Canaries in the Mine: Get Away from Louisiana Fracking

So, September 22, 2012, was a global day of protest against hydraulic fracturing also known as horizontal drilling or fracking. I took today as an invitation to finally my experience of living less than a mile from the hydraulic fracturing Rig# 2 that Devon Energy drilled last summer in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.

First some background for those unfamiliar: hydraulic fracturing is the natural gas and oil extraction method of pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, benzene, hydrochloric acid, radioactive tracer isotopes and other chemicals under incredible pressing into underground shale rock formations to fracture the rock and release the stored fossil fuels. Two major problems arise from the process. One is that released methane can contaminate nearby drinking water wells. The other is that fresh water is a limited resource and this process destroys trillions of gallons of fresh water. Moreover, there is no way to contain the millions of gallons of polluted water used for fracking once it is pumped into the ground. Half of the water stays under ground where it has contaminated aquifers and the the other half returns to the surface where safe disposal becomes problematic.

This process is so destructive that it was not economically viable until US Vice President Dick Cheney worked behind closed doors with oil and gas companies to write and pass the 2005 Energy Policy Act which exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Act. This effectively meant that companies could pollute both the air and surface and ground water in any manner without any liability under any US law.

Since 2005, hydraulic fracturing expanded exponentially across the country. The complete lack of environmental safeguards and the emerging commodities bubble that began in 2008 had suddenly made it profitable. Everyday Americans had no idea companies were fracking nor that it had been exempted from federal environmental laws. Only now, with the growing publication of newspaper investigations and the 2010 documentary Gasland are we beginning to learn the public health and environmental costs of horizontal drilling. Only now–seven years behind industry–is the public poised to influence how and if drilling proceeds.

The NY Times reported that the millions of gallons of waste water come back to the surface containing high levels of radioactive elements and other carcinogens. Although water treatment plants cannot remove the radioactive particles from the water, it is often returned to rivers.

We’d been living pretty-happily in rural Louisiana an hour northeast of Baton Rouge for two years. Paradise lay a mile outside of our little town in a little shotgun house we were renting on fourteen acres surrounded by forest and pastures. At the end of last summer, we returned home from taking summer classes in Berkeley, to find a little sign like the one  at the top of this post, that read Rig# 2. It pointed down the narrow road leading to our house. Though it looked inconspicuous enough, the words were ominous.

Soon gigantic semi after gigantic semi were barreling down our narrow road with a Sheriff’s escort first to deliver the drilling equipment and then the fracking fluid. I learned we were on the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale and companies had begun drilling exploratory wells to determine if hydraulic fracturing would make large scale exploitation feasible.

Since January 2011, energy company representatives had been quietly getting every landowner in East & West Feliciana, St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes in Louisiana and Wilkinson County, Mississippi to lease their mineral rights for $75-$200 an acre. By the time the first wells were going in, everyone we talked to had already signed over their rights.

It took from June to October for Devon Energy to put the well in a mile from our shotgun house. Our landlord said that a company wanted to put a pipeline in across his 14 acres running along our shotgun house to get the gas from the rig where it was being drilled to a nearby regional pipeline. State law requires gas pipelines to be 500 feet from any house but the company was not going to consider our shotgun house a house since it wasn’t the main house on the property. Our landlord told them they could run it at the edge of his property or they could forget his property all together.

At the beginning of last November, we had the first quantifiable evidence the fracking was affecting us. My tropical fish were my canaries. Suddenly their bodies became bloated and their scales turned out perpendicular to their bodies. They became sorrowful pine cones with three or so dying a day. My big discus fish started panicking, they darted around the tank and jumped up only to hit the glass lid. It was as if they were trying to escape for their lives. I got the message.

I tested the fish tank water and the water coming from our well to find that our stable ph of 7 had suddenly dropped to below 6–the lower limit on my test kit. A low ph shouldn’t hurt these fish as they’re naturally accustomed to a low ph. Whatever else was in the water that caused such a sudden, dramatic drop in ph, was killing my fish, and they knew it. My wife and I drove to Baton Rouge and hauled back  filtered water to change out the fish tanks and stave off crisis. It worked, buying us time.

My wife developed a terrible, deep cough that persisted anytime we were home and disappeared away from home. With her asthma, she is terribly sensitive to air quality. Now I can’t say we weren’t somewhat prepared for all of this to happen. Over the previous months, we had watched  over-sized tanker after tanker bring in the water, sand, benzene, surfactants, and other fracking fluids. While we thought things might get bad eventually, we had been hoping the fracking wouldn’t affect us so immediately. We asked around and found out the well had gone live on Oct. 30th. We were floored at how fast it affected our water, our fish, and our breathing.

I felt like I had an opportunity to stand up and fight for what was right. To work with the citizens of the Felicians to preserve the land and water and beauty of the area for both their and future generations’ enjoyment. My conscious tore at me. I had the opportunity to be an Abraham Lincoln, a Martin Luther King Jr., or an Erin Brockovich. I wanted to stand up to contest the abuse of power and destruction of the earth’s most precious resource.

My wife gave me one week. She said we could move to West Feliciana where there wasn’t any drilling yet, we could move back to Illinois, but come the next weekend we were moving.  My angst and stress built. I talked to people I knew to try to gain a sense of whether there would be popular support to protect the area’s beauty. There was not. Save a few passionate exceptions, people supported getting money for their mineral rights and largely welcomed the oil and gas industries with open arms.

So we moved. I let go of the hope of standing up for the beauty of the area and the rights of future generations. The movie Promised Land set to hit theaters in January 2013 paints an empowering story of a struggling town rallying to preserve their land and way of life in spite of the possible fortunes promised by the fracking companies. Even if that wasn’t me, I’m going to sleep a little easier knowing that it happened in the movie, it happened in my heart, and maybe it will happen more and more in the future.

I yielded to local self-determination, and mourned for the high long-term costs of the short-term benefits the area may reap. Mentally, we tried to push it all to the back of our consciousness and enjoy the rest of the year in Louisiana. But we were out. Immediately, we started working on plans to move back north.

We knew the fracking would consume that part of the state as it has so much of the country. Unfortunately,  it’s the direction a large portion of the nation and other countries have already gone or are going. As I flew back to Louisiana last April from a conference in Atlanta, I noticed the peppered landscape typical of hydraulic fracturing. It’s noticeable from an airplane, and it’s noticeable by satellite. The pot-marked landscape wrought by fracking is visible on Google Earth along with the accompanying gigantic unearthly man-made teal lakes of flo-back waste water.

Perhaps, the commodities bubble will pop and fracking will come to a dramatic halt. Maybe as a nation of clean water dependent beings, we will err on the side of future prosperity rather than cheap energy and continued climate change. Perhaps, the government will pass the FRAC Act to make energy companies liable for any pollution caused by the process of hydraulic fracturing. It would, at a minimum, put an end to easy profits and impunity. And perhaps, after a year of trying to find the words and the courage to write what I know, I can be a part of the movement toward social, environmental, and inter-generational responsibility. And perhaps you can, too.

Also see: Solutions from the Gas Fields by Vanessa Lamers, recipient of the 2012 Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy Research Prize Fellowship for her summer research proposal to study the impacts of shale gas development on water quality in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.

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Louisiana Style Employee Appreciation

So toward the end of spring my work had an employee appreciation crawfish boil one day after work. My pics kind of got lost and I forgot to post. It was a good time, yet  culturally distinct. Well, that is, in addition to the whole crawfish thing.

In the midwest, as in a lot of the country, I imagine, it’s common for every occasion, party, and get-together to have lots of food. Everyone could eat as much as they’d like and there’s plenty for everyone to take home.

In Louisiana, I was chuckled to find the reverse. When the cooked crawfish showed up, half’a everyone grabbed two or three styrofoam to-go containers, filled them to the brim, struggled to close ’em, and then hurried out to put them in their cars and get back to eat crawfish before the crawfish disappeared.

