The recent movie about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency illustrates how he often used historical anecdotes to give perspective to events of his time. In that spirit, I’d like to share one that involves Lincoln himself as a central figure.
In late January 1862, during the early stages of the Civil War, the president’s son “Willie” contracted typhoid fever. At the time, the White House drew its water directly from the Potomac River, which had become contaminated by Gen. McClellan’s army encampments along its banks. One of the most powerful men in the world stood by helplessly as his son grew weaker and died. This tragedy was repeated throughout Washington that dark winter. A lack of knowledge about waterborne pathogens and insufficient safeguards for drinking water resulted in the army jeopardizing the very people that Lincoln had charged it to protect.
Today, we once again find ourselves faced with a divided state, if not nation. One encampment would proceed with hydraulic fracturing for the purpose of extracting natural gas, while the other deems the health and environmental risks too great. There is clearly a lack of knowledge concerning the chemicals used, since the industry will not disclose them. The cumulative and long-term effects of the entire process are unknown, and widespread reports of aquifer contamination strongly suggest that measures designed for protecting drinking water are grossly insufficient.
Over the past 150 years we’ve learned how vitally important clean water is to our health. Perhaps its abundance here in New York could lead us to take this precious resource for granted and fail to provide it the vigilant protection it deserves. Will our descendants view our actions at this juncture favorably, or might they pity us, as we do Lincoln, for sufferings induced by one’s own hand?