Ron Bishop, November 9, 2019


Ron Bishop, November 9, 2019
Ron Bishop
Zachary Greenfield
Applied Bioscience Laboratory
Central New York
Chemical Carcinogenesis
Citizen Science
Clean Coal
Cornell University
DNA Editing
DNA Research
Downwinder Syndrome
Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center
Global Warming
Hydraulic Fracturing
National Cancer Institute
Otsego County Conservation Association (OCCA)
Red Creek
Renewable Energy
RNA Research
Water Quality Testing
Dr. Ronald E. Bishop ("Ron") is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at SUNY Oneonta in Oneonta, New York. Dr. Bishop was born in 1957 in Youngstown, Ohio. He received his bachelor's at Youngstown State University before moving to West Virginia for work and eventually received his Ph.D. from WVU's School of Medicine. After obtaining his Ph.D. in Biochemistry, he worked for a branch campus of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland. While in Frederick, he was on the cutting edge of cancer research at the time and was part of a team that discovered a vitamin B6 metabolite with ties to out-of-control growth states.

In 2008, Ron moved to Cooperstown, New York to be closer to family and found himself involved in environmental work in addition to his academic work at SUNY Oneonta thanks to friends he made in the area. He is also a certified electrician and heavy equipment operator, in addition to being a federally accredited Chemical Hygiene Officer. With this background, he was uniquely poised to do a technology assessment on hydraulic fracturing and energy services. He worked directly with oil companies and environmental groups during this research, while being beholden to neither group.

This interview largely discusses his cancer research and his fracking research, as well as how simply being in central New York influenced his path. I interviewed Dr. Bishop at his home in Cooperstown, New York. His research has not ended, and he is currently in the midst of related studies that he did not want to discuss before being published.
Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2019

RB = Ron Bishop
ZG = Zac Greenfield

[START OF TRACK 1, 00:00]
This is Zac Greenfield interviewing Ron Bishop for the Cooperstown Community Stories at his home on Saturday, November 9th, 2019. So, let's start with where are you from?

I'm originally from northeast Ohio. I was born in the city of Youngstown in St. Elizabeth's Hospital. My parents, when I was born, had to move. The house suddenly became a little bit too small. I was the sixth of six children and I didn't come alone because I have a twin brother and they weren't exactly expecting twins. So, some changes were about to happen right after I was born. I was born with some issues because it was a very difficult birth for my mother. Among other things, I contracted infant sepsis by the age of about 12 years. That explains my blind left eye. It also came with some brain damage, particularly to the cerebellum area of my brain. I had all sorts of physical issues when I was a young child, including ataxia, seizures, and things like that. Most of that began to resolve when I got into early puberty. By the time I was finishing high school, I was a more or less pretty normal young person, by that time, still very skinny. But I've always been on the thin side. But able at that point to do sports-like things and start participating. And that made my life a lot better from that point forward.

[TRACK 1, 01:55]
I went to our ordinary public schools in Hubbard, which were actually pretty good schools. Hubbard is a more or less of a bedroom community of Youngstown. Youngstown is not that big of a city, Hubbard on its own was something of a regional small-town center. We were the last of the village districts in Ohio. The state of Ohio had given school systems quite a bit of latitude to operate things the way they wanted to operate them, so long as they met minimum standards from the state and as soon as they were unable to keep up with keeping these minimum standards without state aid, the state would then begin to take over control in a more hierarchical way. Hubbard was very proud of being the last standing exempted village district where the state wouldn't tell us what to do because we were still exceeding all of the standards without state aid. I am sad to say that appears to have gone the way of all of the other districts in Ohio a few years after I graduated from Hubbard High School. But it was a good school to be at. Not bad college preparation and so forth.

I was from a very blue-collar family. My father, although a very bright guy, he was valedictorian of his high school class, didn't particularly like school, and he didn't go back to college. He went instead into a more physical kind of work. He was an electrician, a master mechanic. Well, once he got out of the army from World War II, where he'd been a key player with the 6th Army Signal Corps. In his particular case, he wasn't tightly attached to the 6th Army Signal Corps. He was one of a small elite unit that was sent behind enemy lines into Germany when it wasn't yet safe for Americans to be there so he could report on troop movements. And because of the blessed gift of F.M. radio, which the Germans could not modulate, he was undiscoverable in their midst. So long as he didn't fire his Colt .45. He didn't come home with a Colt .45. He came home with a German luger. But anyway, that's survival in those situations.

[TRACK 1, 04:38]
So I found myself and my other family members, the first-generation college students, because neither of my parents had either had the strong desire or the, frankly, the physical ability to go to college. That was something in which my brothers and sisters and I all pretty much blazed that trail. I was supported at Youngstown State University by a full scholarship for tuition and books, for which I continue to be extremely grateful. I went on from there to just get a job to try to find out where in the world I wanted to be, and I did the unlikely thing of moving from Ohio to West Virginia to get a job. Not everybody does it that way.

[TRACK 1, 05:31]
I got a job as a research assistant in the Biochemistry Department of the School of Medicine at West Virginia University. It was a struggle and a learning curve, but I eventually did well there, and at the end of my first year there, [I] was promoted to lab manager. After a couple more years, people in the department started asking me, don't you think you're wasting your time hanging out here with just a bachelor's degree? You know, you're the kind of person who should move on with their career and go back to school. There was a strong hint that their department would be a good place for me to do that. Eventually I did just that and I graduated there in 1990 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the West Virginia University School of Medicine. From there, I proceeded on to look around again for a post-doctoral training appointment somewhere. I had a number of offers. I'd had good success as a graduate student in West Virginia. By the time I was looking for a postdoctoral appointment, we had four or five articles in print and several more on the way in press and that looked pretty good for my situation. I got accepted into a team at the Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center, a branch campus of the National Cancer Institute. The team that I was working with had an opening because one of their team members had just left, shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. I didn't replace that. Let's be clear about that. I did not replace Mariano Barbacid, I just took the spot he vacated. But it was another very good situation for me. Very wonderful people there, very high-level work that was being done. I felt myself lucky to be there and working in such a good, close-knit, cordial and yet dedicated, hardworking and really intensely bright people. I pinched myself every couple of days to make sure it wasn't really just a dream.

[TRACK 1, 08:16]
About the time that I should have been moving on from my postdoctoral appointment, the federal government made a profound change in how they did research support in the biomedical sciences, and they decided that too few people were getting grants awarded out in the universities and research centers across the country and too many scientists were working close to home. So, right about the summer that I was slated to begin looking for a job locally they laid off 3,000 eminently qualified scientists from the National Institutes of Health, including the National Cancer Institute, where I was currently working. I wasn't part of the layoff program, but I certainly was impacted by the fact that there were now probing the streets, looking for work, all sorts of people with lots more experience than I had.
So, I continued as what they called a senior postdoc. I got a small promotion in what was usually slated to be a temporary position. They understood the conditions of how things were, and I continued to work with that team and continued to succeed with them and generate good work in the fields of Chemical Carcinogenesis. That was the area that I was most involved with. So up to this time now–both with my work at the biochemistry program in West Virginia and also with the Applied Bioscience Laboratories, which was a contractor which contracted research directly from the National Cancer Institute, and that was the specific route by which I got paid–I'd been doing cancer research pretty much all of this time. In West Virginia the focus of the work was exploring the chemical identity of a new metabolite of vitamin B6 that had been discovered in tumor cells and was not, at that time, known to actually exist or be important in normal cells. The end of the story, and I'll make it quick, was that that metabolite does have a minor role to play, in modulating growth of cells. It's a minor role in most normal cells because they're not involved with growing and it's found at much higher levels in cells adapted for continuous growth or in cancer cells because it's critically vital to their keeping in the growth phase, which is not a normal state for normal cells.