Not to suggest everyone did it. They didn’t. But a lot did and the rest were offended but said nothing. Everyone worked to secure enough for themselves and their friends and at the end of the afternoon everyone was able to eat and squirrel away as much as anyone could have wanted. The order was reversed, from what my experience had taught me to expect, but it didn’t make any difference.

The Most Amazing Pizza Man in the World

So my wife wife and I thought we’d try a NY Pizza place out in Prarieville, LA that had raving reviews on Urbanspoon. We happened to be in Baton Rouge late one Friday night, and I thought perhaps it’d be a sit-down restaurant we could sneak into, before they closed, without bothering anyone.

Well, rather than finding a large establishment with a waitstaff, we found the owner himself sitting alone watching a baseball game with the chairs up and the lights off. Instead of being able skirt our rudeness by anonymously sneaking in, I had to face it, if only in the form of a sheepish inquiry as to whether or not it was too close to closing to bother him for a pizza. To my relief, we were welcomed without the slightest hint we were either presumptuous or imposing.

When we thanked him, he said that anytime anyone wants a pizza, he’ll make them one, whether it’s three a.m. after he’s cleaned up or nine in the morning before he opens. It is what he knows, and it’s what he does. He confessed his philosophy was that of the former Starbucks CEO saying, “I’m not in the pizza business serving people, I’m in the people business serving pizza.” I was humbled.

After living in Brooklyn for the majority of his life, he’d come to Baton Rouge seeking warmer weather to better cope with arthritis. I imagined the menu’s claim to have the best NY pizza in the south, stood a good chance at proving true.

As my wife went to the restroom, I watched Omar at work while trying to seem like I was watching the game. He pulled the pizza from the oven so naturally and with such care, he might as well have been a mother with a newborn [granted the analogy surely has its limits]. After slicing it with a pizza cutter, he took a pair of kitchen shears and carefully cut the crust at each slice where the slicer didn’t reach because of the pan.

Such attention to detail seems rare. Few might overtly notice the difference, but when it’s the symptom of an approach to life and work, it is that attention that makes for quality and makes Omar a master in the people business.

Omar is an amazing person and I am fortunate to have met. He made us feel special and said he hoped we’d come back before we moved. Before leaving the parking lot, we were already anxious to return. We did, a week before we left, and Omar obliged my request to take his picture. I’m a little ashamed to say that it’s a picture I’m a little too proud to own. Thanks for the pizza, the garlic knots, and sharing your flow.  We wish you the best.

Roma Pizza on Urbanspoon

Our Last Louisiana Hurrah

So my wife’s father made the drive down to help us pack up and drive our stuff back north. We worked on it Memorial Day weekend and thought, with a little luck, we’d have it all packed up ready to go for Tuesday morning. One recliner and a few boxes into it we realized we were wrong. It wouldn’t all fit. Not even close.

We had to wait until Tuesday to rent a U-haul trailer. Picked it up to find out that the brake lights only worked sporadically and after much unsuccessful troubleshooting in the hot sun decided we’d test our luck without them on the way to Illinois. It’d be okay, after all, my wife and I’d be following in our car.

We had the trailer filled in a hour or so since everything was already boxed up and then waited for 5:00 to come around when we were meeting friends from work at Hot Tails for our last little hurrah.

Since my first time there, I’ve imagined ordering the Cajun Burger a hundred times or so. I failed to get a good picture the first time so, to me, it was more than enough of an excuse to dream of a redo. Tonight, I was determined to capture the spicy, juicy burger topped with sauteed crawfish, if it was the last thing I did [in Louisiana].

But it wasn’t. My wife’s father was poised to order a fried shrimp, crawfish, and catfish platter. I proposed we one-up and split the gulf platter which’d also have frog legs, oysters, and a soft shell crab. He agreed, and my cajun burger officially became unfinished business.

