pulled from the public record and a new, fake birth certificate was put in their place, claiming that the child’s adoptive parents gave birth. (This was the only time that it is legal to put a falsified document in the public record.) It was only recently that Illinois opened the original records so that adopted children could get a copy of their original birth certificate.

Learning about this practice and her adoption made Steingraber adamant about secrecy and its dangers. Of course, there is a direct correlation between secrets and the anti-fracking fight; the success of the industry is built on secrets, many of which are state sanctioned. For example, natural gas companies are exempt from almost all federal environmental statutes so they are not obligated to report their toxic emissions; they call it a “trade secret.” Additionally, natural gas companies sign nondisclosure agreements with many individuals whose land they lease. These agreements forbid people to discuss any part of their lease (or the fracking on their land, or contamination, or health problems that have arisen since the start of the process). Lastly, doctors in Pennsylvania are not allowed to discuss the possible chemicals to which their patients have been exposed. This goes further than doctor-patient confidentiality: the doctor is not allowed to discuss this information, even in the most general sense, with coworkers, the public health department, or the media.

“As an adoptee, it’s the job of the state to protect us,” said Steingraber, “whether that means finding a home for an abandoned child, or keeping the rapers and pillagers of industry out, preventing them from using our land as their factory floor, blowing up our bedrock, using our water as a club to smash the shale apart, filling our air with toxic hazardous air pollutants that then get inside of our bodies – it’s the job of the government to say no to that sort of stuff. Fracking is a failure of government.”


“Today is a pretty hectic day,” Steingraber said to me at the beginning of our interview. “I’m trying to get everything prepared before I go to jail, and I’m going to see my daughter in The Tempest tonight.”

Steingraber is a mother of two: Faith, a fourteen year old girl, and Elijah, an eleven year old boy. Because she’s so busy, her husband, Jeff, a sculptor, has taken on many responsibilities to care for the family while Steingraber is working. She says that her husband and kids are generally very supportive of her activism, although they have had to learn how to “share me with the world.” Despite her work, Steingraber tries to spend time with her children as often as possible. She uses running as a method to clear her mind and work through writing obstacles, and when her son asked her to run a 5k marathon with him, she couldn’t refuse.

However, she learned later that there was a critical conference call that she needed to listen in on, about an upcoming fracking event. She couldn’t disappoint her son, but she couldn’t miss this call, either.

“Obviously, I didn’t win the race,” said Steingraber. “But I was just jogging along, talking on speaker phone and looking like a crazy lady.”

She has also brought her kids to events where she was scheduled to appear. One notable story took place a year ago, shortly after New York’s Governor Cuomo held a yogurt summit to boost dairy production in the state. In response, Steingraber and other researchers and activists held a press conference to connect the inherent issue between legalizing fracking and encouraging farming: it’s impossible to frack an area and then safely use it for food production.

That day, Steingraber brought her children to the press conference to spend time with them and to take them to a museum afterward. After the press conference, there was a rally where dancing activists, dressed in cow suits, held signs that said, “Don’t frack our cows!”

Capital police surrounded and addressed one woman; we don’t know what they said to her, but in response, she took off her cow costume and laid it on the ground to look like a dead cow. The police then came up to Steingraber, thinking that she was the leader of the crowd, and told her that to remove the costume because it was a fire hazard. Steingraber decided to put the costume on instead; it was a better alternative than providing the media an image of her submitting to the police, folding the cow costume and putting it into a box.

“So I picked it up and put it on,” said Steingraber, laughing, “and I picked up the chant – ‘Don’t kill the cows!’ – and joined the chorus line of other cows. But I could see my daughter in the background and I could just tell, she was like, ‘She is not my mom.’ She wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.”

While at home, Steingraber does her best to make time for her children – even going so far as to cuddle with them for a few minutes every night before they go to sleep. These moments, she says, are when children are at their most vulnerable and are likely to talk about their thoughts or what has been bothering them throughout the day.

While Steingraber was sent to jail, Elijah was, of course, very upset. (Faith was on a class trip to Costa Rica for almost the entire time her mother was in jail.) However, it seems that he is quickly learning from his mother; when he woke up the next morning, he wrote letters to Steingraber and to the editor of his local newspaper about his mother’s imprisonment.

“I think we should all follow Elijah’s lead in that regard,” said Quarles. “instead of feeling depressed about all of the problems of society, we should all take action just like Elijah did, and we’ll all feel better.”


Despite all of her work in activism, Steingraber considers herself to be a writer foremost. She has published six books and is working on another – although she couldn’t discuss the content of it yet.

Her role as a writer was what prompted her to deliver a series of four letters while she was in jail, each released close to and on Earth Day. These letters, she said, were inspired by Martin Luther King’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail. Steingraber’s first letter (in two parts, here and here) was addressed to a general audience; the second to environmental leaders; the third to fellow cancer survivors; and the fourth to fellow mothers. In each letter, Steingraber used her unique position in each of these roles to tell her story to these various audiences about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and the Inergy facility.

While Steingraber served her time in jail, Quarles organized nightly vigils for those imprisoned (which included her husband, Michael Dineen), scheduled a press conference, and coordinated seemingly countless media interviews. Despite Steingraber’s success, she doesn’t have an executive assistant.

A large goal in getting arrested was that Steingraber wanted to attract media attention to the Inergy facility. She has certainly done so; before her trial, she was invited for an hour long interview with Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company. While in jail and after she was released on April 25, she inspired several letters to newspaper editors, including one from Adelaide Park Gomer, a trustee at the prestigious Park Foundation in Ithaca, New York. She hosted a talk at Ithaca College where she is the Distinguished Scholar in Residence in their Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The talk, titled, “The Scientist in Cell Block D: Thoughts on fracking infrastructure, extreme energy and civil disobedience,” attracted so many students that it filled the lecture hall. And, on May 9, the Women’s Environmental Institute named Steingraber the 2013 “Mother of the Environmental Movement.”

These are only some of the successes that have occurred since Steingraber’s release from jail. Although the Inergy facility hasn’t been closed down, Steingraber, and the eleven others who were arrested in protest of it, have significantly raised awareness about the issue. Because of this, it is far more likely that the facility and company will be held under far more public scrutiny than they would be otherwise.

Despite all of this, Steingraber will not rest. During our interview, she told me that she usually stays up all night at least twice a week; when you feel like your work is the most important work in the world, she told me, sleep becomes far less important. Her goals are so large that she needs as much time as she can get to tackle them. Steingraber doesn’t want to only close Inergy’s facility; she’s far more ambitious than that. Steingraber wants a national ban on fracking.

Listening to her, I believe entirely that we can reach that goal. With someone as dedicated, intelligent, graceful, and talented as Steingraber working for the anti-fracking cause, we have (at the very least) a fighting chance of banning fracking in New York, if not the United States. Then, of course, there are the thousands of people she has inspired through her work and speeches who are just as passionate as she is about the cause.

Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, a journalist, an activist, and a mother. But she is also an immensely humble leader who is trying to save the world, one rally and one book at a time.


 For anyone interested, you can learn more about Sandra Steingraber at her homepage and her Facebook page.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: