Jess investigates what connects giant salamanders, community organizing, and fracking via a conversation with journalist Annie Roth and biologist Justin Grubb, creators of the documentary film "Hellbent."
I want you to do me a favor. For just a few moments, I want you to turn on your imagination. If it’s safe to do so, you can even close your eyes to really get in the zone. Good.
Picture yourself standing in a leafy, old-growth forest. Warm shafts of sunlight filter through the tree canopy, sending patterns of sun and shadow across the forest floor in nature’s best answer to stained glass: a living light show. As a slight breeze tickles your cheek, the soft sound of gently flowing water catches your ear, turning you towards its source. Your gaze lands upon a broad, shallow stream coursing lazily over rounded rocks. The clarity of the water lures you closer, and your feet crunch on the gravelly shore that guards the river within its banks.
Just from a glance, you know the water will feel cool and bracing if you dip your hand into the light current. As you bend forward to do just that, a creature submerged in the waters darts away, hastily withdrawing from your approaching form. You stare into the water, trying to separate the animal from the rounded, dark rocks that camouflage it from prying eyes like yours. It has four legs that end in toes capped with white claws, a thick, muscular tail that looks like an oar and undulates behind it as it swims, a rippling fringe of skin that flutters like leaves on a breeze as it cuts through the crystal stream water. Its skin is mottled and loose, a rust brown and black pastiche that lends itself to disappearing in the rocky stream bed. The creature’s head is broad, flat, and shaped like a rounded shovel. Its mouth seems almost comically large, like a Sesame Street muppet turned into a river-dwelling amphibian with pinprick eyes and a desperate need for its home waters to be clean. This is the Hellbender, the largest species of salamander in North America. From snout to tail, they can grow to longer than 2 feet. They’ve also been around in more or less the same form for about 65 million years, which means that they are masters of survival. When hellbenders are threatened, entire ecosystems are in jeopardy.
Hellbenders are found in streams throughout the Eastern United States, ranging from New York to Georgia, and as far west as Missouri. They have a unique way of breathing, using the fringes of skin along their sides to extract air from their watery surroundings. A hellbender’s existence depends entirely on clean water, and any disturbances to that water will have dire consequences. But don’t take it from me…have a listen to
That was an excerpt from the documentary film Hellbent, which examines one rural Pennsylvania community’s fight to save their local hellbenders and their own drinking water from a dangerous fracking injection well. Science, law, and salamanders: what more could you ask for? I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and This…is Science!
One of our major areas of focus here at the Union of Concerned Scientists is clean energy. Most of you listening are familiar with the need for the world to transition to renewable, sustainable, and more environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sometimes, this need shows up in small town America, when a corporation tries to dump its gas extraction waste into a community where 700 people depend on wells for clean drinking water. Add some determined locals-turned-activists, weak government regulations, and one hell of a charismatic giant amphibian and you’ve got yourself a movie.
Jess: All right. Hello, and welcome to the video portion of our podcast. For those listening at home, you may wanna check out our YouTube channel to see our wonderful smiling faces. Just a reminder, "This is Science" with Jess Phoenix and I am really excited today. We have some super cool guests to talk about a film that they had a hand in making. The film is called "Hellbent." And with a name like that, you might think, "Oh, is it a horror film?" No, it's actually about a giant salamander species called the hellbender, and the efforts a community went through to protect this salamander and their local environment.
So, with me, I've got Annie Roth, who is a science journalist and also has a background in biology. And I have Justin Grubb, too, who is a biologist turned filmmaker. So, these are some pretty cool people who have strong backgrounds in science, but who've taken it into a more artistic direction that also has social meaning. And I'm not here talking about discovering a new species. We're talking about a film. So, I'd love it if either of you, or both of you together could give me a brief overview of what the film "Hellbent" is about.
Annie: Sure, I'll start. So, "Hellbent," tells the story of a small rural town in Pennsylvania that was threatened by the installation of a wastewater injection well for fracking. So, when the fracking industry gets all their natural gas, they produce all this toxic waste. They have to find somewhere to put it, and they wanted to put it in this town. A mother and daughter in this town heard about this and were really concerned because them and 700 other people in this town, get fresh water from their local watershed. And the installation of this injection well threatened the safety of this well, these sort of wells always leak. So, they didn't want this in this town. So, they did fantastic community organizing to prevent this well from being put there. And it started this crazy sort of David and Goliath fight to protect themselves, but also the hellbender salamander, which is an endangered salamander in the United States that has very few healthy environments left, and this town was one of them.
Jess: Wow. I mean, that's a great overview. And it's funny that you said David and Goliath because, in my notes about stuff I wanted to ask you, I actually put David and Goliath. So, good job stealing my metaphor. That's actually perfect because it is. I mean, it's one of those classic, like, the little guy takes on the megacorporation and we have something change as a result. So, I wanna know, and this is a little bit directed at Justin, I mean, you have made the conscious choice to start a media company that deals with nature and natural world subjects. So, what precipitated this film? How did you identify the storyline and how did it all happen basically?
