On February 22 in Brockway, Pennsylvania, at a public hearing that was being held about permitting a new Marcellus Shale gas well to be drilled by Flatirons Development in the Brockway watershed, I asked a question that elicited from my State Senator Joseph Scarnati a surprisingly vehement personal attack against me. I have to say it was pretty unsettling to be pilloried in public by the most powerful member of the Republican majority in Harrisburg.
Essentially he called me “crude.” In answer to my question about why he was not holding hearings on the public health impacts of shale gas drilling, he characterized emails which I have sent to him over the past year about shale gas issues as “crude.” His words were intended to create the impression that such emails could only come from a “crude” person, and he deftly framed me as a person who was badgering him and thus not worthy of his time to respond.
I suppose I have written him quite often, precisely hoping that he as my Senator would respond to the substantive comments about the present-day dangers of unconventional drilling for shale gas, but he has carefully avoided all such direct accountability to me, one of his constituents. He has only rarely responded to my letters, and then in the same dismissive way as he used in Brockway at the hearing.
My question about people being sickened by drilling was out of order as far as Senator Scarnati was concerned. He was conducting a public hearing to allow the “concerns” of Brockway residents to be heard, not to take a question from me – his email tormentor – about some sort of hearing he was supposed to have at another time.
However, by that point in the evening things were getting a little tense because everyone knew that DEP was going to approve the permit no matter what Brockway residents thought about it. The hearing seemed to be so much window dressing of a decision already made. That feeling was in the air and in the comments made by some of the Brockway residents. The meeting was getting out of control as it sunk in on Brockway residents that the property rights of Flatirons Development were going to trump their human right to have clean water and not see their watershed put at risk of permanent contamination.
So it was in that context that I spoke up. The Senator was already pretty tense and my question to him gave him a good excuse to release some of that tension.
After the meeting was over and I calmed down from the name-calling abuse, I wrote him yet another email entitled “Are you always such a bully?”:
Dear Senator Scarnati -
I was quite disappointed in you tonight in Brockway. To call me “crude” or to characterize my emails to you as such was a low blow. You spoke from a position of power and you knew I would not be able to respond, so your pejorative characterization of the letters and appeals I have sent you would stand without challenge. I thought you better than that. I am used to how the gas industry goes directly to the ad hominem argument when they would rather not deal with the criticism or the question. But I did not expect that from you.
Tell you what, if you think my previous emails were so “crude,” why don’t you release all of them publicly, unedited, and let people decide for themselves?
I did appreciate that you said that any legislator who knew of people being sickened or hurt by the gas drilling had a responsibility to convene a hearing and get to the facts of that. If I can find you people in Senate District 25, will you do so? Or is it “crude” to ask you that?
You well know, Senator, that you are much more on the state level than just the Senator from District 25, and to refuse to answer the question as to why you are not having state-level hearings on the current damage being done to people by the drilling is another example of how you evade the moral questions I have been placing before you.
Now four weeks later I have yet to receive a response from him. Given that, I feel I have no choice but to let others read the email I sent to him on that Ash Wednesday morning before the evening hearing in Brockway. It is fairly representative of other emails I have sent him. People can read it and judge for themselves if it is “crude” in nature. I promised him in that the email that it would be held in confidence between us, but with his attack on me at the Brockway hearing he forfeited my promise to keep our communication private. People have a right to know what upset him so much.
Before that, I must offer one other piece of context. Both Joseph Scarnati and I are devout Catholics. He goes to Mass in Brockway. My parish where I attend Mass is about 25 miles south in Sykesville. But wherever we go we hear the same readings every Sunday, and take part in the same communion. Because of that, I have at times written him a message based on the readings of that Sunday and on our common ground as brothers in Christ. The readings often seem relevant, at least to me, to the social injustice of supporting an industry that sickens people and ruins their water while it makes a few private corporations very rich.
So I have spoken to Senator Scarnati quite frankly as a brother in Christ concerned about what he is doing to others, and indeed concerned about his immortal soul. I suppose that irks him more than I realized. It was in that context on Ash Wednesday that I sent the following email to him, and a similar one to Speaker Sam Smith.
Dear Joe –
On this Ash Wednesday we Christians hear at church, as a cross of ashes is traced on our foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I have dust on my mind today, my wife’s dust, which has to do with my invitation to you and to Speaker Smith, of which I will speak in a moment, but first let me speak of the prayer I am sending your way.
