For six weeks, We Are Seneca Lake campaigners have braved freezing weather in western New York to block expansion of a methane storage project adjacent to Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. Campaigners believe the storage project threatens to contaminate Seneca Lake, which provides drinking water to 100,000 people in upstate New York. With 92 arrests for trespassing while blocking the gates to the storage facility, the campaign seems to be picking up steam.
Photo by We Are Seneca Lake
The We Are Seneca Lake movement took shape on October 23 when protesters blocked the gates to Texas-based energy company Crestwood Midstream’s storage facility north of Watkins Glen, NY. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authorized Crestwood to begin expansion of its methane storage facility beginning on October 24. After legal efforts to stop the expansion failed, opponents began a civil disobedience campaign, and the first 10 campaigners were arrested on October 29.
We Are Seneca Lake Organizers have good reason to be concerned. Besides serving as a source of local drinking water, Seneca Lake supports the two primary pillars of the local economy: tourism and wine-making. The region also supports an historic salt industry, fed by salt deposits surrounding the lake. When Crestwood purchased a local salt plant in 2013, the company also acquired nearly 90 caverns created in the salt mining process. These caverns currently have the capacity to store 1.5 billion cubic feet of methane gas and LPG. Crestwood, hoping to turn the Seneca Lake into a regional hub for natural gas transportation and storage, hopes to expand storage capacity to 2 billion cubic feet, with long-term plans to expand capacity to 10 billion cubic feet.
“This is a really compelling story about people who care about a lake that provides drinking water for 100,000 people, that literally turns water into wine, and people who are standing up for water and wine against a Houston-based trespasser who has come into our community not with the intent of living peacefully among us, but with the stated intent to its investors and to the [Securities and Exchange Commission] of turning Fingerlakes region into ‘a hub for the transportation and distribution of natural gas throughout the Northeast,’” says well-known ecologist and activist Sandra Steingraber, who’s a member of We Are Seneca Lake. “And so that is just not our plan for ourselves. We see [Crestwood] as the outside agitator. We see them as the trespasser. Not ourselves.” Steingraber has already been jailed twice in the campaign against Crestwood, most recently this past November.
The legal terrain surrounding the storage projects is complicated. Because LPG is transported by train and truck, it is regulated by the New York Department of the Environment (DEC), which has yielded to public opposition and postponed Crestwood’s proposed LPG storage project pending further inquiry. Methane, however, which is transported by pipeline, is regulated by FERC, which has approved the expansion project despite local concerns about public health and environmental impacts.
As Steingraber explains it, the opposition campaign is made up of two equally important groups: Those who want to defy the law and engage in direct action protests and those who want to support the direct action activists. “A lot of the people who work with us are not on the frontlines of being arrested, but our message is that one job isn’t more noble or heroic than another,” she says.
For those who choose to participate in direct action, a second choice is often imminent: If arrested, will they choose to pay a fine or accept a jail sentence? The maximum fine for trespassing in Schuyler County is $375, and the maximum jail sentence is 15 days. With few exceptions, the judge overseeing arraignments of We Are Seneca Lake campaigners has been meting out maximum sentences and fines.
Steingraber has herself been arrested twice for trespassing on Crestwood property while blocking the gates to the facility, and on both occasions has chosen to serve her time in jail rather than pay a fine. Although she is careful to note that one decision is not necessarily more noble than the other, she admits that there is added value when protesters opt for jail time.
“The value to us does increase I think when people do go to jail, both on a moral level, because continuing one’s civil disobedience witness inside of a jail cell shows seriousness of intent,” says Steingraber. “[And] it also shows respect for the law, because it shows you are willing to accept the consequence of your own actions when you break the law, and we always want to be upstanding people and contrast our behavior with the behavior of the company itself, which we believe breaks many laws.” The media attention surrounding the arrests doesn’t hurt either.
Crestwood has also refused to release studies regarding the geological history of the region. Both the federal government and the New York state government have agreed that this research could be classified as proprietary business information and withheld from the public. For this reason, local residents are uncertain about the stability of the salt mines and potential long-term impacts of the storage project.
“I knew I would have to cross the civil disobedience Rubicon… when the federal government and [state government in] Albany agreed to keep secret the geological maps and history of this spot,” says Steingraber. “The idea that we are all being compelled to bear risks that we don’t even know about, because we don’t have access to all the data so we can’t even offer our informed consent… is just beyond the pale to me.”
We Are Seneca Lake is beginning to draw campaigners from outside the region. Recently, four out-of-state activists — Jimmy Betts of Nebraska, Michael Clark of Ohio, Kelsey Erickson of Massachusetts, and John Abbe of Oregon — were arrested for trespassing on Crestwood property. Three of the four chose jail time rather than a fine. The participation of non-local campaigners underscores the relevance of the Seneca Lake controversy to broader debates about fossil fuel extraction, transportation, storage and dependency in the United States, and the need to wean ourselves of fossil fuels in the face of global climate change.
So far, Crestwood has delayed construction on the expansion project. But don’t expect campaigners to disperse that easily: They hope their efforts will force action by state senators Kirsten Gillabrand and Chuck Schumer, as well as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and are awaiting a formal withdrawal of the FERC permit pending further consideration of the risks associated with methane storage in the region.
“I’m certainly not scared of going back to jail,” says Steingraber. “I’m much more scared of my children’s future in a fracked up world and a world where the lake is contaminated than I am of the inside of a jail cell.”