Justin: Yeah, that's a really awesome question because, as you mentioned before, I was a biologist. When I graduated with my undergraduate degree in biology, I became a wildlife biologist and worked with a lot of really cool species, but one of those was the hellbender. And so while I was doing work, we were doing rearing and release programs with these hellbenders. And so we would go into streams in Southern Ohio and we would be releasing hundreds of small, little 2-year-old hellbenders. Actually, I have a little model for those video viewers here. This is about the size of the hellbender that we were releasing into those streams. [inaudible 00:03:48]
Jess: It's so cute
Justin: ...3D print that we have of them. So, when we would release them, we would look for safe little crevices and habitats for them to go into. And we'd snorkel and make sure that they were happy and they were able to find a good home so that they would situate themselves and take to the stream. But while we were doing that, we would be noticing a lot of activities, some natural resource extractive activities. Like, we would be seeing pipelines being installed over creeks, and you would see the landslides and all the sedimentation in the waterways that would come from that. There would be groups of people who were installing pipelines, installing injection wells in these big trucks, and all of these locations. And we're like trying to hide what we're doing because we don't wanna be like overt that we're releasing state threatened species into the waterway.
And so through those experiences working down there and finding pristine habitat became harder and harder because of the amount of activity that was going on. And I shifted to more of like a filmmaking communications position. And years later, I wanted to revisit that experience where there's this salamander in the water. It's really sensitive to water quality and habitat that it's being able to live in is becoming reduced because of fracking activity. And we wanted to kind of tell that story to try to get people to really connect with that and understand what's going on and how it impacts their livelihoods and how it impacts the environment and their communities. And so that's kind of where the story came from.
And then searching through our characters and the people that we can include in our story, originally, our main characters were just kind of, like, the solution to our story. And then we heard about their fight, we went and met them. We saw how wonderful they were and how they weren't afraid to speak their mind and started exploring a lot of the intricacies of the story. And we're like, "This is the story right here. It's this community finding this specific instance, protecting this animal." And that's kind of where that film came from. So, a little bit of a long way, but we finally made it here to create this film to connect communities around rights of nature to help protect their environments.
Jess: Oh, yes, amazing. And I'm going to ask about rights of nature as we get a little deeper in because I find that to be actually the most exciting part of the story. And it was something totally new to me. But I wanna save it for a little later because what I wanted to just get clarity on is, at what stage of the legal fight that this community in Forksville and the surrounding area was going through? Like, what stage were they in when you two showed up, cameras in hand, like, "We're making a film"?
Justin: Yeah, they started this fight, I wanna say early 2013, 2012. That's when PG&E, Pennsylvania Gas and Electric announced that they were, like, gonna do this. And so it's been quite a while since that moment that they've been going through this whole process of re-governing and putting in rights of nature in their governance structure and everything. We kind of came in sort at the end when they repealed the permits to put this injection well in. So, we had to go back a little bit and pull some archival footage to kind of tell that backstory and explore the things that they had gone into. And then when we came in, it had been several months since the permits were rescinded and everything, so they were feeling pretty good about themselves. But now there's been a lot of developments in the story since we've come out with this film that are pretty interesting.
Jess: And, Annie, did you have anything you wanted to add about when you entered?
Annie: At the point the film ends, it's sort of a success story, which is so rare and sort of a conservation filmmaking scene. They had succeeded. They had gotten what they wanted accomplished. But post-film, there have been new developments. While it's still a success story, there is threats. So, we're trying to use our film to address those threats and raise awareness.
Jess: That's excellent. So, this isn't one of those scenarios where, "Oh, yes, we're looking back in hindsight and everything's finished, and we've moved on and we're telling a historical thing." This is a very much real, ongoing effort, and there are still threats to the hellbenders and to the watershed, and the people who live there. So, that's important to note. And I will just take a moment to say, if you're listening to this, if you're watching this, go watch the documentary. There's going to be a link on our website where you can actually go see it and spread the word because we need efforts like what is depicted in this film in order to protect the natural world that is so fragile. So, there's my advocacy moment. And so just to set the stage a little bit, so people who are listening or just watching and don't have the film on in front of them, what is that area in rural Pennsylvania like?
Annie: Sure. So, Grant Township is sort of like a slice of heaven. It's like extremely rural, so quiet, big rolling fields everywhere, gorgeous clear streams. As we were filming, some of the things that I guess caused problems was like when, say, there's a car going by, you don't wanna film during that, we would hear Amish carts going by. That was the loudest thing you'd hear. It was so nice there. So, we can understand why this community really wanted to preserve it. Because when you bring fracking activity somewhere, you're bringing truck traffic, you're bringing all sorts of infrastructure that's loud and dangerous. So, I see why they wanted to protect it. It's so clean and natural. And also, for a small town, like, every single person knows each other and gets along. Even if they don't see eye to eye politically, they all work together, which we thought was really lovely.