In Frederick, Maryland, my work was focused on looking at connecting the kinds of agents known to damage DNA and try to track through the studies we were doing how exactly does this damage on DNA translate to mutations within cells and then downstream from that the actual changes in cells that arise from those mutations. Since I had training in both the organic synthesis and the biochemistry and I learned the molecular biology skills of introducing DNA into cells and watching how they transformed in response to accepting that DNA, I was able to be in the leading wave of people who could actually follow this story all the way from chemical synthesis of a DNA damaging agent right down to the photo micrographs of the aberrant cells and their bizarre shapes as they took on not normal phenotypes related to cancer and track all the steps in between.

[TRACK 1, 12:46]
I bring that up mostly to say that what has really been a hallmark of my career is the range of studies that I've engaged in. I found that the further I got into research, unlike a lot of people who get into narrower and narrower and narrower focuses on a smaller and smaller slice of what's going on, my research has always seemed to broaden with exposure and require me to be willing to move into fields I didn't have expertise in going in. I like to tell people who ask, I never once worked on a project that had read my resumé and knew what I should be able to do.

I have to say, since I've moved to Oneonta, it's only gotten worse from there, because the friends that I met when I first came here and I met them through relatives, primarily friends in the environmental community, asked me to do something that I was not at all familiar with. We had this new technology, natural gas development, that was coming into town. In the 1940s and 50s, companies and concerns had explored the Southern Tier and the central part of New York state for natural gas. They were uniformly disappointed because the conventional reserves weren't lucrative here. Now in 2008, 2009 timeframe, they were taking a second look with a new technology that could go deeper and to go to the source rocks and not look for just conventional resources of oil and gas. By the techniques of deep vertical and then horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, they could have a potential recovery of the oil and gas reserves from the source rocks where they had initially been deposited 390 to 400 million years ago.

[TRACK 1, 15:08]
We didn't know very much about that or what the neighbors were likely to be exposed to and what the impact of this kind of technology coming into our area could entail. So along with the track I've had with research all along, I've had to be just fearless of taking on new paradigms, because that's been the story of my life. As a son of a blue-collar father and myself a trained commercial and industrial electrician with years of experience in that field as well accompanying my moving through academia, I was pretty well poised to actually do a technologies assessment on an industry like this, not just from the construction side, which is helpful, but also from the chemistry side.

[TRACK 1, 16:15]
I agreed to go ahead and try to do a technology assessment and just get some feel for what's the safety record of this industry and what's the impact that we can expect when they come in? What are the things that we could or should do to try to prepare, if preparing is what we need to do? Starting in the summer of 2008, I went to the sources as best I knew them. Service companies were using, oil well services companies, were using products from the Schlumberger and Halliburton. And, you know, T.J. Baker and I have to say, Baker wasn't very welcoming to me, but Schlumberger and Halliburton laboratory guys were really excited to learn about a chemist not already involved with the petroleum industry who wanted to learn more. They were very arguably proud of what they had developed in new chemical products and new engineering approaches to do what hadn't been able to be done before by drilling deeper and drilling directionally and hydraulic fracturing with these pressures that weren't attainable before. They were really pretty proud of what they had been able to accomplish and couldn't wait to share some of their products and their discoveries and their insights with me. There were lots of resources available online as well at that time. Schlumberger had the Oilfield Review and things like that online for people who are not afraid to take on the really technical aspects was wonderfully helpful.

