Dozens of Activists Arrested in Battle Against a Fracking “Gateway Drug” in New York

Residents of New York’s Finger Lakes argue that gas projects would spell ecological and economic disaster for the region.

Molly Bennet

An activist blocks the entrance to the property of Crestwood Midstream, a natural gas company that stores fracked methane in giant underground salt caverns near Seneca Lake, shortly before being arrested. (We Are Seneca Lake)

Tens of thou­sands of years ago, as mas­sive sheets of ice moved across riv­er val­leys in what’s now west-cen­tral New York, they cut 11 deep grooves that even­tu­al­ly became the Fin­ger Lakes. Some 390 mil­lion years before that, in the sea that once cov­ered the Appalachi­an Basin, algae and oth­er organ­ic mat­ter mixed togeth­er with min­er­al par­ti­cles and set­tled, a black sludge that was trans­formed over mil­lions of years into the Mar­cel­lus Shale, the gas-rich rock for­ma­tion that stretch­es from New York down to West Vir­ginia. And as the sea dried up, it left behind huge deposits of salt, which began to be mined in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, cre­at­ing a hon­ey­comb of hol­lowed-out cav­erns deep underground.

“These are just ordinary people who have exhausted every possible means of expressing their opposition and are at wits’ end,” says Yvonne Taylor, a co-founder of Gas Free Seneca.

Today, this geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry is at the heart of a bat­tle being waged by Fin­ger Lakes res­i­dents to stop two pro­posed gas stor­age projects they believe pose a grave risk to the ecol­o­gy of region and the peo­ple who live there — projects that, in the words of biol­o­gist and author San­dra Ste­in­graber, threat­en to turn us into an extrac­tion colony for investor profits.”

On Wednes­day evening, Ste­in­graber was tak­en away in hand­cuffs from the small town hall in Read­ing, New York, along­side 86-year-old Roland Mick­lem and Colleen Boland, a retired Air Force sergeant. All three had pled guilty to tres­pass­ing on the prop­er­ty of Crest­wood Mid­stream, a Hous­ton-based nat­ur­al gas com­pa­ny that stores fracked methane in giant under­ground salt cav­erns along the west­ern shore of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Fin­ger Lakes.

Ste­in­graber, Mick­lem and Boland, who each chose to spend 15 days in jail rather than pay the $250 fine, are among more than 50 peo­ple who have been arrest­ed over the past four weeks dur­ing a series of block­ades to protest Crestwood’s plans to expand its methane stor­age in the salt cav­erns by a third. (Mick­lem end­ed up being released Thurs­day due to health concerns.)

In addi­tion to the methane expan­sion, the activists are also fight­ing a sep­a­rate Crest­wood project that would con­vert two cav­erns into a facil­i­ty that could store 2.1 bil­lion bar­rels of liq­ue­fied petro­le­um gas (LPG) — most­ly propane and some butane.

The projects, which were first pro­posed five years ago by Iner­gy, Crestwood’s pre­de­ces­sor com­pa­ny, have faced strong oppo­si­tion from locals who see the poten­tial for cat­a­stroph­ic acci­dents and envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion, and fear the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of a region whose eco­nom­ic con­di­tion depends heav­i­ly on its envi­ron­men­tal integri­ty. So far, 13 munic­i­pal­i­ties have passed res­o­lu­tions oppos­ing the LPG project, includ­ing Watkins Glen, which lies two miles south of the Crest­wood site and is home to 1,900 people.

But influ­en­tial state politi­cians like Sen­a­tors Kirsten Gilli­brand and Charles Schumer have remained silent on the issue despite pleas from the projects’ oppo­nents to inter­vene, and the project has won the sup­port of the Schuyler Coun­ty Leg­is­la­ture (though not with­out con­tro­ver­sy).

In August, New York’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion, which has juris­dic­tion over the LPG project, announced that it would hold off on rul­ing on the project until an issues con­fer­ence” could be held to exam­ine the con­cerns about the project’s safe­ty. But last week, the DEC issued a draft per­mit for the project, which pro­test­ers have inter­pret­ed as a sig­nal that the agency is lean­ing toward approval. Pri­ma­ry juris­dic­tion on the methane stor­age expan­sion, mean­while, lies with the Fed­er­al Ener­gy Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mit­tee (FERC), which last month gave Crest­wood the go-ahead to begin con­struc­tion—a devel­op­ment that sparked the wave of civ­il disobedience.

These are just ordi­nary peo­ple who have exhaust­ed every pos­si­ble means of express­ing their oppo­si­tion and are at wits’ end,” says Yvonne Tay­lor, a co-founder of Gas Free Seneca, a group formed in 2011 to oppose the Crest­wood projects.

One major con­cern cit­ed by the pro­test­ers is the geo­log­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty of the salt cav­erns where the gas would be stored, and the risk of a dis­as­ter such as an explo­sion or col­lapse in the salt caves, that could lead to human casu­al­ties and eco­log­i­cal devastation.