Jess: That's [inaudible 00:10:47]
Justin: Yeah, I mean, when we were filming, Grant Township was a really good place. We also filmed a lot of the stuff that we've done with FracTracker, too. They were looking at pipeline installations and stuff, and just like these really nice rolling hill-type habitats covered in trees. Lots of really nice forests in Pennsylvania. They've got such nice waterways, too, and watersheds there. The water is clear, you could see the bottom of the streams and rivers and everything. And so it's just like a perfect place for wildlife. It's a perfect place for recreation. It's a perfect place to have a community. And so, like Annie said, when they go in and try to threaten that, it's scary and you don't want it to happen. You wanna preserve that way of life. And so you do what you can.
Jess: I think I can speak for a lot of the Union of Concerned Scientists listeners when I say, I mean, you wouldn't join an organization called Union of Concerned Scientists if you didn't want to protect things like what you're describing. It's bucolic in terms of how you describe it. I know, from personal experience, yeah, that area is just lovely. I went into this thinking, "Oh, it's gonna be so much about the hellbenders. This is gonna be so cool." And it was, but it was more than just that. But just to center this on the salamanders themselves for a moment, can you describe what hellbenders are like? Because, one, they've got an awesome name, and I love that you talk about that in the documentary. But two, I think that not that many people will have the chance to encounter a hellbender in their life. So, I'd love it if you could give us a sense of what they're like.
Justin: Yeah, I mean, hellbenders, like the name suggests, they're feisty little things. They're pretty cool. I love them. They are the largest salamander in the Western Hemisphere, and they live right here in the United States. And so I think that's really cool. And what's even cooler is that, for being so large, they can get up to about 2 feet long. They're so hard to see because they've got this brown-mottled orange, gray color to them. And they spend a majority of their life underneath rocks. And so they just live in this little cavity that's underneath, like a nice flat piece of shale or rock that you find in the river. And they just hang out there. They eat snails, and crayfish, and small insects, and small fish that just kind of might be swimming by. So, they spend majority of their time just doing that.
They're also a really long lived species as well. There's not a lot known about how long they live, but it's estimated that they could be about 40, 50, 60 years old. You know, they may even be able to live even longer than that. And so, you know, if you think about it, you know, you say you have a 60-year-old hellbender and you think about what it's seen over the course of its life, you know, it literally has seen the Clean Water Act. It has seen the beginning of fracking. It has seen things that a lot of us have no idea about, but it's just trying to hang on in these streams.
And so a big characteristic about them is they, as all salamanders are, they're amphibians, so they're very prone to absorbing toxins through their skin. In fact, hellbenders have lungs, but they're fully aquatic, so they get their oxygen through their skin. And that's kind of why they have that weird appearance. One of the nicknames for hellbender is old lasagna sides because the flanks of their body have really, really dimpled, crimped sort of patterns like, on the sides, it's really flappy lots of extra skin that just flaps in the waterways. That increases the surface area of their skin, that allows oxygen diffusion into their skin and into their lungs.
And the males are the ones that guard the nests. And so the females will be in the nest. They'll lay the eggs. The male will go in afterwards, fertilize the eggs, and then the males will guard them. And so when we were looking to collect eggs to bring them into managed care to help population rebound, you'd stick a little stick underneath a rock to see if there's a hellbender in there, and the male will bite that stick and try to rip it out of your hand and vigorously fight and protect its eggs. So, it's like, "Yeah, that's a nest right there, for sure." So, that's cool. But to get the shots in our film, we had to go out during a very specific time of year, that's like the hellbender rut. And so you know how other animals, males will fight like elk? There's that rutting season in November where the males will go at it. Hellbenders do the same thing. And so the males will go out during the first two weeks of September and they'll fight each other and they'll run around and they'll look for nests and stuff.
And then as we were ending the filming part of this expedition, all the males just went into their dens at the same time. And it was like, this is all anecdotal, of course, but right around, like 2:00, 3:00 in the afternoon, my co-filmmaker, Michael Clark, and I were out there with our underwater housing snorkeling around, filming hellbenders in the morning. And then all of a sudden, they were gone. They're all gone. And you could see the males and the females inside the dens together. And then I had to take off and do something else. Michael went on to continue trying to film hellbenders and all the other sites, they were gone. So, it was like that time, they were done. It was time to mate, time to fertilize those eggs. And that's what they did. And then the rest of the year, they're gonna be pretty slow, pretty cryptic, just kind of hiding under these rocks. So, they're really cool. They've got tons of different nicknames. They've got river wizard, lasagna sides, hellbender, mud puppy.
Annie: Snot otter.
Justin: I don't know, Annie, do you have any more?
Jess: Wait, Snot otter?
Justin: Snot otter.
Jess: That's a lovely one.
Justin: Yeah. They got like kind of a slimy outer coating. And so it's like a wrinkled, snotty little turd with feet, is the best way to kind of describe what a hellbender looks like. And then...
Annie: I think they're cute.
Jess: Yeah, I thought so, too. I was like, "They're adorable." It's like one of those, it's so ugly, it's cute.