Almost everyone made it.  To our enjoyment, we went though more than one plate of Hot Tails fried pickles, which as far as I can tell, give many a fried pickle a run for their money. They are crisp and spicy with addictive dipping sauce. The food was good. The fried catfish. The frog legs. The steak. The jumbo shrimp sensational salad. It was all amazing. We spent a good couple hours carrying-on, exchanging cards, memories and promises of seeing each other again under the watchful guise of the house elk.

As dinner progressed, it startled us as we began to realize how close we’d become in the last couple years. It was hard and sad trying to say goodbye. But as dusk approached we made it final and left for what lie ahead.

Savory Nawlins Alligator Cheesecake and the Pursuit of Phò Tàu Bay

So the minutes are counting down. I’m scrambling to squeeze in a couple final hurrah’s in Louisiana before we head out the state Wednesday. I’m pleased to report I got in one item I thought there’d be no way for me to get: Alligator cheesecake.

Enter my beautiful, brilliant wife. She suggested we drive the hour and a half to Gretna for lunch the next day at Phò Tàu Bay. It’d be our last chance to pull it off and complete some unfinished business, as we’d tried unsuccessfully to eat there twice before.

I was stoked. Not only would I get a sexy date with my wife and the best Vietnamese food in Louisiana, but also I could–just maybe–pull off sneaking in the piece of savory cheesecake I’d previously thought impossible.

Though I’ve always loved cheesecake, now that I know there exists more than just dessert cheesecakes, I really love cheesecake. New Orleans is home to variations of shrimp, crawfish, and alligator cheesecakes. These savory cheesecakes are typically lighter than their dessert brethren, being made from Ricotta or Curd cheese rather than Philadelphia cream cheese.  I imagined experiencing a piece of such cakes would give me a good starting point for my own culinary foray into the realm of the savory cheesecake.

This whole endeavor was risky business. My wife doesn’t like seafood. I had a delicate mission. Get the cheesecake without ruining the date or her good favor. I accomplished the former but barely salvaged the latter.

We got down there and, against all odds, our Vietnamese restaurant proved out of our reach once again. It had closed an hour before for a private party. Though we were tempted to try to bribe a member of the party, we moved on to another Vietnamese restaurant in the area. The grilled pork spring-rolls were phenomenal but the chicken in the pho was suspect.

It was fun. The day had been beautiful. We enjoyed the time to talk and smile at each other on the drive. So we got back in the car as the sun was beginning to move lower in the sky, making everything more golden, especially my wife’s beautiful eyes and wavy hair. On our way through New Orleans, I called Jacaque-Imo’s to order a piece of the alligator cheesecake to-go.

We drove along the street cars, under the live oak covered streets, and past the unique old New Orleans architectural homes. Strike one, was piggybacking a quest for anything seafood onto our date. Strike two, was parking the car in a slightly no parking zone. Strike three, was stinking the car up of alligator cheesecake.

My only salvation was that the bartender generously gave me three cornbread muffins with my order. The muffin satisfied her where the pho and our original restaurant had failed. So my savory cheesecake was just that. The cheesecake had a nice light texture  with a rich smoked Gouda and light goat cheese flavor. The alligator added the slight seafoody taste I can’t help but seek in most every meal. It added chewy bites to the cake. Though imagine the alligator could have been more tender, I appreciated the slightly extra time it took to chew. Bits of Andouille added the expected creole flair as did the creamy remoulade-like sauce under the cake. Topped with a couple sprigs of baby mixed lettuce and grated parmesan, it did me right. I enjoyed every last little bite of it and even enjoyed the smell of car the next day.

I was relieved to have gotten my first piece of savory cheese cake, a pretty good cornbread muffin for the misses, and a golden drive back through the cypress trees in early summer. Here’s to inspiration, realized dreams, and a few of the finer things in life.

Louisiana Calls the Empanada Its Own

So in Natchitoches Louisiana they lay claim to the empanada. But they don’t call it an empanada. There, empanada means nothing. In Natchitoches, they are called meat pies.