These cav­erns were nev­er designed to hold hydro­car­bon gas­es,” says Ste­in­graber, who lives with her fam­i­ly in near­by Tru­mans­burg and is one of the orga­niz­ers of We Are Seneca Lake, the group that is stag­ing the block­ades. If you want­ed to design a struc­ture to safe­ly store a whole bunch of com­pressed, explo­sive hydro­car­bon gas­es under­ground, the archi­tect wouldn’t come up with this plan. This is just acci­den­tal space that’s left over.”

This year, Rob MacKen­zie, the for­mer CEO of Cayu­ga Med­ical Cen­ter, per­formed a risk analy­sis of the Crest­wood LPG project. Accord­ing to his find­ings, there is a more than 40 per­cent chance that a dis­as­ter of seri­ous or extreme­ly seri­ous con­se­quences” will occur over the next 25 years, whether in the cav­erns them­selves or dur­ing the trans­port of the gas to the facil­i­ties via truck and rail, anoth­er fear of the oppo­nents of the project. (A con­sult­ing firm hired by Crest­wood has dis­put­ed the valid­i­ty of the study.)

Accord­ing to Mackenzie’s report, between 1972 and 2012 18 seri­ous or extreme­ly seri­ous” inci­dents occurred at salt cav­ern stor­age facil­i­ties in the Unit­ed States. In Hutchin­son, Kansas, for exam­ple, in 2001, gas leaked from a salt-mine stor­age facil­i­ty and migrat­ed sev­en miles under­ground to the city cen­ter, set­ting off a series of explo­sions that killed two people.

As much as the com­pa­ny wants us to believe this is per­fect­ly safe, you can’t rule out equip­ment fail­ure or human error,” says Taylor’s part­ner, Joseph Camp­bell, also a co-founder of Gas Free Seneca.

Oppo­nents of the Crest­wood projects also note that there is evi­dence that one of the cav­erns in which the gas will be stored suf­fered a par­tial col­lapse sev­er­al decades ago, lead­ing to fears that Seneca Lake will be the site of a dis­as­ter like the one that occurred Bay­ou Corne, Louisiana, in 2012, when a salt mine col­lapsed, cre­at­ing a sink­hole that is now more than 26 acres wide and still growing.

Even though the risk of cat­a­stro­phe may not be a … prob­a­ble event,” says Ste­in­graber, if the con­se­quences are unfix­able dev­as­ta­tion and the loss of drink­ing water for a huge num­ber of peo­ple, we find that to be an unac­cept­able situation.”

Faith Meck­ley, one of the orga­niz­ers of We Are Seneca Lake, was born and raised in Gene­va, at the north shore of the lake, and grew up hik­ing in Watkins Glen State Park. A jour­nal­ism stu­dent at Itha­ca Col­lege, she took the fall semes­ter off to take part in the Great March for Cli­mate Action, walk­ing 1,800 miles, from New Mex­i­co to the Ohio-Penn­syl­va­nia bor­der, before leav­ing the march in Octo­ber to return to the Fin­ger Lakes and help orga­nize the Seneca Lake fight.

The scari­est thing is imag­in­ing that beau­ti­ful area we have on the south end of the lake… some­times I imag­ine that as a crater,” says Meck­ley. And that’s what it could become. If there were a col­lapse or some sort of major event and an explo­sion were to occur, it could be a huge and cat­a­stroph­ic event.”

Oppo­nents of the projects are also con­cerned about the poten­tial impact on water qual­i­ty in Seneca Lake, which pro­vides drink­ing water for 100,000 local res­i­dents. When gas is pushed into the salt cav­erns, Ste­in­graber explains, it dis­places salty brine, which could poten­tial­ly trav­el through fis­sures in the rock and work its way into the lake — which is already the salti­est of the Fin­ger Lakes — as could the gas itself. Due to the depth of Seneca Lake and the way it drains, says Ste­in­graber, should a con­t­a­m­i­na­tion occur, the amount of time it would take to get all the con­t­a­m­i­nants out would be mea­sured in human gen­er­a­tions, not days or weeks.”

And then there are the eco­nom­ic con­cerns. More than 20 mil­lion tourists vis­it the Fin­ger Lakes each year, attract­ed by the dra­mat­ic landscape’s glacial gorges, lakes and water­falls. Many locals, beyond their own per­son­al attach­ment to that land­scape, wor­ry about what will hap­pen to the tourism if it is marred by industrialization.

Tourists also vis­it the Fin­ger Lakes for its thriv­ing wine indus­try, which last month led Wine Enthu­si­ast mag­a­zine to declare New York State the wine region of the year.” Con­sid­ered the crown jew­el of the Fin­ger Lakes, Seneca Lake is large­ly respon­si­ble for the unique micro­cli­mate that has allowed more than 100 winer­ies to flour­ish — the heart­beat of our local econ­o­my,” says Ste­in­graber. But wine grapes are a prod­uct of their envi­ron­ment, sen­si­tive to pol­lu­tion and contaminants. 

