State-Codified Avoidance of Accountability and Genocidal Profiteering: Gag Orders, Compressor Station Explosions, Children’s Art Projects, and Fracking

When the Friends of Vestal sponsored an anti-fracking art contest in Broome County’s Vestal Central School (Vestal, New York) which included a sketch of a baby laying on its back sucking from a gas can, caption underneath: “How will fracking effect you?” Rachael Colley, writer for fracking propaganda machine Energy In Depth felt compelled to register her offense. She writes:

One particular mother [that turns out to be Ms. Colley’s] questioned the school about the art exhibits and was told the students were given a choice and could do their art projects on this topic or choose from a separate short list.  However, the poster contest was to be judged by the Friends of Vestal, whose Facebook page says its purpose is “[t]o preserve Vestal’s quality of life by providing information on the possible impacts of natural gas [development] and the ways we can protect ourselves…Clearly this isn’t fair,” explained this mother. “If these kids draw anything positive they won’t stand a chance in the contest. The schools are allowing individual private interest groups to brainwash the students…Well, judge for yourself.  Was it fair?  As a mother, would you want your young daughter, a future mother, viewing images of a child sucking on a toxic can?

Assuming that Ms. Colley has represented the art contest fairly, there may be legitimate questions about whether the Friends of Vestal ought to have been both sponsor and judge of an art contest. As for the charge that “[t]hey were subjected to what can only be described as indoctrination,” this seems disingenuous at best. Every time these kids turn on a TV, listen to a radio, look up a website, or drive past a billboard they’re inundated with the “good American”—Big Energy’s appeal to a lurid combination of patriotism, fear of invasion, and greed (arguably the preeminent American value) which helps to insure they don’t ask questions—much less put up resistance—when the landmen knock at the door. Fact is, our children are eating and breathing the last days of fossil fuels—literally—whether they know it or not, and The Friends of Vestal art contest is likely the only opportunity they’ll have to see the other—far darker—side of fracking. But Ms. Colley and her mother aren’t going to put up with that. Am image of a baby sucking on a gas can is just too disturbing—and Ms. Colley apparently doesn’t want to risk truth getting in the way of art-fun—or fracking-profits.

Ms. Colley’s argument is that there was insufficient opportunity to make pro-drilling art works to balance the contest’s entries (though she offers no evidence that students were so deprived). But isn’t this rather like insisting on including, say, works depicting the positive side of pancreatic cancer? The awesome side of Asthma, or the ebullient side of bed sores? Perhaps she envisions Impressionist renditions of the shiny rainbow-in-sunlight sheen of frackwater disposal ponds, charcoals of stately drill rigs at dusk, pastels of gas flares in the moonlight, or an audio rendition of, say an explosion at a compressor station with Mozart’s Death Mass playing softly in the background. And, of course, she doesn’t have any of these in mind at all. Ms. Colley’s interests have naught to do with “balance” and everything to do with, as someone put it in pithy-poetic terms to me: “EID’s whoring for the gas.”

Calm down, Ms. Colley. It’s art—and I didn’t call you a gas-whore. Nonetheless, “balance” in this case is a FOX “Schmews” style strategy for massaging the beliefs of ordinary citizens in the same way that the rhetoric of the “good American” is aimed at soliciting the consent of the patriot to a variety of fossil fuel extraction that has nothing to recommend it other than the $400.00 bottle of French Bordeaux only the Aubrey McClendons of the world can afford. And that doesn’t include Ms. Colley or any of the students at Vestal Central. Here’s the simple problem with Ms. Colley’s appeal to balance: She’s lying. Ms. Colley hasn’t the slightest interest in “balance.” A story intended to make the fracking industry out to be the victim of Un-American malcontents (Terry Engelder’s “environmental fundamentalists”) intent on the manipulation of children, Ms. Colley in fact aims to sucker indignant parents and EID readers to the ends of an industry whose state-abetted profiteering is precisely represented in the image of a baby sucking on an oil can. And let’s not tread lightly here: this is an image of death.

The images Ms. Colley likely has in mind are consistent with gas industry ads featuring people cooking tasty dinners in their nice warm up-scale houses, sipping sparkly clean water out of shapely plastic bottles—all cozy and safe from those who might threaten our “energy security.” It’s important to note, however, that, like the good American pitted against the Un-American, those who’d threaten “our” “energy security” are not Rush Limbaugh’s “Chi-Coms” but your local fractivists—and kids who paint babies sucking on gas cans. Portrayed by the corporatized state as something akin to domestic terrorists, anyone who declines the landmen, joins in a protest—demands to be told the truth—is now painted either as an uninformed buffoon or—whichever is most effective—as the enemy against which to justify virtually any law that guarantees the “safety, productivity, and integrity” of the natural gas industry, including laws that violate the Hippocratic Oath and the Patient’s Bill of Rights; insure against the investigation of incidents like compressor station explosions; extort consent from municipalities to conduct fracking operations next to essential community infrastructure; and conceal the real aims of the industry itself. As McClendon puts itI can assure you that buying leases for x and selling them for 5x or 10x is a lot more profitable than trying to produce gas at $5 or $6 per million cubic feet.”

