Sandra Steingraber

Biologist and author Sandra Steingraber speaks at Wells College Tuesday.

AURORA | The Wells College community gathered Tuesday for a poetic perspective on a long-disputed scientific matter: hydrofracking.

Rather than dissect the dispute through science, charts and graphs, visiting speaker Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., instead probed the use of fossil fuels through anecdotes and imagery.

It is a method Steingraber has practiced through her career as a biologist, author and a social activist. The issue of fossil fuels, she said, has hit her on a personal level as a cancer survivor and a mother. She details her beliefs in her 1997 book, "Living Downstream."

"Science can be combined with other media... to help (the issue) find a way into public discourse and not locked away within the world of science," Steingraber said.

She started Tuesday's talk in the college's Macmillan Hall recounting how much life has changed since she was in elementary school. For her, a school "rite of passage" was the creation of a clay ashtray.

Steingraber's 13-year-old, she said, found the practice unfamiliar due to decades of anti-tobacco marketing and politics.

The fate of tobacco products is a benchmark for social activists like herself, Steingraber said: "How can we do to fossil fuels what we've already done to tobacco?"

Steingraber then turned to "the story of climate change," a story, she described, about greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and its "more dangerous younger brother," methane, and their interactions with the atmosphere.

Their roles in the story became much greater when humankind decided to "run our economy" by, she said, setting fire to corpses of animals and plants unearthed from 400 million-year-old cemeteries — her description of burning fossil fuels — beginning with the Industrial Revolution.

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Steingraber described the effects of that, particularly the melting of polar ice caps, and chastised public ignorance of the issue.

"Why is it that we're keeping closer tabs on the stock market than the plankton stocks?" she said, explaining how plankton are responsible for half of the planet's available oxygen.

Steingraber recognized state leaders for their decision to ban hydraulic fracturing in New York late last year. However, the biologist said, her fight continues despite the ban, as areas statewide continue to use and store fracking byproducts.

The Finger Lakes region in particular, she said, is seen as a hub for the storage of fractured gas. Steingraber is part of a peaceful resistance movement, We Are Seneca Lake, that she said is aimed at stopping Texas distribution company Crestwood Midstream from storing millions of barrels of liquid proetroleum gases in depleted salt caverns.

Such resistance has led to more than 200 arrests since the We Are Seneca Lake campaign has started. However, Steingraber said, the willingness of activists to accept such punishment has helped to gain the attention of the powers that be.

"What we have done is created a narrative," she said.

In attendance with many from her criminal justice class, Wells College student Zoe Chaveco credited Steingraber's blend of science and poetry as an "excellent strategy," a unique one in reaching individuals.

"People don't really like to talk about depressing things until it comes down to money," she said. "Like she mentioned, people are much more concerned in the economics of the economy rather than the economics of what we live off of."

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Staff writer Greg Mason can be reached at (315) 282-2239 or greg.mason@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenMason.