Prove your humanity

What do residents of the Gulf Coast and Appalachia have in common? A lot, according to the members of an art collective, especially when it comes to the buildout of the petrochemical industry and its impact on public health.

So in November, they brought together about 25 people in Pittsburgh, including local residents living alongside industry and activists fighting the fossil fuel industry from the Gulf Coast and other regions. The purpose was to kick off a multi-city campaign against pollution called “We Refuse to Die.”

Listen to the story

To illustrate shared values and connect the dots across experiences, the activists took what organizers called a “toxic tour” of fracking sites in Washington County, an idea that came out of activism in Texas. 

It was the final event in a series that took place over several days, including other toxic tours and an art installation and ceremony. “We Refuse to Die” is also part of the “Unsettling Matter, Gaining Ground” exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art. 

Why they gathered

Tammy Murphy, advocacy director for Physicians for Social Responsibility, Pennsylvania, which helped organize the tour, said they want people to see with their own eyes the environmental and health impacts of the oil and gas industry, as many of the companies operate in multiple communities.

“The way that we see it is the industries work as a network,” Murphy said. “And for us, this is our way of strengthening our own network.”

On the small, black bus, participants told their stories and chanted, “We refuse to die! We refuse to die!”

Beka Economopoulos is the director of the Natural History Museum, described as a museum for the movement, which organized the gathering. She explained why the campaign is called “We Refuse to Die.”

“The idea is if the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry is writing off our communities as sacrifice zones,” Economopoulos said. “With ‘We Refuse to Die,’ the living dead speak back, forging a coalition between the living and the dead in which those we have lost are not simply victims, but allies and agents of change.” 

Scenes from the tour

The first stop on the tour was a parking lot across from the MarkWest Houston plant that processes natural gas for transport. There, the group met up with Lois Bower-Bjornson, an organizer with the Clean Air Council and a resident of Washington County. 

A microphone in hand, she addressed the group and said the plant has been expanded beyond its original size and residents worry about fires and the health impacts of gas flaring there.

“This is normalized,” Bower-Bjornson said. “People that live in Washington County and down to our county commissioners will tell you how much money this industry has made and how much it’s brought into the communities.”

From the small crowd, Barbara Irvin from Mississippi asked Bower-Bjornson about her characterization of the priorities of elected officials in the county when it comes to fracking.

“So nothing about human life?” Irvin asked. “The same human life that’s paying your salary, the same human life that is getting, you know, you into office. And this is what you have to say, which is absolutely nothing?”

“It’s unfortunate,” Bower-Bjornson answered. 

Irvin said that at home in Mississippi, she feels no one is held accountable for illnesses caused by pollution in her community. 

“We’ve got to keep fighting to make it stop,” Irvin said. “And, you know, don’t just shove it under the rug because you can’t shove your life under the rug.” 

Along the route to another site, the bus passed a black and white billboard paid for by the campaign that reads, “Kids living near fracking wells are 2-3 times more likely on average to get childhood leukemia,” a finding from a Yale School of Public Health study.

During a stop at a park in North Strabane Township, where a Range Resources fracking pad can be seen from the soccer field, Travis London took the mic to share his story. He’s from Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in an area known as Cancer Alley. 

“It’s kind of like a bittersweet moment right now,” London said. “Because as much as I appreciate y’all going through the same stuff that we go through in our hometown, it’s sad that y’all go through that.”

London said in his community, a football field, a Head Start program, and an elementary school are all near a major ammonia manufacturing plant owned by CF Industries. He said that in his area, activists are still fighting permits to build more industrial plants. Now, they are also pushing back against what he calls the greenwashing and misinformation around carbon capture technology and hydrogen plants.

Lessons learned

Bower-Bjornson said she appreciated meeting these activists from other regions, some of whom have seen success in their fight against industry. She said it feels like a strange club to be part of.

“But it it makes you feel that, you know, you’re not alone in this,” Bower-Bjornson said. “And then you’re able to collaborate and say, you know, what are you doing? How are you working on this?”

During the tour stops, people in the group offered one another advice and promised to stay in touch.

For Melanie Meade,  the week of activities was an emotional rollercoaster. Meade is an activist in Clairton, south of Pittsburgh, where the largest coke plant in the US is located. 

“This tour has helped me to see and realize that we all have a purpose in this,” said Meade, who is also a fellow for the Black Appalachian Coalition. “And where we feel like we’re insufficient or not enough, there are others who are down the road or down the river who can help us realize that we are enough together.

The campaign’s next action will be installing an art piece in East Palestine, Ohio, overlooking the Norfolk Southern train derailment site on the disaster’s one-year anniversary on February 3.