[TRACK 1, 18:10]
As I began to learn more about what was going on, I found that there was a growing disconnect between what I was hearing from energy company spokespeople and what I was learning from state agency reports about violations and contamination incidents and things of that nature. There was an even greater disconnect between state agency reports and the energy company spokespeople and what a lot of my environmentalist friends were believing to be true. I found that the closer I got to coming full circle into completion of my studies, so I could do a reasonable technology assessment, the harder it was to get somebody to tell me the simple, unvarnished truth from any angle. What I found was that what I was observing in the agency reports, what I was observing in this, very small and very obtuse collection of published articles and research-based articles on these kinds of issues, I couldn't really find myself agreeing either with my environmental friends, who were sort of predicting that this heavy industry is going to come in and it's going to break up all of our roads, going to foul all of our air, they're going to pollute all of our water and everybody's going to die. They actually had these signs that they were carrying around in some of their rallies, fracking equals death. I didn't have evidence for that. I had evidence for the fact that there were people involved with collateral damage and there had always been people caught up as collateral damage when the industry came into their neighborhoods. But it wasn't in the 90 percents. It wasn't in the 50 percents. It was below 10 percent. My environmental friends really didn't want to hear that. The energy industry spokespeople, on the other hand, were saying everything we do is safe. We have an awesome safety record and we never hurt anybody. The lubricants that we use are like canola oil that you use on your salad and the acid that we use for our cleanup is sort of like battery acid. Frankly, none of that was true. I was a voice in the middle, maybe not a voice of reason, but from where I sat, I had to be true. I had to be honest about my personal observations. My personal observations were that some people, when it comes to groundwater contamination, suffer harm and they run, as far as I can tell, between 3 and 6 percent of the neighbors, depending on how you're measuring it and depending a lot on where you are. The oil and gas operations in the western states all happen in deeper rock zones than the oil and gas operations in the eastern states. People in the east have had higher levels of contamination, probably because the zones where we get our freshwater are simply closer to the zones where they are trying to do some of these projects.

[TRACK 1, 22:13]
Also, we don't have a good handle on our abandoned well structures from the attempts largely made from the 1860s up through the 1940s or 50s. No one was tracking well projects, so nobody recorded where the old wells were. So, it was a difficult thing to actually drill a well in our eastern states and know that you weren't going to communicate with an old structure and have your products that you're putting under pressure come spurting up a half mile away because you had communicated with an old network of wells. I published on that problem as well. In publishing on that project, I even alerted our own State Department of Environmental Protection to the fact that in the battle of trying to catch up with plugging old infrastructure, we're losing the battle. New unplugged wells are popping up faster than we're plugging them, and they have been since records were kept. I managed to publish that observation for the very first time ever. This has not made a lot of friends for me. You might well understand, they all don't want to hear what it is I have to report. I've also, in my ethical training as a scientist, been forced to be as honest as I possibly can and try to eliminate bias as rigorously as I possibly can. This isn't easy to do when everybody has a very visceral, emotional response to what it is you're trying to discuss with them. And you may know that that is just how that's going to be. I've been trying since I got into this whole area, trying desperately in a way to shed more light than heat if at all I possibly can.

[TRACK 1, 24:33]
So here we are now. It's some years later and central New York and most of the Southern Tier, except an area that's pretty close to Binghamton and Otego, New York, have been pretty well taken off the table as far as lucrative ventures go, because the deeper shales, the Utica shales and the Marcellus shales, where our source rocks are for oil and gas, are just a little bit too shallow here. They're a little bit too thin here and very difficult to exploit without guaranteeing the fouling of some neighbor's groundwater, and so we're a little bit off the hook because of just the geology of the problems. The people around Binghamton and Otego not so much off the hook. But, while our state maintains its moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing operations, we probably won't see much happen in our neck of the woods. Now, a lot of people have the belief that because the state has a moratorium on the high-volume horizontally drilled projects, that these projects aren't going on in New York state. That isn't true. We have more than 11,000 projects continuing to be developed, mostly in the western parts of the state. They're the smaller scale, vertical drilling only kinds of projects, and they're going apace. Neighbors are having trouble at the usual pretty low-level rate of between 3 and 6 percent of neighbors coming up with problems with their groundwater. But it's far from the kinds of troubles that they're having in Southwest Pennsylvania, for example, where we've learned that although water quality seems to be the thing that gets most people's dander up much more easily, the thing that's been a pervasive problem among neighbors of these projects is the air quality problems. We've even got a name for it now. It's called Downwinder Syndrome. So that if you're within a quarter mile, to up to two miles, depending on the way the wind blows and how they do their releases, usually at night, of the most noxious gases, you're going to have some problems.