And that, I am convinced, is what the gas boom is really all about. Buying leases, and then selling them at an exponentially inflated profit in order to leverage more buying and more selling. We could be polite and call this a Ponzi scheme, or we could be honest and call it an effective conspiracy to defraud Americans out of our country, indeed, out of the very earth under our feet—with the blessing of the state. Paranoid? I don’t think so. Consider the gag order Pennsylvania’s Act 13 imposes on physicianswhen it comes to chemicals that may make people sick”: physicians treating patients who may have been made sick by exposure to trade-secret fracking chemicals must now sign a non-disclosure agreement which insures that, while the doctor must ask for the trade secret chemicals, they may not release the proprietary-protected mix to the patient. While the industry adamantly denies the charge that this amounts to a gag order, the fact that doctors must sign a nondisclosure agreement when they suspect the cause of an illness can be traced to fracking tells the key part of the story. “In essence, Act 13 allows doctors to see the chemicals and the amounts of each one used in hydraulic fracturing.” The names of the chemicals are made available to the public through registry sites such as, but the specific mix of the chemicals is not, “and those trade secret recipes are what the Act aims to protect.”

In other words, the doctor cannot release what may be essential information to the patient—the chemical mix. Such information is essential: to have access to a list of chemicals on Fracfocus is hardly helpful since—as industry representatives surely know—it is the mix that’s relevant to the illness—not necessarily any one chemical by itself. To be able to treat the patient requires not only complete and accurate information, but the informed consent of the patient—an informed consent made impossible when the patient does not have complete and accurate information. Such a law plainly violates the Hippocratic Oath and the Patient Bill of Rights. According to Walt Brasch, writing for News Item:

The law, an amendment to Title 58 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, requires that companies provide to a state-maintained registry the names of chemicals and gases used in fracking. Physicians and others who work with citizen health issues may request specific information, but the company doesn’t have to provide that information if it claims it is a trade secret or proprietary information, nor does it have to reveal how the chemicals and gases used in fracking interact with natural compounds. If a company does release information about what is used, health care professionals are bound by a non-disclosure agreement that not only forbids them from warning the community of water and air pollution that may be caused by fracking, but which also forbids them from telling their own patients what the physician believes may have led to their health problems… The clauses are buried on pages 98 and 99 of the 174-page bill, which was initiated and passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed into law in February by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett…”I have never seen anything like this in my 37 years of practice,” says Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician from Coraopolis. She says it’s common for physicians, epidemiologists and others in the health care field to discuss and consult with each other about the possible problems that can affect various populations. Her first priority, she says, “is to diagnose and treat, and to be proactive in preventing harm to others.” The new law, she says, not only “hinders preventative measures for our patients, it slows the treatment process by gagging free discussion.” (

None of this, however, prevents Patrick Henderson, Energy Executive for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, from comparing the protection of trade secrets for frack-chemical mixes to the protections afforded to Pepsi Cola:

All of the ingredients are known to the public, but the specific recipe is kept secret. He says that will remain the case for the chemical mixes used for hydraulic fracturing, but not because of industry pressure. He says officials realize that there is a need and right to know about chemicals on the part of the public but, “You must balance that with what any business is entitled to under both state and federal law. This is an obligation the state has. It’s not simply a choice, it’s an obligation to protect proprietary, confidential information.”

The appeal to “balance” in such a context is nothing but subterfuge. If we swapped out the gas can for a bottle of Pepsi in the Vestal student’s art project, the state’s interest remains precisely the same—protecting the rights of the industry—even though the exposure to the frack cocktail may mean sickness or even death without any meaningful access to the cause. Consider an analogy: I might have access to all of the ingredients online to make a bomb, but this means precisely squat if I don’t know how to mix them to make an explosive. Similarly, a physician may have access too all of the chemicals used in mixing a frack cocktail, but this means precisely squat if she or he cannot explain to the patient how and why it is that their health has been blown to bits.

The state not only affords no meaningful protection to patients exposed to fracking chemicals, but actively colludes with the fracking industry to prevent law suit, avoid accountability, and thereby maximize profitability for those who contribute to the promotion of industry interests. Standing behind a fig leaf of “access,” the state protects its own interests as if these were consistent with the industry even when the immense cost to health, environment, and community is borne by the very citizens for whom the government is elected to speak. But nothing could be further from the truth. Under Act 13, Pennsylvania is corporatized as a factory town whose citizens have been transformed into that ever-disposable substitutable commodity called “workers” who, under the physician nondisclosure agreement for frack chemical mixes, is expected, if necessary, to play out the role of the good American by dying. Too much? Look up that Fracfocus list. The irony? Perhaps Ms. Colley would have objected to an image of a baby sucking down a Pepsi—sugar content and all. But exposure to cancer-causing frack fluids? Don’t even tell the kid’s folks.