Justin: Yeah. They got those little eyes and the big wide smile on their face and the little toes with the little white balls at the end of them, and the long flagging tail, which is pretty cool, that helps them swim in these fast moving streams. So, yeah, they're pretty nice. They make little noises, too, when you're carrying them around on land. They make little burp noises and stuff. I mean, they make great...
Jess: I was gonna say they sound like real characters. Like, they're just like such characters in their own right. And, I mean, I'm sure you could have done a film just about hellbenders and not included the human part of it, but maybe that's later. Maybe you'll get a hellbender fan club going or something.
Justin: They definitely have a cult following. There's like breweries named after them. There's beers, there's food, there's groups. I mean, that [inaudible 00:18:21]
Annie: I have a hellbender T-shirt.
Justin: If you start going down the rabbit hole online, you'll find all kinds of cool hellbender stuff. So, they definitely have a cult following.
Jess: So, basically, you're telling me there's a hellbender dark web that I need to go find. That's funny. So, then I wanna just turn the conversation a little to the human element because I could talk about the animal side of it all day. Total animal nerd here. But I wanted to say, Annie, you've done a lot of different journalistic endeavors, and I'm sure you're no stranger to kind of coming in and assessing a situation on the ground to see where is the story right now. So, what would you say that the level of scientific knowledge and community engagement was when the injection well itself was proposed? Because I know you obviously came into the process a little bit after that, but I'm sure you had to do your background.
Annie: Well, I think that props to the main characters of film, Judy and Stacy, because when news of the plan to put this injection well into their town showed up, they didn't know anything about that. There had been fracking activity in their general area before, but they weren't familiar with the threats posed by injection wells. So, they did super hard research, enough that they could communicate it to the rest of the people in their township. Because Judy is an elected township official, so she meets with everyone in her township regularly, so they did tons of research. They were able to communicate their concerns. And they also had people from Pennsylvania General Energy come in and do a Q&A so they could ask them about these things that they had read online. They had seen all these new stories about other towns having pipelines explode or injection wells leak and they were like, "Okay, well, how are you gonna practice in this? Is this something should be concerned about?" And all their concerns were dismissed. They were basically ignored. They weren't answering the questions.
So, they knew they pretty much had to take this whole thing into their own hands. Like no one was gonna help them. They had to community organize. They had to find people to support them and really learn as much as they possibly could because it's a mother and daughter who have never dealt with legal stuff before. One was a teacher and the other one was a graphic designer. Perfectly wonderful, but they're not lawyers all day. The lawyers that work with them are like experts in community-led environmental cases, and they worked collaboratively. So, it was all new to everyone who started. And by the end, they were really experts.
Jess: Okay. So, you made me realize that we do need to give a quick explanation of fracking. And so just my geology background here, correct me or add nuance as needed, but basically, when you frack, you're trying to extract natural gas from underground that's contained in different rock layers that are known to be gas-rich. So, the process involves injecting fluids, special, sometimes proprietary mixtures of fluids into the earth in order to force that gas up. And fracking, it comes from the term hydraulic fracturing. You're using a fluid to break the rock to release that gas for human consumption, but there's waste produced, and you have to get rid of that waste. And we don't really have environmentally-friendly ways of doing that, at least not that I'm aware of. And so they use these things called injection wells, which do what they sound like, you inject the waste from fracking down back into the subsurface of the Earth. Does that about explain fracking and injection wells?
Annie: That's a great explanation.
So, 680,000 injection wells, 20% of injection wells have some sort of structural problem. They leak. They don't work as they're supposed to. Something's wrong with them. And a new study by the Yale School of Public Health found that young children living near fracking wells are three times more likely to develop leukemia. That's a super solid study. Everything else we say, remember that, right?
Jess: That's alarming.
Annie: Yeah. Even being near one that's working puts you at risk. So, when you do put all the waste back in the ground in these wells, you're putting a couple of things at risk. So, you're putting the groundwater at risk because it could leak into the groundwater, but you're also putting the topsoil. Because if it leaks, it can just contaminate the soil. And this actually happened recently near Grant Township. Pennsylvania General Energy had a gas well that leaked a mile from Grant Township, and they had to take out 1,600 tons of soil and just dump into a landfill. And they didn't tell anyone they were doing it until basically after it was done. So, there's many different ways this can go wrong, and it's really not a great solution for dumping this waste. There's not a million alternative ways to get rid of the waste. But this is not a great solution.
Jess: Right. And anybody who even has a basic education in environmental science knows that it's all connected. Everything from microbes to clouds, it's all interrelated. And you cannot manipulate one part of an environment and expect it to stay in isolation. There's feedbacks. There's so many feedbacks. There's so many loops. And I describe environments as a series of interconnected Venn diagrams, and it's basically like a Venn diagrammer's field day anytime you go into an environment. So, it makes perfect sense why a community would say, "You know what? We have these great hellbenders and this lovely clean water, and we do like to drink lovely clean water. We don't want an injection well." So understandable, it is very much like not in my backyard, but I think a lot of times not in my backyard, there's a good reason for it, and it almost should be, with certain things, not anywhere, not in anyone's backyard. And so the kid's leukemia stat is still blowing my mind. I'm gonna be chewing on that one for a while.