[TRACK 1, 27:02]
These problems have been mysterious. Mysterious in a way that I also think I might have been able to contribute to. That's because I've continued in my pretty much teaching-centric, because that's the kind of university that the State University of New York at Oneonta is. In a teaching-centric setting we do research and I've continued to kind of prosecute this research, but the research that I've been carrying out isn't directly related to cancer, at least not intentionally related to cancer research, but it's related to the unknown interactions that happen between these wonderful chemical products made by wells services companies and the brines that are down in the deep rocks when they pump them down there in order to try to do a drilling project, to drill down there to force cracks in those rocks, prop those cracks open, thin out the gel that you use to carry a propense down there and then bring everything back in a flow back.

In my laboratory, and I won't elaborate yet because I don't yet have these things in print, I've been finding the kinds of airborne contaminants that could explain some of the Downwinder Syndrome that have been up till now unexplainable and also finding some of the water contaminants that have not up until now been explainable because they're neither products used by the petroleum industry nor chemicals known to be in the source rocks, but rather they are arising from the interaction of the production chemicals with the preexisting chemicals. These newcomers are, I think as we may find going forward in the next couple of years, big players in explaining why some of the collateral damage and some of the ear, nose, and throat lesions and upper respiratory issues that people are having. I think we're going to be able to explain some of those in the years to come, partly based on my research. So once again, it's one of those issues for me where I will try to prevent bias, although it's difficult when it's an emotionally charged issue no matter who you talk to. But I will also try to speak truth to power, as honestly and as unvarnishedly as I possibly can. I'm not supported financially either by environmental groups nor by the petroleum industry.

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]

And so that's one way that I'm able to hopefully avoid and escape any overt bias in how the reporting of my research will happen. Any questions?

ZG [TRACK 2, 00:14]
So, you mentioned earlier about how being in the middle has affected your relationships. Has that made it difficult to continue your research or anything along those lines?

RB [TRACK 2, 00:27]
Not at all. I work in a wonderful, wonderful department. The Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at SUNY Oneonta is maybe one of the best kept little secrets, in the county. We have a group of people who are mutually encouraging and mentoring and nurturing, and they certainly have been that way with me. I have lots of encouragement and resources with them that might not actually be everywhere I've ever been. Also, my friends in the environmental community, I think, have valued highly, the fact that I am not one to craft my message for a particular audience. I've always been pretty much that kind of stick in the mud, “These are my observations and sorry if you don't like them this way, but they're not going to change because they're my observations and that's the best I can do.” It is heartwarming to see that as a few more researchers have taken on some of these outlying issues of what are the levels of damage and collateral damage that we see in the air and in the water, my initial assessments have, for the most part, been supported and confirmed. So, it's now not just me and my humble resources describing the kinds of things that we have. This doesn't really stop spokespeople for energy companies from, shall I say, somewhere between exaggerating and outright lying about the damage-free ways in which they're able to operate. This doesn't stop some people who are just really fearful and zealous on the environmental end of insisting that fracking really does equal death. In the long term, there is still a lot about the industry that we all have to admit we don't know. I mean, what really is the impact of drilling down a mile and a half, drilling across a mile and a half in what used to be a capping layer of rock from rock strata that were below that and then cracking it up nine ways to Sunday. What does that instability that we're introducing into those deep rocks going to mean in the long term when we see it practiced intensively over square miles? This is uncharted geological territory. One of the answers that we've been seeing in states like Arkansas and Oklahoma and my home state of Ohio is that we're seeing earthquakes occur where they didn't occur before and they're occurring in clusters where the drilling is happening. It's not just related to the hydraulic fracturing, it's related to the use of deep wells for trying to get rid of the excess flow back fluids, which are toxic and unwelcome everywhere and occurring in such volumes that they're a real stress on the industry at large for their disposal. Their underground injection of these fluids, along with in some states the hydraulic fracturing itself turns out to be incompatible with seismic stability. So, I can't in that sense, say that my environmental friends had it all wrong. They were just maybe looking at the wrong part of the industry for the widespread, pervasive damage that they were fearing would occur. So, it's too early to say that they were wrong. It is not too early to say that the industry spokespeople who say there is never any damage clearly are wrong and always were. Any other questions?

