Standing up to an environmental menace

Dozens of protesters in upstate New York are no longer facing jail after charges against them were dropped--and now, reports Joan McKiernan, they are ready to keep fighting.

Protesters block traffic to defend Seneca Lake against plans to expand gas storage (We Are Seneca Lake)Protesters block traffic to defend Seneca Lake against plans to expand gas storage (We Are Seneca Lake)

CAMPAIGNERS OPPOSING gas storage in the Finger Lakes region of New York welcomed the decision of local courts to dismiss all charges against the hundreds who have been arrested for protesting against a proposed gas storage facility in this area better known for tourism and wineries.

"We are Seneca Lake" mobilized a campaign of disobedience in October when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave the go-ahead for the Texas firm, Crestwood, to expand gas storage facilities in underground salt caverns on the shore of Seneca Lake. Protesters argued that the project would be a disaster for residents of the area and for the numerous wineries and other jobs and businesses there.

While protesters endured the very bitter winter, the local police and the courts served the company well, arresting over 200 and seeking maximum fines and jail sentences for trespassing violations. Ten people were sent to jail for a violation trespass--something equivalent to a parking violation. Forty others were facing jail before the court agreement was reached.

Police did not differentiate among the protesters--arresting teenagers as well as 90 year olds. One man was handcuffed to his belt so that he could use his cane while being led away by the police.

As one protester explained, "I am extremely proud to be part of a community that is willing to be arrested in such numbers to prevent Crestwood's plan to industrialize our region and threaten our lake."

When leading environmental campaigner Sandra Steingrabber was first arrested, she said, "We hope that by showing the depth of our resistance, we can shine a spotlight on this menace in our community. This is just the first step in an enduring campaign."

The organizers of the protest received support from the local community and from around the state. Groups of teachers, nurses, winery workers and owners, moms, dads and other groups organized days of protest at the site. They were successful at totally blockading the site on many occasions.

Defense attorney Sujata Gibson said, "This is a big moment in history to have this many cases dismissed in the interests of justice. It affirms the importance of this cause and the ethical motivations of the protesters."

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ON DISMISSING the charges, Judge Raymond Berry said, "I'm very proud of you. You had a cause, and you fought for it to the best of your ability. Congratulations."

However, just a short while back, the judge was sending protesters to jail over the holidays. Though he did not seem to relish sending people to jail, he continued to do so despite the support the activists were receiving in the community. The judge reported that his own granddaughter refused to speak to him when he sentenced people to jail.

Faith Meckley, a 19-year-old activist, writing in The Ithacan, explained that the judge was reluctant to send her to jail. "Rather than sentence me, he postponed my case repeatedly." She believes that justice was only half served. While the protesters were punished by the state, the company, which is going to cause such damage to human life and the environment, is going unpunished.

In court, the protesters pointed out that they had a right to engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience and reserved their rights to protest further at the Crestwood facility. In a statement read in court, they explained:

We only have this planet. We must safeguard it for those who follow. Would that it not be necessary, but sometimes citizens of good conscience must engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to protect that sacred trust.

As long as Crestwood Midstream Partners, or any other corporate or public or private entity, continues to threaten our way of life by the proven dangerous storage of highly compressed gas in the crumbling caverns at the Salt Point facility, I reserve the right to act as my conscience dictates in order to protect Seneca Lake, its citizens, and the surrounding environment. I reserve all rights to protest further at the Crestwood facility, although it is not my intent at this time to break the law in doing so.

Faith Meckley explained that the statement "acknowledges the existence and importance of a higher moral conscious that is not always in alignment with our laws and justice system, as well as the critical need to take direct action to safeguard our planet for those yet to come."

While welcoming this court agreement, all are aware that the organizing to protect the people and environment in the area will continue. The company is still fighting to get its facility built. They have hired two PR firms and are spending millions of dollars to try to convince local people that they need the facility. While the company has the support of the federal regulators, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has not ruled on the company's request to build a new liquefied petroleum gas storage facility.

As long as federal and state regulators refuse to protect the health and safety of people, groups such as the Seneca campaigners will continue to fight back.