Before we jump into the heart of the legal side of the film Hellbent, I want to let you know where you can find This Is Science in the wide world of social media! We are on Twitter as @ScienceWithJess, and Instagram also with the handle @ScienceWithJess. Find us over on Facebook by going to Facebook.com/ScienceWithJess, or just searching for “Science With Jess.” Please follow, like, and share so we can get going on sharing the science love.
There’s one more really neat and useful thing I wanted to tell our listeners about before we get back to the lovely snot otters and the valiant fight to save their environment.
The Union of Concerned Scientists does a lot of work around environmental safety, which includes analyzing environmental safety information and putting the results out so you, the public, can be informed about critical issues in your communities. A recent tool created by UCS scientists is an interactive map showing communities that are impacted by the known carcinogen ethylene oxide. Since 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency has understood that ethylene oxide causes cancer, which is important information since it’s currently used to sterilize medical equipment and even some dried foods. Shockingly, 14 million people around the country live within 5 miles of a facility emitting ethylene oxide, and as we so often see they’re most often near low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and in places where English isn’t widely spoken.
To check out the UCS map of ethylene oxide facilities and see if there are any near you (I live near 3 here in Los Angeles), visit ucsusa.org/etomap. That’s ucsusa.org/etomap. You can also find resources on our website for how to take action and urge the EPA to increase public protection from ethylene oxide emissions.
Alright, let’s get back to hellbenders!
Jess: But I wanna ask, essentially, so we know that the whole David and Goliath story, we get that, especially here in the U.S., we love that, you know, little guy, takes on the big guy and has a win. And I think, as humans, we're wired to appreciate that sort of story. But what really grabbed my attention and what made me say, I have to cover this for "This is Science," is that, rights of nature. So, now we're here, and all this is building up to rights of nature. This seems to be, to me, and I'm not gonna explain it. I want you two to explain it. But to me, this seems like one of the most exciting, I'd say, legal instruments available, new legal instruments, relatively speaking, for court action, for actual legal frameworks that we can set up to protect areas, or species, or communities, or just environments, ecosystems. So, tell us, rights of nature, whoever wants to go about this one.
Annie: I'll talk about it. So, as human beings, pretty much universally, we've decided we're entitled to a certain set of rights. The idea of rights of nature is that species and ecosystems should also be entitled to a certain set of rights. So, the idea that ecosystems and species have the right to flourish and that people should be able to defend those rights in court is all what rights of nature is about. So, it's not a new idea. There are rights of nature's laws internationally and here at home, in the United States. But in the United States, they've not really been tested. And those that have, get overturned a lot. While it's doing well overseas like Ecuador has it in their constitution. Canada has it for certain watersheds. It is not going great in the United States.
Like, Lake Erie had a Bill of Rights, for example, and it passed and it was fantastic. But then they tested it and overturned it. And that's kind of what's happening in Grant Township. We'll get to that. But basically, what our film is letting people know about, and what we honestly want people to try and run with is this idea that humans, like our health and the environment's health, are deeply connected. So, if you're threatening the environment that I live in, you're threatening my health. So, I should be able to defend my environment in court just as much as if you were threatening the people I live next to. So, that's like the whole idea. It has commonality with a lot of indigenous worldviews. It has commonality with a lot of religions, and honestly, with human rights, it's just applied to the environment.
Jess: It makes sense to me, but I can see how it's funny. Sometimes these things that seem like they should be obvious take a while to enter public consciousness. It's one of the flaws of our species. It's like, "Well, of course. Of course." But it's so mind-blowing to hear that the folks there in Grant Township in that community were actually able to, I'm sure, work with their attorneys to employ this rights of nature framework and actually score some points for themselves and for protecting themselves and the hellbenders. So, do you think that this is something that is going to stand up to future legal challenges, which probably is where you were going?
Annie: I think that if Grant Township is successful in their fight to maintain what they've done with rights of nature, because they passed the rights of nature law and it worked. It's being threatened now, but if they're able to keep it on the books, it will set a precedent for other places to try the same thing. For example, there's another community in Pennsylvania called Plum, and they're doing the exact same thing. They don't want an injection well in the community, they came together, community organized. We're like, "No, we do not want this," and they're facing a legal fight. We want places like that to do this. While not everywhere is governed the same way as Pennsylvania, where they were allowed to do a Home Rule Charter, which means they're small enough that they can govern themselves to a certain extent. There are ways to use small-scale community organizing to protect assets in the environment, everything from like a homeowners association to a city council. If you come together and give rights to be it a stream, an entire watershed, a meadow, later, when those things are threatened, you can mount a challenge. So, it's no guarantee that it will stay. A lot of rights of nature laws have been overturned because our legal system is built on the idea that nature is property.