ZG: [TRACK 2, 05:15]
Can you tell me about more local projects that you've worked on and how those might play into your larger research?

RB [TRACK 2, 05:22]
Well, one of the local projects I'm involved with is actually an ongoing study that's been taken on by the Otsego County Conservation Association under the leadership of Leslie Orzetti. Actually, a couple of my friends at SUNY Oneonta: Les Hasbargen, who is a professor in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, and Vicki Lentz, who is a professor of Biology. Both of them, of course, good friends of mine. They're carrying on an ongoing month-by-month study of a scattering of streams and mainstem Susquehanna River all across Otsego County. We're doing water chemistry on these samples every month. It's been going on now for just a little bit over two years. What we're seeing so far is that whatever the neighbors and the farmers and the salt spreaders are doing is having minimal impact on our streams, the water quality across Otsego County is actually extremely good. I can tell you this too, if somebody starts messing up in some corner of our county, we'll know inside a month. It's fairly exciting to be–it's also a little bit for me, awkward in a way, to be doing what we call citizen science water chemistry. I have to say that it's kind of fun. I'm actually working with another individual on the creek that flows right behind my backyard, Red Creek, and my coworker and the team leader also has a PhD in Immunology. She also kind of has to give a kind of shy grin about the citizen scientist part. So that's one of the things that we're doing.

[TRACK 2, 07:30]
Some of the things I've done along the way was I actually collaborated with a large number of people, not only from right around here, but from the Cornell University and some professors, working in close proximity with Cornell to actually develop water quality standards. What kinds of tests our local people should be doing if they want to, if they know that a driller is going to move in or is leasing their own property, what kinds of water quality tests they should use for baselines before the drilling begins and also, for monitoring after it has commenced. And so, developing the suite of water quality tests that should be conducted is one of the other important ways that I was able to help contribute to these kinds of studies. Now, we're not doing these particular tests in an ongoing way, but the test that we are doing for, you know, basic things like water PH and oxygen content, nitrates and phosphates and so forth, these kinds of tests would alert us to whether these other more extensive suite of tests might be necessary. So far, I'm happy to say we're all coming up with good enough quality data that there's no need for that right now. But like I say, if you move into our county and start messing up, we'll know. I'm pretty excited to be involved with that kind of ongoing community outreach.

ZG [TRACK 2, 09:16]
Beyond just that or even including that, are there any other projects that you're particularly passionate about that you're working on right now or have worked on?

RB [TRACK 2, 09:27]
Someday, before I die, I would like to take up once again the project I was working on at the medical school in West Virginia. My mentor there was an older fellow at the time I was graduating in 1990. Although he's still around, he's retired from that work. Some of the discoveries that we had made with respect to this unique and really quirky metabolite from vitamin B6 that isn't, by the way, related to a vitamin function, but is on the other hand, related to a growth control function. I would like to someday return to those kinds of studies and see if I can extend them into a better understanding of how cells in out-of-control growth actually maintain that state and see whether these early discoveries I had made then could help shed more light on that these days. Some of the peculiar characteristics, peculiar technical characteristics of that work that I was doing, for example, alkaline extraction of RNA, not acid extraction, which is the norm these days, were key in my being able to prosecute that research because the metabolite that we discovered isn't stable in acid, even very mild acid. And so, I would be bringing some very old but time honored, bringing them [extraction techniques] back to the field if I was to do that using alkaline means of DNA and RNA extraction in order to carry out those kinds of studies.