State-codified avoidance of accountability: this is precisely what the gag order provision of Act 13 has in common with the Susquehanna County, Lathrop Compressor Station explosion, March 29th, 2012. While the strategy for avoiding accountability may be different, the ends are the same. In the Lathrop case, an explosion that “blew a hole in the roof of the complex holding the engines, shaking homes as far as a half-mile away and drawing emergency responders from nearby counties” was quickly re-spun as a “flash fire…which extinguished itself immediately” by industry spokesperson Helen Humphries, a sentiment echoed by Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) representative Colleen Connelly: “The natural gas release valve was quickly shut off,” she said. “So far, the levels are coming back acceptable, and there is no danger to the public.” But all of this presupposes that DEP is an agency whose mission is the public welfare, and that it intended to conduct an investigation into the Lathrop incident. The trouble here is two-fold: first, DEP’s obvious aims were not to conduct an investigation, but to preempt public outcry. The evidence? Lathrop restarted processing of the 365 million cubic feet of gas per day within two days of the explosion (six of the seven engines were back operating), and while DEP expressed dissatisfaction, it remains unclear whether there will be any action taken against Williams, the fracking corporation who operates the station. Let’s imagine the Lathrop Station as a patient and Williams-the-Fracker as a diagnosing physician:

Lathrop Station: Doc. I feel pretty sick—like my head’s exploding or something. I think my roof’s blown right off. And I’m puking.

Dr. Williams-the-Fracker: What’s a little roof blown off—everything here looks just fine. Let’s not be a baby about this. Take a little nap, and we’ll get you fixed right up.

Lathrop Station: OK, Doc, but couldn’t you take a look around, make sure everything’s really good-to-go. I wouldn’t want this to happen again. It could be bigger next time.

Dr. Williams-the-Fracker: Sure, sure, and look! Dr. DEP is in the house!

Dr. DEP: Wow! I see there’s a little mess here. Can I take a peek at the damage?

Dr. Williams-the-Fracker: Actually, no. Remember that little talk we had after Corbett was elected, you know, that little who-wears-the-pants and who’s-the-the-bitch talk? Nothing to see here.

Dr. DEP: OK. Well, I am a little disappointed, but I guess I’ll go on home now. But we’re not happy! (quoting Colleen Connelly)

Lathrop Station: What? That’s IT? But I could really blow.

Dr. Williams-the-Fracker: Such a drama queen! Now, shut up. There’s money to be made.

Even more alarming perhaps is that the Lathrop Station is “out of regulatory reach” for the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission (PUC) because the station operates in a rural area – and thus outside its regulatory reach. “It’s not in our jurisdiction,” said Jennifer Kocher, a PUC spokeswoman. “There’s nothing we can do.” Indeed, rural areas classified as “Class One” have been the subject of concerted industry regulatory resistance such that in regions of Pennsylvania that have fewer than ten homes per square mile, no regulations apply at all to the construction, maintenance, or monitoring of compressor stations, transmission lines, or gathering lines.

And that is just the point: Pennsylvania law is either written for the fracking industry or deliberately not written—for the fracking industry, whichever maximizes profitability. Here’s a prediction: precisely no fines or other punitive measures will be exacted against Williams—despite a letter from The Clean Air Council signed by 100 Pennsylvania residents within days of the incident demanding from DEP Secretary Michael Krancer a full DEP investigation (4.6.12). Why? Because Williams cannot have violated laws that do not exist any more than they can be held accountable for poisoning folks who get sick from frack chemicals. Patients under the nondisclosure clause of Act 13 are basically the “class one” of fracking’s accountability to the health of Pennsylvania citizens—that is, none at all, persona non gratis. Just as Williams can with complete impunity continue to build compressor stations (they have plans to construct three more near the Lathrop site), they can with complete impunity avoid responsibility for the disastrous consequences fracking and its associated infrastructure have for human health—and anything else that might eat into the bottom line of the Ponzi scheme to convert private property and state lands into corporate “holdings.” Who knows what chemicals folks near the Lathrop station might have breathed in during the aftermath of that explosion. Who knows what the consequences might be for them in the next weeks or years, or what kind of carnage the next explosion will create. But who cares? There’s money to be made. And just like a baby sucking down hard on a can full of gas, our addiction to fossil fuels makes us complicit in the potential disaster that’s coming. Or not exactly like that baby. After all, we grown-ups ought to know better.

Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University

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