So, when you try and challenge that, there's a million existing laws being like, "No, whoever owns it can do whatever they want to. It doesn't matter who lives there, who relies on it, who it affects." So, we want more people to try and do this because the more people who do it, the more precedents will be set, the more normal it will become, and then there will be less sort of tipping of the scales. We want it to be a balanced fight between, okay, lots of people want to give rights of nature laws, and they're not fighting against a bazillion laws that say that's not feasible.
Jess: Right. And I think...
Annie: Does that make sense?
Jess: Yeah, it totally does. And I think it's really important that you mentioned precedent because American courts are so fixated on precedent. Has this been done before? Is there a justification in the past for acting this way? And I know that it's very important to cite prior court cases in court decisions. So, I think you've got something here that is very special. And I just wanna make clear about, I really wanna come back to the people who were organizing to do this Home Rule Charter, which I'm sure a lot of people have never heard of, but they said, "Okay, we can govern ourselves and then also to extend this and employ rights of nature as a legal strategy." These are not lawyers, like you said, and they're not scientists, right? I mean, just tell me about the demographics of people who came together to make this happen.
Annie: Yeah, so Grant Township has a diverse array of people. A lot of sort of people who have, maybe they're not rich. Most of them are not, I'd say all of them are not, just wanna live a nice quiet life in this place. And they really had to put on their legal hats to do this because they realized that no one else was gonna help them. Fortunately, they were helped by a group called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. But all the things that they did to succeed using rights of nature was community-led. So, their Home Rule Charter was completely, they wrote it themselves as a community. They all constantly had meetings, and organizing, and all that kind of stuff. Where the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund came in was like funding their legal fights in the courts when they were being constantly sued by the fracking company and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. So, they had to do like big time court cases. They also had to build their own legal sort of framework in their community. So, while they did have a lot of help, it was the foundation that success was community organizing.
Jess: So, then I also remember from the film that people did mention that the EPA did not help them. So, can you elaborate on that just a bit? Because let's say I wasn't a scientist, as your average person, I'd be like, "Well, isn't the EPA gonna do something about this?" So, why wouldn't the EPA have helped this community?
Justin: Yeah, so for this situation, the EPA granted the permit to Pennsylvania Gas and Electric to install the injection well, which they had felt that, if the EPA was on the community's side that they would not have granted that permit. And so their frustration lies with the fact that the EPA was gonna go ahead and allow that to happen and not do more to help protect the community. Now, it's important to note that this was the EPA of a previous administration. So, we don't know what it may have looked like if this was a situation that was happening now or even prior to that previous administration, but we do know that that was what was happening at the time. And so they were just really frustrated with the lack of support that they got. And so there was a permit that was issued by the EPA to allow it. And then there was a permit issued by the Department of Environmental Protection and EPA to allow the installation of the injection well.
And so what was interesting is, like Annie mentioned, DEP, Department of Environmental Protection is the one who gave the permit. They're also the one who rescinded the permit based on the Home Rule Charter where they wrote rights of nature into their governance. They're also the same organization that is currently suing Grant Township for violating the rights of PGE to put in the injection well in their community. So, the same organization says, "Yes, your local law is valid. We're gonna honor that. We're gonna revoke the permit but we're also gonna sue you for having that local law so that we can give that permit back to PGE so that they can put the injection well in." So, it's kind of a crazy scenario because it's like, does this organization know what they're even doing? Do these people to talk to each other? And it's like a very weird situation that you wouldn't think would come up, but that's the reality of it.
And kind of going back a little bit to the rights of nature and how it can be useful. We're kind of seeing this smattering of rights of nature's cases popping up around the country and it hasn't seen a lot of traction yet because I think we're still hung up on the fact that corporations have more rights in this country than its citizens do. And then if corporations according to our Constitution have more rights than our citizens, how are we gonna be able to justify that nature has the same level of rights that any of us do? And so that was a big problem in this case, where PGE, the corporation, has the right to install an injection well in this community even though the community doesn't want it. It's like who has more rights, and the government says, it's the corporation that has more rights.
Jess: Yeah. You highlight such an important issue in the 21st century here in the U.S. And I think that it's excellent that you have made this. Actually, it's a lovely film from an artistic standpoint. It's great from science communication and a lesson in civics but it's also a tool for basically educating people about the challenges, and the urgency, and the importance of prioritizing things that matter to individuals, and their local communities, and the ecosystems that we inhabit. So, it brings me to, I kind of want you to look into your crystal balls because, you know, don't we all have a wonderful crystal ball these days with so much chaos in the last few years? But what do you think? And, Justin, the first part is directed at you here. And then, Annie, if you wanna add some stuff to this, feel free. But, Justin, what do you think that the future holds for, let's bring it back to the hellbenders. For species like the hellbenders and the hellbenders themselves, what do you see coming down the pipeline?
Justin: Nice pun there.