A meat pie is a half moon filled pastry made with a tasty beef, pork, onion, celery and spice mix. If it has a crawfish étouffée-like filling, it’s technically called a crawfish pie. The meat pie differs from most empanadas in that it is deep fried rather than baked. Additionally, it also lacks the sugar or glazed coating of some South American empanadas.

Now, when it comes to Natchitoches meat pies, there is none other than Lasyone’s. They are made by hand, daily, and they are good. Though the crust is quite thin, a beautiful duality exists in that pastry shell. It somehow manages an outside crunch and a fragile, softer, calzone-like inner softness. Their crawfish filling is rich and tasty. There are a sufficient number of tails, they are good size, and their flavor comes though the sauce. And surprisingly, they’re not a bit spicy. Just delicious.

With my meat pie gone faster than I would have liked, I was tempted to double back for another but instead I enjoyed waking along Cane River Lake enjoying the old  French Quarter style buildings along Natchitoches’s historic Front St. It being Memorial Day Weekend, I was able to enjoy the avenue lined to one side with the swaying of bright American flags and to the other with beautiful, pure Magnolias in bloom. What luck.

Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant on Urbanspoon

A Drive Up Through Cane Country

So I got out of work this week absolutely exhausted. Ending things proved more difficult and stressful than I’d imagined it would be. Wednesday night we had a rainstorm and put down sheets of water and took the power out for the evening. I took nature’s heed and went to bed for the night. I needed it. Waking up the next morning, I felt my body had gained some ground toward being repaired.

Come yesterday morning, I was ready to hit the road. Last May, I drove the 15 hours to Dallas and back to pick up a fish tank off Craigslist and see some discus fish. This May, I felt I needed another drive for sanity. I thought I’d take a scenic route through the Louisiana cane fields of Pointe Coupee and go the back way up to my favorite little town of Natchitoches, pronounced NACK-a-dish.

Last weekend, my wife and I went up to visit my grandmother’s sisters who live in northern Louisiana, and while there, my great Aunt mentioned the pies and ham of Lecompte, Louisiana and asked if we’d ever had them. We hadn’t. She said what everyone seems to say: They’re good, but they’re expensive.

While I was on my drive though the cane, in a tiny bout of serendipity, I came upon the little town of Lecompte, pronounced luh-COUNT, and Lea’s Lunchroom. Skeptical it was the best place to get pie in the town, I drove around until I found an older couple sitting on their porch who I asked where the best place to get pie was in the town. The said that outside of their own kitchen, I’d have to try Lea’s. So I did.

A handmade neon orange sign on the door proudly announced in teen calligraphy the presence of dewberry pie. I didn’t know what it was but if they were that excited about it, so was I. I was impressed at the quantity of pies they seemed to produce and sell. My little piece was good. The crust was more gooey than flakey which was perfectly fine by me. The berries whole, rich and firm. Best of all there was almost no crust. To me crust is the purgatory of pie. Usually I’m too preoccupied with how to ethically dispose of the crust to even enjoy the pie. Here that was not a problem. Just one enjoyable 10 am snack.

Back on the road, I made it up to Natchitoches. Though I sometimes lament that anywhere America is beginning to look like everywhere America, void of local variation,  Louisiana’s still got it. On a main drag in Natchitoches, where strip malls and fast food chains otherwise dominate, a giant crawfish stands atop a seasonal crawfish eatery in proud testament to local flavor. To the outsider, the universal and unwavering local pride shared by Louisianians is as amazing as it is perplexing. Though the outsider can’t quite fully adjust to the ubiquitous use of the fleur-de-lis or seeing grown men dress in purple and gold without thinking a second thought about it, one comes to value how Louisiana is preserving a vibrant and unique identity in the face of ever greater pressure toward homogenization.

I didn’t get any crawfish at the Crawfish Hole, both because it was closed and because I’d just eaten a crawfish meat pie. I stopped to get a stainless steel roux spoon for later home cooking, and then started back home.

