Reflecting back on the Community Sentinel award reception, held on November 26th, I can’t help but be in awe of the raw grit and determination that filled the room. It was a cold, blustery day in Pittsburgh – and yet the hall felt warm from the passion each of the Community Sentinels awardees exuded. FracTracker Alliance and our many award sponsors and partners were so very proud to award Nalleli Cobo of California, Rebecca Roter and Ellen Gerhart of Pennsylvania, and Natasha Léger of Colorado with the 2018 Community Sentinel Award for Environmental Stewardship. (On a more personal note… This is the first year that all of the recipients have been women. Kudos!)
The Program on November 26th
As I nervously re-checked the AV equipment for the presentations to be led by our emcee from Rootskeeper, David Braun, attendees spent time networking and getting to know the awardees. We met people from all walks of life – each of them concerned about the negative impacts the oil and gas industry.
Rebekah Sale, of the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, kicked off the event with introductions, followed by David Braun to set the stage. Lauren Davis, of The 11th Hour Project, then graciously gave the keynote address. During her formative years as a funder, Lauren met many frontline communities – from the people facing the impacts of oil and gas development in their backyards to volunteers responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill along the Gulf. Working with these early community sentinels served as a critical juncture in her career. Lauren thanked them for the many lessons they taught her about perseverance, patience, and integrity.
Each year during the Community Sentinel Awards program we honor activists who valiantly fought against the harms of dirty energy but passed away in the past year in a presentation called “Legacy of Heroes.” During this year’s program we celebrated the lives and passions of Ben Stout of West Virginia, Ray Beiersdorfer of Ohio, and Carol Zagrocki of Pennsylvania. On behalf of all of the award partners and sponsors, a heartfelt thank you goes out to these incredible advocates who are truly leaving behind a Legacy of Heroes. Learn more about their inspiring work below.
And last but not least, the four recipients of the 2018 Community Sentinel award were presented with their awards.
David Braun introduced Nalleli Cobo, who became an activist at a young age after experiencing severe health impacts from nearby urban drilling. Nalleli has been a critical voice in the movement to end oil drilling in Los Angeles’ neighborhoods. Veronica Coptis of Center for Coalfield Justice presented the award to Ellen Gerhart, a renowned but reluctant activist in Pennsylvania. She has fearlessly stood in the way of Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners for the past few years in order to protect her family’s home from the Mariner East pipelines. Matt Mehalik of the Breathe Project then introduced Natasha Léger. Natasha, a steadfast and eloquent lawyer by training, is currently leading a team of dedicated people in protecting the North Fork Valley of Delta County Colorado from irresponsible oil and gas development and fracking. Raina Rippel of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project then presented the final award to Rebecca Roter. Rebecca, who moved out of PA to escape the health effects of oil and gas development near her home, still works tirelessly to protect communities from fracking’s impacts through strategic advocacy and on-the-ground research.
On behalf of all those who benefit from your resolute endeavors – Thank You, Dear Sentinels.
More About the Awardees
- Nalleli CoboAt age nine, Nalleli Cobo unknowingly engaged in community activism. Her journey began when she noticed she was often ill. Her frequent headaches, stomach pains, nosebleeds, and body spasms worsened to asthma and heart palpitations. Soon after, Nalleli learned others in her community were also having similar problems. Nalleli lived in an apartment complex in South L.A. across from AllenCo’s oil drilling operations. Terrible odors would take over her community every day. After calling regulatory agencies, Nalleli noticed the smells from the oil well only getting worse. Nalleli and her neighbors took action – creating a grassroots campaign called People Not Pozos (Wells). Through grassroots activism, Nalleli strengthened her community’s voice by fighting the oil company poisoning her neighborhood. After a hard fight, AllenCo temporarily closed in November 2013. Her community is fighting to close it permanently.
Nalleli is a member of the South Los Angeles Youth Leadership Coalition. This group, along with Communities for a Better Environment Youth from Wilmington, sued the City of Los Angeles for environmental racism and violation of CEQA. Nalleli is a member of STAND LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling – Los Angeles). STAND LA works tirelessly to establish a 2500-ft buffer between oil extraction, homes, and sensitive land.
