Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of that remarkable night when bulletins about Tom Hanks’ infection and the cancellation of an NBA game during Donald Trump’s bumbling Oval Office speech made us realize that life was not going to be normal for a long time. I’ve been struggling with the isolation blahs lately, but I’ve lined up a vaccine appointment for later this month, and the longer, warmer days are making me feel better. How about you?

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A new study shows toxic-chemical exposure for Pennsylvanians living near fracking sites

Whatever else happens in 2021, we should remember this as the year that the great political debate over fracking for oil and natural gas ended — at least here in the critical state of Pennsylvania. On one hand, there’s mounting evidence that the frenzy for unconventional gas drilling under the Marcellus Shale has failed to produce any lasting job boom or the tax revenue that its backers promised. On the other hand, scientists have more proof that fracking has polluted the air and water of nearby residents, as worries about the health impacts are spiking.

Is it really a debate when both hands are on the same side?

Over the last decade, numerous studies have set off alarm bells about fracking and the environment in the scenic, rural corners of Pennsylvania where drilling took root, but few have been as concerning as a recent investigation by Environmental Health News (EHN). Admittedly, its sample size was small. But five families who live close to fracking sites in the southwest corner of the commonwealth agreed to allow the news org to test their urine samples, and the results were arguably worse than expected.

EHN reported that biomarkers for hazardous and possibly carcinogenic chemicals, linked to the fracking process, were extremely high in these families. For example, one 9-year-old boy who lived in close proximity to a fracking well had 91 times the level of an average American for toluene, a chemical that can cause severe neurological harm.

The study — which also found chemical pollution in the air and water near the families’ homes — found that the families who lived closer to drilling pads had higher levels of chemicals such 1,2,3-trimethylbenzene, 2-heptanone, and naphthalene than those who lived a bit farther away. The substances cause an array of health problems and increase cancer risk.

Gunnar Bjornson, who lives in rural rolling hills 35 miles south of Pittsburgh and was 13 when EHN tested him in 2019, had evidence of 11 harmful chemicals in his body, including benzene, a known carcinogen. “A few years ago, when drilling began simultaneously at three of the fracking well pads within a few miles of the Bower-Bjornson home, Gunnar frequently got nosebleeds that lasted up to 20 minutes and drained all the color from his face,” wrote EHN’s Kristina Marusic. “Sometimes he’d cough up blood clots afterwards. Once, he recalled, this happened at school and he asked his teacher not to tell his mom about it, knowing it worried her.”

The EHN study notes the high degree of difficulty in linking symptoms like Gunnar’s, or any individual cases of serious disease, to fracking or other environmental factors — and yet stories with worrisome, circumstantial evidence of a public-health tragedy increasingly flow from Pennsylvania fracking country.

Last week, the New Yorker published a lengthy investigation by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eliza Griswold into a rash of cases — at least 27 in all — in Southwestern Pennsylvania of Ewing’s sarcoma, a very rare form of bone cancer. She noted that Cecil, Pa., a small town of just 12,000 in the heart of the gas-drilling zone, experienced four cases of the deadly disease. Although fracking industry officials insist the process is safe and that activists are cherry-picking studies and individual cases, Gov. Wolf agreed under community pressure to a $3 million study that has yet to commence.

In an industrial society, we often talk about the health risks from pollution as a trade-off, to be weighed against the high-paying, blue-collar jobs that are created. Well, about that ... A brand new study from the Ohio River Valley Institute looked at the data from the main gas-producing counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia and found job creation was actually weaker and population loss occurred faster than in other parts of Appalachia with little or no fracking.

On Monday, a Spotlight PA article in The Inquirer said that Greene County in the state’s farthest southwestern corner experienced a fracking boom in the early 2010s, but now new drilling has slowed, which has meant a drop in both conventional tax revenue and the special impact fees that are assessed drillers. Abruptly, Greene County is $40 million in the hole.

Slowly, the tide is starting to turn. Last month, one of the main Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in 2022, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, endorsed a moratorium on fracking — a stance pundits used to consider political suicide. At the same time, the Delaware River Basin Commission took the historic step of permanently banning fracking in the river’s watershed, but, as a recent Inquirer editorial noted, both the DRBC and Wolf, who supported the move along with other key leaders, continue to support policies that encourage fracking and its ill effects elsewhere in the state and the region.

That infuriates activists like Karen Feridun of Berks Gas Truth, a leading proponent of the Delaware River ban. “Pennsylvanians outside of the Delaware River Basin are entitled to the same protections as those within it,” she told me Monday. “No part of the state should be a sacrifice zone.”

She’s right. And we haven’t even discussed the other huge argument for rapidly phasing out fossil-fuel production in Pennsylvania, which is climate change. If the fracking debate were a prize fight, the referee would have stopped it several rounds ago. When will our leaders in Harrisburg finally enter the ring?