The other thing that was peculiar about that branch of the work was I discovered - I'll call vitamin B6 metabolite for lack of a better term right now - on a segment of RNA that was very, very short, shorter than I expected. I was expecting to find it on a well-characterized kind of ribonucleic acid, either transfer RNA or messenger RNA, or ribosomal RNA. What I thought it was on a very short segment of about twenty-three RNA bases long. My graduate committee was deeply troubled by this discovery of mine because they were pretty sure I had just managed to not do a good job of extracting the RNA. I was encountering a form of RNA that was not known to exist or in their words, was known to not exist.

[TRACK 2, 12:30]
A few months after I graduated with my PhD in biochemistry, in a series of articles in the journal Nature, a group that had been trying to publish this work for 10 years but were stymied by reviewers, they were convinced that they were coming up with evidence of RNA that was known to not exist because it was too short, finally published on this new phenomenon called micro RNA, which now in the years that have developed since 1990, is one of the most important areas of genetic research. It's actually epigenetic research because it has to do with RNA, not with DNA. So other than the CRISPR and the DNA editing that you may have heard of, this work with micro RNA has taken on a life of its own and more than 400 different micro RNAs are known that have very real influences on body and cellular functions. I would, before I die, like to come full circle back to my biochemistry roots, my molecular biology roots. And now that we know more about micro RNA and people in the world are willing to admit its existence, see whether that old discovery of mine could actually shed new light on that area of metabolic research. So that's a someday thing.

ZG [TRACK 2, 14:16]
Going back a little bit, you mentioned that you're a trained industrial and commercial electrician. How has that background affected your research and your path as well as your standing with the various companies and groups you work with?

RB [TRACK 2, 14:31]
Well, it made it a lot simpler for me to do a technology assessment on a heavy industry, because I'm familiar enough with heavy industry. I'm a heavy equipment operator myself. I have experience operating drills because I've drilled. I've only had to drill like 10 or 15 feet deep to put in, you know, light posts, but that's drilling through rock a lot of the time. I have some experience with that; concrete and steel and tunneling and laying pipe and all those sorts of things I have personally done. It's helpful to know how things go, because it's also just the mere presence on a work site and an appreciation for the things that can go right and that can go wrong simply due to human error, technical things breaking down. It's an informing thing to not be an ivory tower academic, shall we say. I also probably would not be here if I did not have these skills in the other side of my life. My family and I did not move to Otsego County for work. We moved for family. My wife is a nurse and I was a tradesman so we can live anywhere. It's because of that that we were able to move here, make a go of it being near family. And then as I could, I got on with a job at academia. Were it not for that, I can guarantee you we would not be here. Where I am in the world, which colors where I am in my research life, could not have happened if I didn't have skills as a tradesman. There's just no way I could see putting that together.

ZG [TRACK 2, 16:33]
Do those skills and your background in general, how does that help you? How do you balance environmental concerns and progress while also working with economic development, does that factor in for you at all?