- Ellen Gerhart
Being an activist was not on Ellen Gerhart’s bucket list for retirement. She was born 63 years ago in Monaca, PA, a small steel mill town near Pittsburgh. She attended Penn State University, where she received a BS in linguistics, teaching certification in deaf-ed, English as a 2nd language, and biology and general science. Ellen also met her husband Stephen there. They bought a house in Huntingdon County, where they raised two daughters, Lyra and Elise. After 28 years of teaching, Ellen retired. That same year, 2015, the fight against the Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) Mariner East 2 pipeline began.
In the three years since, Ellen has had three acres of woodlands and wetlands seized through eminent domain; helped establish a resistance camp and aerial blockade known as Camp White Pine; supported tree sits on her property; been heavily surveilled, threatened, and harassed; and arrested 3 times (released from a 2-6 month jail sentence on September 26, 2018). She most recently attended an ETP unit holders meeting in Dallas, TX where she and other activists confronted CEO Kelcy Warren.
- Rebecca RoterRebecca Roter grew up in West Philadelphia. Her parents’ involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements instilled values of standing witness and speaking truth to power. In 1986, when she moved to Susquehanna County, she had no clue the Marcellus Shale under her feet would spur her advocacy for public health. After the first test well was drilled in the county in 2006, she organized an EPA citizen Marcellus listening session, spearheaded a grassroots community billboard campaign, gave guided tours and interviews to national and international media, facilitated the Duke University NEPA ground water studies, and worked with Clean Air Council – winning PA DEP public hearings for compressors. She networked at every turn with federal and state agencies advocating for scientific research, fact-driven discussion, and public health
In 2013, Rebecca co-founded the grassroots group Breathe Easy Susquehanna County (BESC) striving to unify a community long divided over natural gas, air quality, and public health. BESC arranged local radio interviews with health care professionals about air pollution, natural gas infrastructure and public health; collaborated with Public Lab to design a Community Formaldehyde Monitoring project; collected citizen science formaldehyde data used in a peer reviewed article; and has a seat on an academic stakeholder advisory board. BESC partnered with researchers from University of London for a citizen science air study generating seven months of continuous PM2.5 data county wide. Data near the Williams Central Compressor was shared with federal and state health agencies.
EPA follow up testing was used for an ATSDR Health Consultation. Two days after this consultation was publicly released , PA DEP announced plans for Air Quality Stations in shale counties. As of 10.25.18 , the continuous PM2.5 PA DEP monitoring station was operational in Susquehanna County; a victory for public health brought home by citizen science.
- Natasha LégerNatasha Léger is the Executive Director (Interim) of Citizens For A Healthy Community (CHC). CHC is a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to protecting air, water and foodsheds in the Delta County region of Southwest Colorado from the impacts of oil and gas development. Before stepping in as Interim ED, Natasha served on the board. She brings to CHC legal, location, ecosystem, and industry analysis experience. Natasha is an international trade attorney, turned independent business consultant, turned editor of a location intelligence magazine, turned author of Travel Healthy: A Road Warrior’s Guide to Eating Healthy. She believes clean air, water, soils, and nouri (a word to describe what we should be eating for optimum health) are a basic human right.
Under her leadership, CHC has developed new strategic partnerships with state, regional, and national impacted citizens groups and environmental and conservation groups, and developed tools for empowering the community to respond to threats from oil and gas activity in the North Fork Valley. She championed the ground breaking community cost-benefit analysis of a proposed natural gas project, and contributed to the first food-shale production map to highlight the risks to our food supply of overlapping oil and gas activity with farms. She also exposed the regulatory black hole around rural gas-gathering pipelines. Her work in empowering the community has led to withdrawal of projects and leasing proposals that threaten the community, and an unprecedented number of public comments and widespread opposition to oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley, which serves a unique role in Colorado’s food supply, recreation economy, and biodiversity.
Legacy of Heroes Presentation
Use the slideshow controls on the right to learn about the dedication of Ben, Ray, and Carol.
Ben Stout of West Virginia
In the fleeting passage of days, FracTracker enjoyed a long history with Dr. Ben Stout. The infamous biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University served on the FracTracker board since the inception of the organization in 2012. Brook Lenker, FracTracker executive director reflects: “While we didn’t get to spend as much time with him as we would have liked, each reunion was a pleasure, a reconnection with an old friend.”
Ben was wily and wiry, casual and confident. He exuded a passion for protecting people and nature from industry run amok. As a scientist and educator, he was thorough and curious, yet always bold and engaged; he genuinely cared about the Appalachian communities he knew so well. The Intelligencer in Wheeling noted how he was viewed as an environmental hero. He was too humble to accept such a label, but his revelatory research and staunch advocacy warrant the honor.