Justin: I mean, I kind of take a more hopeful approach to things where I believe that when the rights of resource management, and land rights, and stuff go back to the people who truly deserve them and manage things properly, you know, I think that we can build a world where animals like the hellbender will be protected and natural resources that are around the area will be protected, and sustainably managed, and stuff like that. But with the system we have now, where it's just driven so heavily by corporations and profit, and all that kind of stuff, it just really puts that at risk. And so the purpose of this film was to promote rights of nature because we're kind of seeing this moment here where we might right be on the cusp of it being more useful in our legal framework to allow those communities to maintain control over their rights.
And so we're still very far away. Like I mentioned, we're still trying to figure out citizens' and corporations' rights. But if we can light a fire to get more communities, like thinking about rights of nature and how it could be useful in their legal frameworks to maintain those rights to their environment, we're hoping that that'll kind of, like, spread amongst a lot of people. And then with that sort of a movement, we'd be able to afford those protections to hellbenders, to snails, to crayfish, to trees, all the things that we live off of. Like, we need oil, we need gas, we need this. But what we really need is air, and water, and clean food. We've lived off of that for millions of years, and we've lived off of oil and gas off of 100 years. So, it's like, as a species, we were much more successful without this kind of stuff taking care of the land, taking care of hellbenders. And now we're just in this profit mode of where it's like, "Oh, we got to get profit, profit, profit, expand, explore, do all this kind of stuff to our detriment." And if we start losing those things that have allowed us to survive for millions of years, then we're gonna have a huge issue as a species.
Jess: Right. And so, Annie, do you see anything that is different than what Justin just explained or just any... What do you think is happening when humans are encroaching further and further into these ecosystems and for good or for bad? I mean, what do you say?
Annie: Sounds a little harsh, but I think you can only step on people for so long. When everyone starts getting sick and there's no good places to live, corporations won't be able to do the things they're doing. They can dump with impunity all over the United States. And in a perfect world, it would be so hard for them to dump anything because of so many regulations that it wouldn't be profitable. I would love that. That would be fantastic. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. It's the cheapest, best option for them to dump all their waste. So many different fossil fuel industries, kind of like other initiatives like farming and stuff. But we make films to have an impact. And for this one, we want people to realize that they have rights to protect themselves, even if it's really, really hard to defend those rights and to make them happen. There's so many bad things going on right now, but I want people to get mad and get organized.
Jess: So, then that dovetails into, I was gonna say, so give us the current status, as much as you can there in Grant Township, Forksville, that whole area, what is happening on the ground in mind that this episode is gonna air in May 2023, so it can be spring 2023. Where are we?
Justin: Yeah, so the situation right now is their case. You know, the lawsuit continued and it went to the Commonwealth Court, and it was heard in that court and it was determined that they did not have the right to use rights of nature to prevent the installation of this injection well. And so the community of Grant Township appealed that decision and wanted it to go to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania actually decided not to hear that case. And so that case is going back to the Commonwealth Court where it was previously struck down. So, that court case hasn't been scheduled yet. We still don't know when that's gonna be, but we're kind of in this position where it already lost in one court, went to another, got rejected, now it's back in this court, what's gonna happen? And the feeling is, it's most likely not gonna side the way that we want it to side. And so the unfortunate thing about it is, if that's the case, then it would end up being like a lot of other rights of nature cases that have been put forth in the court in this country where they strike it down, they say it's not constitutional.
So, we're really hoping to do what we can to help support the community going into that court case to where, if it's not the result that we're looking for, where do we go? What do we do? What's the next step to keep this thing going? Because there's been so much momentum over the last 10 years of this that it would really be sad for it to end with that. And so that's kind of where we're at now. So, by May of 2023, I'm sure the court case won't be scheduled yet. I'm trying to figure out what's going on. But for us, we're still gonna be doing a lot of screenings with "Hellbent" and doing community events and stuff and trying to do some community organizing to really get people to understand. And if these court cases and these rights of nature cases start going off, like fireworks all over the place, something's got to stick and it brings that precedent back. We're like, "Well, it's stuck there." And then that's gonna be like the match that just lets it go. And so we were hoping that this is the case. It still could be, but at the moment, things don't look that hopeful.
Jess: So, then that just makes me wanna ask real quick. Is there any specific action that, let's say, some of our listeners are motivated and really wanna do something to support this effort? What can they do? Do you have any concrete steps they can take? Or just even general would be helpful, I think.
Annie: Right now we have a link on our website, and we're doing this in person. We have made postcards addressed to the people of Grant Township, and they have community meetings every week and they read letters from people. So, if you wanna say something, some words of encouragement for them or give them some advice, come to a screening and fill it out, or go to our website and fill one out. It will get to them and they will read it. We're trying to get additional ones set up so you can contact people from PGE or this Commonwealth Court. That's proving a little more difficult. We're gonna get there. But for now, if you wanna talk to the wonderful women in our film, go to our website or come to one of our screen readings.
Jess: All right, plug the website then, you got to give us the URL, do everything. Where can we find you?
Annie: Go to hellbentfilm.com.
