Lois Bower-Bjornson grew up in a rural environment, lived in a downtown environment, and returned to the rolling countryside of Washington County. Along the way, she learned a lot about the environment and came to embrace it.
Bower-Bjornson and her husband David are raising three sons and a daughter in the Scenery Hill section of North Bethlehem Township. Children, she said, suffer from illnesses – rashes, nosebleeds, swelling of limbs – that she couldn’t link directly to the natural gas industry.
But she suspects emissions are the culprit, in a county where hydraulic fracturing – hydraulic fracturing – is one of the most common in the state.
A longtime dance teacher, Bower-Bjornson doesn’t dance around his concerns about fracking, well sites, abandoned wells, pipelines and related concerns.
So she reaches out to the public, working as a southwestern Pennsylvania field organizer for the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based organization for which she runs Frackland Tours. Bower-Bjornson began tours in 2017 as in-person events, open to the public. They are found near – but not on – properties with well sites, compressor stations and other natural gas related activities.
Elected officials and members of the media have sometimes joined the tours, which are virtual and in person – with COVID-19 protocols – since the start of the pandemic.
Her diligence and expertise led Bower-Bjornson to be selected on Monday for a panel discussion aimed at bringing together officials and the general public to implement tougher environmental protections in the Pittsburgh area.
She was one of four guest speakers for “Stories of a Just Transition Pittsburgh”. This was the second of three region discussions, hosted by the Human Impacts Institute, a Brooklyn-based environmental and social justice nonprofit.
Bower-Bjornson grew up in Fredericktown, in a once heavily industrial area. She remembers the coal barges that went up and down the Monongahela River and the steel mills roaring in the river towns. She believes that many businesses at the time were operating regardless of the environment or residents, and expects that indifference to return.
Bower-Bjornson said she lived in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood on the north side of Pittsburgh as an adult, “where the air from the steel mills (of the area) wasn’t going.” All the rich people lived there because there was no pollution.
She said residents of other regional communities were used to industrial operations, “so when the oil and gas companies came along they thought they were going to revive old industrial towns and create jobs. You could almost call it a genetic trait.
She paused before asking, “When do you get rid of this?” Yes, the energy production in this part of the state has been good. But when do you let go? And if this is a clean energy state, why aren’t we producing more clean energy?
“We have people who have worked in the energy industry and they could make the transition to clean energy. And there are jobs there.
Lack of communication between groups is a major problem, Bower-Bjornson said with panelist Alyssa Lyon.
“When I meet a lot of people, they say, ‘No one will listen to me,’” Bower-Bjornson said. “Most people want someone to listen to them. We need to meet people where they are. Plant small seeds and flowers will grow instead of weeds.
Lyon, director of Black Environmental Collective, UrbanKind, said: “I think we need to go back to a people-centered approach. The urgency of climate change is the urgency to save people.
“We train in our own way and part of it is by not listening. We are too focused on the problems and not on the solutions. If we actively listen to each other, we will realize that we have common goals.
Bower-Bjornson closed the hour-long session by saying, “I’m a doer, and I think more people need to be doers. Don’t be a procrastinator. We need to give people a voice.