With our mortality as common ground between us, and with the assurance to each of you that this message is only between us, I am sending a prayer your way on this holy day of fasting. I will fast throughout the day of each Wednesday of Lent for your sake (and for mine) as we engage in this struggle over the drilling for shale gas that I oppose and you support. As I have told you before, I believe the harm being done to people by this drilling in not acceptable in the sight of Our Lord.
The prayer is this: “Dear God, soften our hearts so that we can hear each other, but most especially that we may always hear the cries of your suffering poor and act in their interests. Please allow Joe the ability to listen to and to hear the victims of Marcellus Shale gas drilling. Give him ears to hear, eyes to see. And grant me the serenity and grace to engage him in discernment about what You would have us to do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
That said; let me move now to the invitation. I am putting together a May 10 event on my farm to which I will be inviting you, Speaker Smith, and the owners of the gas rights to this property, as well as gas company representatives. That invitation will be quite public in nature. Press release and all that, best as I can muster.
I will be inviting you to come on that day to hear directly from some of the victims of this extreme form of fossil fuel extraction. After you have heard their stories, I will ask you to respond however you might like to respond. The ground rule will be simple. If you listen first, you get to speak. Same goes for the gas company people and gas rights owner if they choose to come.
On that day also I will be scattering a portion of the dust that is all I have left of my wife Lucinda, who died of lung cancer this past November. Her ashes will become part of the soil of this farm and I will declare this land inviolate of gas drilling, at whatever cost I am required to pay to keep it that way. I will offer a new meaning of “surface rights” to be defended in her name.
Her suffering is present to me, as it will be the fate to which many others will be consigned after we release tons of carcinogenic materials into the ground and waters over one-half of Pennsylvania. You do not have proof, nor have the gas companies offered proof, that references any sort of scientific consensus that this drilling cannot cause irreparable harm to our aquifers. That makes what you do both unethical and immoral. You do not get to take such chances with the lives of other human beings.
On May 10 a portion of Lucinda’s ashes will fall from my hand to grace this land below our feet and those ashes will create an impermeable “surface right of love,” a new kind of barrier that no drilling rig can penetrate. After that day, there will not be a diamond bit hard enough to pierce the love for this land that sustained Lucinda and me as we built this farm these past seven years. Then on May 12 I will gather with Lucinda’s family and friends from throughout the sustainable agriculture community of Pennsylvania to carry her ashes to every corner of this farm as a “soil amendment” like no other.
Lucinda requested that this be her final resting place, and so it shall be. We made a beautiful place here. I hope you will come see it. I hope you understand, and that you let any of your friends in the gas industry understand, that I will defend (nonviolently) this place with my life against the ravages of shale gas drilling. And I hope that you can understand that these actions I take are also meant in the final analysis for your well-being. From afar you seem like a good man to me, and I believe you might think me a good man, too, if ever we meet in person.
Blessings to you, sincerely. I do continue to hope, despite past experience, that I will hear back from you. Joe, if you are in Brockway tonight at the community meeting, let’s at least shake hands and say hello, yes?
So there you have it, my “crude” email to Joseph Scarnati. Honestly as I read through it again and think of his somewhat violent verbal assault on me, I am quite saddened. Something has happened to harden his heart. The call to empathy that I have made to him on numerous occasions has fallen not on deaf ears, but on ears keenly tuned, it appears, to recognize the enemy of his ambitions and to destroy that person’s character and credibility if he can.
That is very sad, but that is the state of our political discourse these days.
So people can judge whether I have any right to address Senator Scarnati as “Joe” or “brother in Christ” and appeal to his better angels to let into his heart some information about the people he is hurting. It’s the best I could think of asking of him. The ideological debates and arguments about the economic or energy security or national security benefits of unconventional gas drilling do not interest me. I am concerned that we speak of the most important matters. Whatsoever we do unto others, we do unto Our Lord.
I hope that the people of Brockway will not be intimidated by their Senator and will find other ways to stand in the way of the immense new risk to their only watershed that a new well by Flatirons Development poses. I had to leave the meeting before I could try to shake Joe’s hand and make some sort of peace with him. But that is a two-way proposition. In the meantime I will keep him in my Lenten prayers as I told him. My hand is still open to him, but that does not mean I am going to allow him to go on hurting me or anyone else without challenge.