When I first drove through cane fields a few years ago, I couldn’t identify what I was seeing. I thought I’d recognize a cane field if I saw it, but I didn’t. In the field, the cane is covered in so many long grassy leaves, it looks like rows of grass and not the long thick bamboo-like stalks I envisioned.

I passed steel grey field buildings who’s sharp angels and perfect proportions contoured aesthetically with the horizon and melded into the pastel greens of the cane.

Another appeared other-worldly. The overhang wrapped around the entire barn, undoubtedly to keep the inside cooler by keeping the sun off the sides of the building.

I crossed a bridge over the Atchafalaya River, pronounced a-Cha-fa-Lie-ah, back into Pointe Coupee, stopped at a bait shop for a pack of frozen alligator to try my hand at blackening latter this week, and crossed more cane to get back to my baby.

So she got her day at home in peace, able to enjoy reading without hassle, and I got my drive. My chance to go and to see. Days alone like this are a blessing. We’re able to do what we enjoy and then we’re ready to appreciate being back together. And appreciate being back together, we do.

The Land Haunts Me

So I have this haunting feeling. In Louisiana the present goes back to the past. Past the civil rights, past slavery, past the English, Spanish, and French. Past the Tunica and Biloxi. Maybe it is the past comes forward.

In other places, I lament not feeling a connection to the past not knowing the history. But now I don’t know if I can handle the sinking dark feeling of the past. I know in some ways its dramatic and ignorant but in other way there is something to what I’m feeling.

This past weekend was the Pilgrimage in West Feliciana. It is an amazing display of local spirit put on by the historical society. An eighth of the town gets dressed up in settler regalia and warmly leads incredible tours of a number of the mansions and plantations in the parish.

But beneath the excitement, I mourn the evaded story. The larger truth over looked that could have innumerable and immense implications to life in the town and the state if it were confronted. No mention was given to the truth of the means employed to achieve the opulence. To the human or ethical cost. To the force employed to dominate. Or to the justifications.

But to address the past would require addressing the present. Where the past lives in perpetitutity. Where the great great great heirs to the power and wealth live in power and wealth. And the great great great heirs to the marginalization and poverty live marginalized and in poverty.

And I feel this. I carry it. Its in the land. In the speech. I want to change it. I want to change the past. To make our better selves, be our better selves, and always have been our better selves. But I can’t and it haunts me.

Louisiana Parades: Fam, Friends, Beads & Booze

So Louisiana loves its parades. In Louisiana a parade equals family, friends, food, floats, music, beads and alcohol. Lots of beads. Lots of alcohol.

Two years ago my wife and I went to the Mardi Gras Parade in Baton Rouge and were completely caught of guard at the energy and enthusiasm in the crowd. People kept coming. I’d never seen so many people in Baton Rouge before, but then again I haven’t been to an LSU game. People brought their kids and their beer coolers. Turns out they both double in helping to gain height to snag more beads.

The floats start and don’t stop. Unless you’re raised here, the parades may very well outlast you. The proof is most every float has its own port-a-potty. When the participants can’t make it through it without going you know the parades are long and you know they plan for drinking.

Anyway lots of excitement. Lots of fun. You mark the seasons by the parades. Homecoming, Christmas, Mardi Gras, St. Patty’s Day, Crawfish Festival, and on and on.

So yesterday was the St. Patty’s Day Parade here in Baton Rouge. Two years ago we didn’t know it existed but happened to drive through part of the route a couple of hours after it was over. We didn’t know what happened there but we could tell it had to have been a lot of fun.

This year we made a date. Unfortunately, she’s still north, so I had to go alone with a couple friends. It was fun. Lots of people. Lots of green. Lots of beads. And the most beautiful weather. 

If you’ve never lived in Louisiana, it is something altogether different.

Live Oak Haiku

branches every way

defy Newton hauntingly

pollen drives wife north