RB [TRACK 2, 16:51]
I think when we talk about sustainability, things that we do and projects that we take on have to be sustainable on every level. If it's great for the environment and means no one can ever work again, it's not humanly sustainable. I'll give you an example. You hear, for example, some people talk about clean coal technology. It exists. It's real, it's unused. Frankly, it's unusable because it's too damn expensive. So, part of clean coal technology is to take the carbon dioxide and other emissions, capture them as vapors, condense them as liquids and inject them deep underground. It simply costs too much. That's why it isn't being done. That's why clean coal technology is really, it's not an oxymoron, exactly, theoretically, it could exist, but economically, it can't. There's just no way to make it pay. When I hear, proponents of this so-called clean coal technology trying to bring it back, it's like we don't need to bring it back. It's already here. It's just that no one we know will pay for it. So, these are real concerns that everybody has to face. I don't think there's any escaping them. Nobody lives in a world where we can have it all one way. I have to have a paycheck to stay here. Everybody I know is in that same kind of situation. As we phase out jobs that are related to harmful business and economies, we've got to replace them with jobs that are related to environmentally sustainable ways of making a living. Nobody I know can survive a five-year gap between the two. This is where we all have to work together. My mother had a favorite saying: “Two heads are better than one, even if one's a cabbage head.” That, of course, would usually precipitate a robust discussion over who had the cabbage head. We need people know on the business side and on the industry side and on the financial side and everywhere in between to make these things work. We're already facing a situation where even if we don't do anything more to harm our environment, now we're in a cycle of global warming, which is going to be more expensive for everybody to maintain. More intense storms, higher floods and not just the coasts, but inland as well because of the greater intensity of the storms. The storms are going to travel farther and affect more people than they ever had before. They're going to do it more routinely than they have before. We've already talked about four or five 500-year floods since I moved here 13 years ago. We all can see where this is going.

[TRACK 2, 20:50]
Somehow, we are going to have to learn to live with this new reality and there's going to be an economic cost to that. There's no way out. We must pay. It would be just in a lot of people's eyes if the people who were more responsible for getting us into this fix took a greater role in paying for the outcome. This is a role our government has not taken on very meaningfully up until now. It would be really great if we could push them to be more pushy about that moving forward, before it's too late.

ZG [TRACK 2, 21:48]
Has your research affected your stance on any of this at all or on renewable energy options?

RB [TRACK 2, 22:01]
Not really, all options come with downsides, and I think everybody who looks hard at them is going to realize that so long as we are intensive consumers of energy, at some point all of our decisions, all of our ways of maintaining our lifestyles as intensive consumers of energy are going to come with their dark side. If we're going to use wind power, we're going to have towers and we're going to have big propellers that everybody can see, whether they like the look or not. If we have solar taking on much more of our energy generation, we're going to have to give up arable land or presumably arable land for the solar arrays, because rooftop solar will never really have enough area to get us there with the levels at which we need that energy. Not only that, but we're also going to have to develop, build, and maintain much larger battery systems for the backup plan when the sun doesn't shine. No matter where you look. Wood is a renewable resource, but it's also a very polluting way to go about generating energy. We have to decide where our decisions should go. We have to decide what mix of the various renewable energy sources can provide the fewest eyesores and the least ash in the air and the least land taken up for solar collectors and kind of like feel our way forward as we try to move across. Up till now, our resources have been brought up from underground and except for the relatively few places where they're brought up underground, most people don't see them. They never saw them. Don't grieve over the loss. And now everything that we are moving forward with to generate energy is aboveground, visible, and subject to damage with our increasingly intense storms. Which means it's going to take more to maintain. We're moving into a new reality and it's going to require adjustments on everybody's part. To the degree that we can make just and sustainable decisions along those lines, we might just scrape through. And to the extent that we just let the richer take all and the poor keep taking it on the chin and living next to whatever is the next big industrial development, we'll probably find our society cracking under the strain of the inequity, as societies always do.

RB [TRACK 2, 25:25]
And so we have not just an environmental and economic burden that we're going to be facing. We have a societal burden which either knits it all together or not. And it's up to us to try to find that balance. And I hope to God that we do.

ZG [TRACK 2, 25:49]
Yeah. On that upbeat note, thank you very much. This has been a fascinating conversation with you.
Upstate New York
Cooperstown, NY
Zachary Greenfield
Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta
Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY
Track 1, 0:00 - Childhood
Track 1, 05:31 - Cancer Research
Track 1, 16:15 - Hydraulic Fracturing Assessment
Track 2, 05:22 - OCCA Water Quality Study
Track 2, 09:27 - Future Projects
Track 2, 16:51 - Sustainability
Track 2, 22:01 - Renewable Energy
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