Yo, do this

  • Two things that happened in January — a timely birthday present, and a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — finally spurred me to read (actually, listen to the audiobook) Kathleen Belew’s essential Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, a critical prequel to what happened on January 6. Belew offers overwhelming evidence of her thesis — that the modern rise of white-power militant groups is deeply rooted in America’s defeat in the Vietnam War — and delivers a compelling narrative of how a kind of vigilante-style violence that once defended the status quo was turned against the U.S. government.

  • Why do we waste so much time on Twitter? Maybe it’s for the occasional pearl at the bottom of that vast ocean — like a 10-minute mini-documentary from filmmaker David Hoffman, shared by the great history author Rick Perlstein, that digs up rare footage to show how Black people were once held in debt peonage on the plantation of James Eastland of Mississippi, a powerful U.S. senator. With civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer serving as a whistleblower, the film offers heartbreaking testimony from families trying to survive on just collard greens and cornbread. This was in 1964 — that is, within my lifetime — and another reminder that the past of America’s foundational sins isn’t really past.

Ask me anything

Question: How many games will the Phillies win and will they make the playoffs? — Via @thephillyguy on Twitter

Answer: Has America finally stabilized enough under President Biden to talk about the important things, like the eternal spring hope of baseball? I think so! Like the 76ers before them, the Phillies seem to have given up on weird strategy and weirder hires (Gabe Kapler: what was that all about?) to bring in some solid baseball guys with a simple plan to go for it all in 2021. The new bosses have been aggressive in fixing the Achilles heel that kept the 2020 squad out of the expanded playoffs — a historically bad bullpen — which makes you remember that the core of veterans like Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto and the up-and-coming Alec Bohm were, and are, pretty darn good. Hoping for 89 wins, a wild card slot, and a packed, vaccinated Citizens Bank Park in October.

History lesson

Like Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof, Americans can be suckers for ”Tradition!” Take the filibuster — that tradition in the U.S. Senate that, under modern interpretations, means that any legislation not specifically tied to spending and the federal budget now needs a supermajority of 60 out of 100 votes. For sure, the concept of a minority, or even just one lawmaker, stalling to block passage of a proposed law has roots going back to ancient Rome. And it’s existed in our Senate since 1837, and America is the best damn democracy is the world, so the filibuster must be a proud feature of democracy and not a bug, right? Not exactly. Like too many locked-in U.S. notions of how government must work, this political roadblock — much like the much-maligned Electoral College — is as rooted in the arrival of slavery in 1619 as in the revolution of 1776.

This past weekend, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie published a remarkable essay entitled, “One Old Way of Keeping Black People From Voting Still Works,” which traces the filibuster’s rise in prominence to 1890, when stalling tactics in the Senate thwarted a Republican civil rights bill that would have blocked a new state constitution in Mississippi that disenfranchised Black voters. Wrote Bouie: “[A] bill to save the vote and preserve a semblance of democracy for millions of Americans died at the hands of an intransigent, reactionary minority in the Senate, which used the filibuster to do its dirty work.” Throughout the latter 20th century, the filibuster was mainly employed for the same reason: To stall civil-rights legislation opposed by a Southern, white minority. It’s only in very recent times — coinciding with the less blatant but nevertheless insidious variant of white supremacy infecting today’s Republicans — that 60 votes became necessary to do just about anything. With voter suppression on the rise yet again, it’s time to see the filibuster not as a quaint tradition but as a racist embarrassment that needs to die. (If you want even more reading about this, my colleagues on the op-ed desk pulled together a pro/con on whether to abolish the filibuster. Obviously you know where I stand.)

Inquirer reading list

  • This week’s Sunday column meant a lot to me personally. I took a deep dive into Monday’s 50th anniversary of a remarkable event not far from my home in Delaware County — the daring March 8, 1971, burglary by eight anti-Vietnam War activists at an FBI office in Media, which revealed massive and illegal government spying and disruption of lawful dissent against the war and racism. I talked to one of the surviving burglars — Philadelphia’s Bonnie Raines — and to some locals who are honoring their heroism with a historical marker.

  • Over the weekend, I wrote about the big news story of the day — the Senate’s 50-49 passage of a sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill — and how the lack of Republican votes for the overwhelmingly popular measure revealed the emptiness behind the recent boasts by party stalwarts that the GOP is the party of the working class. The danger behind this epic political flub is that the GOP is instead doubling down on voter suppression and minority rule.

  • Here in Philadelphia, like the rest of the world, the Number One question on the average person’s mind is when and how to get a coronavirus vaccine. The Inquirer’s reporters, and columnist Maria Panaritis, have reported extensively on what by every reasonable account — except, of course, the state’s — has been a shortage of vaccine supply in the heavily populated suburbs. Not unrelatedly, Philadelphia’s Rite Aid pharmacies have been overrun with folks from outside the city, meaning Black and brown folks who actually live nearby have been shortchanged. The many local distribution problems might go uncovered if there were no local journalists to expose them — so please subscribe to The Inquirer today.