Jess: All right. I love it. That's a really easy-to-remember name. So genius move, whoever picked that URL. Hellbentfilm.com, you heard it here. So, then we are the Union of Concerned Scientists, and as a scientist, I have many, many concerns. And you both are scientists, and science communicators, and artists, and conservationists. And so I want to ask, and I would like you each to answer. We'll have Justin start it off, though, so Annie can bring it home. Why are you concerned?
Justin: I'm concerned because, like I mentioned before, humans are interlinked with the environment around us. This is where we live, this is how we live. And every animal, every species that we encounter is important to our survival. And when we start losing those little bits, we start losing our footing and our ability to survive as a species. And so kind of the trend that we're heading into right now is that we're putting luxuries, and profits, and stuff above our ability to survive in this habitat. And so that's what makes me concerned, is that if we start losing these wild spaces, losing these wildlife populations, losing these beautiful habitats, we're gonna start losing ourselves. And by not protecting it and not making those moves to give rights to the people who deserve those rights to manage those resources and everything, we're doing ourselves a huge disservice.
We're kind of at this point now as a society where we have two options. We can walk off a cliff or we can invest in the right technology, and the right legal framework, and the right economies to make it so that we can prolong our survival. And it's kind of an exciting time because we're trying to build the understanding that we're at that crossroads and we could take one path, but we're headed towards another. And we all wanna see ourselves as a society go to the path where we choose to be sustainable, and come up with these green technologies that allow us to continue to live the best we can. And so that's what motivates me, to make films like this and tell stories like this, because that kind of, like, if we can get as many people on board with understanding how we interact with the wild world around us, we can start moving towards the other path.
Jess: Excellent answer. All right. Annie, why are you concerned?
Annie: I think that capitalism has made everyone on Earth extremely sick. I mean, in a general sense, we're selling so many aspects of our natural environment for nothing. Fracking is barely even profitable. It's making their workers sick. It's making the people near it sick. It's making the animals who are affected by it sick. For what? Like, a little bit of natural gas? There are other sources of natural gas. We don't have to do it this way. If you made it even a little less profitable, you could dispose of the waste more responsibly. We are poisoning the planet for nothing. And I hate that. I hate it so much. I love animals. I love every single animal. And the idea that kids are gonna be born on this planet not knowing all the animals that I got to meet makes me sick. So, for our own health, for the healthy environment, we need to stop this nonsense, super capitalistic exploitation of the planet.
Jess: Lovely. Extremely well said. And I think what you just touched on there, really, it brings home something that I've been talking about with a few of my colleagues. It's that, you can look at all this, you can look at what's happening and be really, really sad. I mean, it is sad when we lose species, when we lose anything, because the world is such a unique, and beautiful, and multifaceted place, and we barely understand it. We're just starting to scratch the surface of knowledge here. But then, a lot of times, that sadness basically gets sublimated into anger. And sadness is incapacitating, but anger is motivating. So, it sounds like you two are motivated to make a change, and the whole community in your wonderful film "Hellbent" was motivated to make change. So, I think that's kind of what I'm taking away from our conversation, is that there are very powerful motivating factors at work here that hopefully can push back against the kind of devastation that we see far too often. So, I really appreciate you both taking the time with me and being here today, and best of luck with the film. And I will do whatever I can to get the word out, because I think it truly does have the potential to be world-changing, and that matters so, so much. So, thank you both.
I have one correction for this episode that Justin and Annie asked me to share with you. The company that wants to install the injection well in Grant Township is Pennsylvania General Energy, NOT Pennsylvania Gas and Electric. They both do fracking, so it’s an understandable mistake.
Rights of nature has huge potential to shape the way people protect their natural environment and ways of life. It’s an exciting opportunity for individuals and communities to regain some of the power that was lost when corporations gained personhood rights in the United States, and it provides a chance for the environment to have meaningful legal status.
I invite you to head over to UCSUSA.org to learn about abundant and reliable clean energy solutions. About 2 million US rooftops have solar panels, and that number is ticking steadily upwards. 29 states have renewable energy standards. Solutions like carbon pricing can be effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by hitting corporations where it counts – in the finances. Those policies aren’t always sensitive to low-income folks, so truly effective carbon prices need to keep environmental justice in mind while getting direct input from the people who are impacted most. California, where I live, has long set the pace for adopting renewable energy standards and goals. Governments around the country have the power to adopt standards that require more energy production to come from low or zero-carbon sources, and governments can also incentivize green tech solutions via tax credits and other incentives. I know that talking about regulatory fixes to energy issues sounds pretty far away from Little Mahoning Creek and the hellbenders, but just like Earth’s environments…it’s all connected.
Right now, one fifth of the US’ energy comes from renewable sources. If we can push that number higher, we’ll be protecting everything from the air to drinking water to hellbenders. I genuinely hope those weird and wonderful creatures get another 65 million years to flourish. Let’s do everything we can to make that happen. I’d like to say a huge thanks to Anthony Eyring, our visual media superstar, and to Omari Spears, Brian Middleton, Pamela Worth, and Rich Hayes for their production hard work. Our background music this week was by Lobo Loco. Until next time, stay curious, science lovers!