Editor’s Note: Run by Michael Smith, The Ithacast is a weekly podcast featuring interviews with interesting Ithacans. You can stream the full interview below, or subscribe on iTunes.
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Why I shop downtown — Carmen
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Walter Hang – Toxics Targeting and the Fight Against Fracking
Walter Hang is the founder of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca-based organization that helps citizens identify and collect information about toxic sites through New York State.
For Walter, environmental protection is both a business and his passion. In the years-long battle to ban hydrofracking from New York, he was on the front lines, working night and day to organize and educate both citizens and politicians on the potential hazards. Thanks to an executive order from Governor Cuomo just weeks ago, it seems fracking won’t be coming to New York any time soon.
In this interview, Walter talks about the long fight against fracking and puts this latest victory in context. He also details some of his other battles with governments and businesses who would prefer to sweep potentially dangerous contaminated sites under the rug. We also learn what drives him to fight for environmental safety, how he launched the Toxics Targeting business and more.
(Cornell University’s take on Lake Source Cooling, an issue addressed in the podcast, can be found here.)
Below are 5 interesting snippets from the interview:
1 – What drives Hang to work on environmental safety?
Hang’s initial goal had nothing to do with cleaning up toxic sites. At least, it didn’t seem to. He had originally intended to study cancer and search for ways to combat the pervasive disease. Unfortunately, all of Hang’s patients – all young children – died while undergoing chemotherapy. “It was a shocking revelation… I realized I had a made a tragic error. I wasn’t going to cure anyone of anything. I could work my whole life and not, basically, achieve that goal.”
That was a turning point for Hang in more ways that one. The same day he had that realization, he stumbled upon an article that linked higher cancer mortality rates to environmentally contaminated areas. Hang concluded: “It’s gotta be something in the environment. And if we can prevent our exposure to the causes of cancer, we won’t have to treat it or cure it.”
2 – What is the context of the recent fracking ban ordered by Governor Cuomo?
Hang explains that the decision to prohibit fracking came as something of a surprise, and as such he’s uncertain but cautiously optimistic about its impact. “The devil is in the details… We’re watching like hawks, and meanwhile we’re taking action to make sure that whatever deal is put on the table is going to be what we need. We haven’t worked for 6 years to get a shaky deal.”
Whatever reservations he has about the decision, Hang stresses that this is a “landmark achievement” that has made New York into “a shining beacon” that other states might learn from. “We’ve shown that the biggest corporations in the world that want to desecrate our states can be beaten in this political fight. We have, at least for now, beaten them… Now we can show others how to do it.”
3 – What does Hang say to proponents of fracking for economic purposes?
Some activists are die hards when it comes to fossil fuels, regardless of their source. Hang’s approach is more nuanced: “I use natural gas to heat my home, to cook with, I drive a car… I’m not against natural gas, per se. What I’m against is pollution. Anyone who wants shale fracking, the solution is simple: support the adoption of comprehensive public health and environmental safeguards. Be willing to accept strict liability.”
This reasoned approach is a throughline in all of Hang’s activist work. While he’s no stranger to “ranting and raving” to get things done, his campaigns focus on educating and informing people and promoting respectful, yet tenacious opposition. “There is no substitute for knowledgeable, informed, effective advocacy. It’s important for people to understand how government actually works. That, I think, most importantly, is what my campaign achieved.”
4 – What’s next in the fight against fracking?
Hang insists that “fracktivists” must not rest on their laurels. Since we don’t fully understand the motives behind the governor’s decision, it’s important “to let the governor know, in no uncertain terms, that we’re an organized, powerful politica force. And we’re not going away.” Hang encourages those who are interested to visit Toxics Targeting’s Marcellus Shale Fracking page to get more information, sign petitions, or donate to the cause.
You might also consider taking a trip down to Albany for a celebration rally during Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address
on January 7th on Jan. 21. (Correction: The State of the State was postponed to Jan. 21 because of Mario Cuomo’s death.)
5 – What does Toxics Targeting do?
Toxics Targeting deals primarily in information – Hang is quick to note, “We aren’t consultants. We don’t tell anyone what to do.”. What the company does is gather government information about toxic sites all throughout New York State and generates a corresponding map, which is available for free on the Toxics Targeting website. Potential clients who are interested in a property can then see if there are any potential contaminated zones nearby. If there are, the client can work with Toxics Targeting to learn more, without having to deal with the tedious and confusing process of filing the paperwork themselves.