On August 3rd, at age 60, Ben died from recurring cancer. Even heroes can’t live forever, but this one’s legacy won’t soon fade away. Ben Stout’s work lives on as an inspiration to so many other people.
Ray Beiersdorfer of Ohio
Ray Beiersdorfer was a renowned professor at Youngstown State University who didn’t let his work stop at the walls of academia. His series of public lectures on Energy and the Environment were an example of that effort. He recruited top notch speakers explaining the technical, legal, social, economic, and environmental issues associated with energy production in a way that non-technical attendees could understand. He also gave countless lectures in person and virtually to lay audiences all over.
As Dr. Weatherington-Rice wrote in giving us her thoughts on Ray: “I agree that Ray and Ben Stout are huge losses this year. We simply are not making scientists of their caliber fast enough to replace their loss to the scientific community and to the greater community of this region. They leave huge holes in the fabric of our universe.”
Ray was an elegant and engaging presenter of the data that speaks to the myriad issues associated with quakes resulting from the injection of hydraulic fracturing waste into Class II injection wells. Such a complex issue is not the easiest topic to explain or make palatable to the general public, but he did it with ease. Ray passed away this year from complications of a heart attack.
Carol Zagrocki of Pennsylvania
Carol Zagrocki was dedicated to many environmental projects, and her passion shown in every aspect of her work. Her grants on behalf of the Colcom Foundation supported so many worthy causes – from watershed monitoring and grassroots organizing, to conservation groups and critical research at universities like Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, and Wheeling Jesuit.
Her husband Rege writes: “Thank you for this honor being bestowed on Carol. She truly loved working with all her grantees. She took great pride in their accomplishments, and it did not matter to her if it was a one-person operation or a national organization, she was at her happiest when the grants got approved by her board.”
On a Saturday morning after breakfast, Carol died suddenly in her home of a heart attack – a condition that runs in her family. She went quickly and hopefully without pain. Carol’s passing was recognized by a humbling assortment of organizations, such as The National Aviary and Carnegie Library. The Pittsburgh Botanical Gardens will soon have a garden dedicated in her honor, as well.
Sponsors and Partners
The Sentinels’ program and reception requires financial support – for monetary awards, awardee travel, and many other costs. As such, each year we call upon dedicated sponsors and partners to provide resources to enable this endeavor to continue. The often-thankless jobs that community sentinels do each day in protecting our health and the environment deserve no less.
Thank you to our incredible 2018 award sponsors: The 11th Hour Project, The Heinz Endowments, The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds and a generous anonymous donor. We could not do this work without your support.
And a big thank you to our partners in presenting the award: Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, Breathe Project, Center for Coalfield Justice, Crude Accountability, Earthworks, Food and Water Watch, Halt the Harm Network, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Property Rights and Pipeline Center, Save the Hills Alliance, Sierra Club, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, and Viable Industries.
This year, 23 people were nominated by their peers to receive this distinguished award (listed below).
- Richard Averitt – Nellysford, VA
- Odessa, Gunner, Kylan, and Nels Bjornson – Scenery Hill, PA
- Mark Borchardt – Marshfield, NY
- Shelley Brock – Eagle, ID
- Genevieve Butler – Freetown, LA
- John Childe – Dauphin, PA
- Malinda Clatterbuck – Holtwood, PA
- Nalleli Cobo – San Gabriel, CA*
- Torch Can Do – Coolville, OH
- Karen Feridun – Kutztown, PA
- Friends of Buckingham – Buckingham, VA
- Ellen Gerhart – Huntington, PA*
- Bill Huston – Dimock, PA
- April Keating – Buckhannon, WV
- Natasha Léger – Paonia, CO*
- Megan Mcdonough – Elizabeth, PA
- Janice Milburn – Ligonier, PA
- Misha Mitchell – Plaquemine, LA
- Anne Rolfes – New Orleans, LA
- Rebecca Roter – Montrose, PA and Nicholson, GA*
- Douglas Shields – Pittsburgh, PA
- Diane Sipe – Evans City, PA
- Joe Spease – Overland Park, KS
* Denotes 2018 award recipient
Many thanks to the following judges for donating their time to review all of the nominations.
- Jill Hunkler – Activist, Ohio
- Raina Rippel – Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project
- Dan Shaffer – Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance and Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition
- Elena Sorokina – Crude Accountability
- Dan Xie – Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups)