Highlighting The Too-Often Invisible Labor Of Mothers, Who Protect Us And Lead Us

Above photo: Veronica at a local township meeting advocating with other mothers to keep drilling away from a school. She is holding her daughter, who was in her first public meeting.

This week two major publications were released that highlight public health impacts on people living next to oil and gas operations. The Environmental Health News released their investigation looking at how chemicals associated with oil and gas are present at levels 90 times higher than the average in families’ urine, including samples from children. The New Yorker published “When the Kids Started Getting Sick” by Eliza Griswold, a deep dive on the increase in rare bone cancers in the region.

These articles highlight the reality of so many in our communities, and because they reflect that lived reality, they hit home. For that reason, this blog goes a bit beyond simply providing information.

As a mother of two young children living a mile from several oil and gas operations, these articles were challenging to read, and I want to acknowledge that I needed time to move through being consumed by anxiety and fear over the risk my children are being exposed to as I read through them. You might have this same problem, whether you anticipate it or not.

It is great to see that these articles are being shared widely across social media and email chains, and hopefully they’re helping to create a clearer picture of what living next to fracking operations is like for people who aren’t so close to the impacts. Hopefully they’re helping others to understand that all of us living here are always trying to make the best decisions we can to best protect our futures with the information available to us. I’m writing this reflection because I wanted to share some perspectives that we might not be hearing from others in our communities, and I wanted to be a little more open and honest than I usually am about my reaction when I saw these headlines come through my inbox and my Facebook feed.

Living in this area and raising two young children, doing this work full-time for an environmental justice non-profit — I know that there are harms, but sometimes even I will go to the place of denial and wishing I didn’t know so much so that I don’t get too depressed and overwhelmed: I need to be able to be present for my kids. Seeing these reports, which confirm my worst fears about my kids being at undue risk, is hard. Like many others in my community, I don’t have the ability to just pick up and leave, nor should I have to leave the place I love where my life and identity, as well as the rest of my family, is — the family that is helping me to raise my children. So, I do what all moms do: I do my best, keep putting one foot in front of the other under this extreme stress, and care for my family.

If you saw these headlines on your social media feed or in your inbox, and you had the same reaction – you just couldn’t take one more extra stress on your life right now, you needed more time to be able to process, or you needed space to pluck up the energy to keep doing your best after reading these – that is okay.

After reading these articles, I found myself needing to control feelings of anger. When these stories come out, when reports from scientists and economists bring to light the harms and failures of the oil and gas industry, when they debunk the propaganda this industry has sold in this region, industry’s response is always that there is “no proven causation” between fracking and illness/disease. They well know that proving causation is a scientifically high standard: it is difficult, extremely complex, and very time-consuming to prove causality of this sort, further complicated by a hundred years of extraction and no baseline data in this region. Despite this, they continue to claim that their operations are safe – more, that their operations are safe and the only thing keeping our communities from experiencing economic collapse. Industry is purposefully manipulating the public when they do so. Even if we can’t prove causation, there is enough of a correlation between an increase in extraction and this increased risk of childhood illness to know that something is very, very wrong. At the very least, we should care enough to be curious and figure this out, whether fracking is to blame or not. Inaction and placating are not only unacceptable but infuriating.

And yet, after reading these articles, I also found myself marveling at the strength and resiliency of mothers. In this moment, with the pandemic, women across the country are doing too-often invisible labor as anchors of their families while also continuing their careers (or sacrificing their careers) and contributing to their communities. I feel honored to know many of the women featured in the stories and to have organized side-by-side with them over the years. It’s a heavy burden, though, to add the kind of stress that living next to industry brings to women’s already full plates. We worry that our kids will get sick, that they already might be sick, that we might be the next family featured in this kind of article. As moms, we take care and we worry, but we are fueled by the knowledge that no politician, regulatory agency, or energy company will care about our kids like we will. No one will fight harder for our kids’ futures than our mothers.

And so, the burning question this mom is sitting with after reading these articles, after being presented with the compounding evidence of potential risk and harm from the expanding oil and gas operations in our region…. Where are our decision-makers? Are they hearing the demands to do better – and what are they doing about it? Where is state senator Camera Bartolotta? What is state representative Tim O’Neal’s response? What is state representative Pam Snyder’s reaction? What is Congressman Reschenthaler going to do about this? These are the individuals who hold the power to create the change we need to improve our children’s lives, and they are squandering that power by sitting complacently to the side, pocketing campaign donations and taking selfies with industry representatives at political dinners. I may not be able to understand how decision-makers can know what we know about industry and do nothing – or worse, actively continue to support – but I do know that there are hundreds of people coming together in our region to make them start answering to us.

If you want to chat or to join with us in organizing, please reach out. You can email info@coalfieldjustice.org or call 724-229-3550, ext. 5. Also, feel free to join our March virtual community meeting, which will focus on this general topic area, on Tuesday the 30th at 7 p.m.