This whole indus­try depends on clean water and fer­tile soil and clean air,” says Art Hunt. Hunt is the co-own­er, with his wife, Joyce, of Hunt Coun­try Vine­yards, a sixth-gen­er­a­tion farm on near­by Keu­ka Lake that is one of some 250 area busi­ness­es that have joined Gas Free Seneca. More­over, should an indus­tri­al acci­dent occur, even if the eco­log­i­cal impact was min­i­mal, some locals fear that it would come to define the region.

This area is known as the Fin­ger Lakes wine region, and that’s what’s get­ting inter­na­tion­al atten­tion,” says Joyce Hunt. If there were to be an acci­dent, … the tourism would stop.”

Crest­wood has main­tained that the pro­posed stor­age facil­i­ties are per­fect­ly safe, and has tout­ed the LPG project, which will it says will cre­ate 10 per­ma­nent jobs and add more than $25 mil­lion to the local tax base, as an eco­nom­ic boon for the region (the project also has been endorsed by the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers). The com­pa­ny also points out that gas stor­age in the area is not a new phe­nom­e­non: Crest­wood itself has been stor­ing methane in the cav­erns since 1997, and there are two oth­er salt-cav­ern LPG stor­age facil­i­ties in near­by coun­ties, one of which is owned by Crestwood. 

A web­site cre­at­ed by Crest­wood to refute con­cerns about the LPG project, NYPropaneAd​vo​ca​cy​.com, states that the unique geol­o­gy of local salt for­ma­tions makes these salt cav­erns ide­al for stor­ing propane,” and points out FERC and the state geol­o­gist have reviewed the company’s geo­log­i­cal data on the salt cav­erns and have approved the project as safe. But many oppo­nents of the projects see FERC as a rub­ber-stamp machine, and are out­raged that Crest­wood refus­es to release its data and the maps of the cav­erns to the public.

We don’t know how sta­ble those cav­erns are, and we’re being com­pelled to bear risks that we’re not even informed of,” says Ste­in­graber. We can’t real­ly offer informed con­sent, because we’re not allowed to see the data that FERC used to make its decision.”

More­over, some oppo­nents fear that the cur­rent pro­pos­als are just set­ting the stage for Crest­wood to fur­ther expand its facil­i­ty. Accord­ing to Gas Free Seneca’s Yvonne Tay­lor, This is just the camel’s nose under the tent.”

Crestwood’s plans also tap into local con­cerns about the future of frack­ing in New York State, where a mora­to­ri­um has been in place since 2008. Frack­ing oppo­nents’ fears seemed to be val­i­dat­ed last month, when Cap­i­tal New York report­ed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s admin­is­tra­tion had edit­ed a study on frack­ing in the state to down­play the poten­tial dan­gers and elim­i­nate entire­ly a line that not­ed the poten­tial risk of pipeline trans­port and under­ground stor­age of methane. Mean­while, across the state, con­struc­tion of the infra­struc­ture need­ed to sup­port the dis­tri­b­u­tion of gas import­ed from oth­er states, such as pipelines, com­pres­sor sta­tions, and stor­age and treat­ment facil­i­ties, has revved up.

Faith Meck­ley sees such con­struc­tion as prepa­ra­tion for an age when New York’s frack­ing mora­to­ri­um is lift­ed and the dam opened. When you look at the map and see the web of frack­ing infra­struc­ture, it’s obvi­ous that this is sort of prim­ing New York for an age when it will accept frack­ing itself,” says Meck­ley. The infrastructure’s all there, basi­cal­ly ready to go.”

Tay­lor agrees. If we allow [the Crest­wood projects] in,” she says, it’s just a gate­way drug for frack­ing in New York.”

Four years into the cam­paign to put a stop to Crestwood’s plans, the pro­test­ers’ frus­tra­tion with the polit­i­cal sys­tem is pal­pa­ble. Ear­li­er this month, speak­ing from Wash­ing­ton D.C., Meck­ley said, I’m walk­ing past these big, tall, white, glo­ri­ous gov­ern­ment build­ings, and it just feels so fake to me right now.” Meck­ley, who was in D.C. to par­tic­i­pate in protests at FERC head­quar­ters dur­ing the cul­mi­na­tion of the Cli­mate March, sees the Seneca Lake bat­tle as one of count­less inci­dents across the coun­try in which cit­i­zens’ voic­es are being drowned out by corporations.

This inci­dent here at Seneca Lake, which went for­ward despite huge pub­lic oppo­si­tion, is not an iso­lat­ed inci­dent in our coun­try,” she said. I’ve walked through mul­ti­ple states and talked with the peo­ple who live there and learned about their sto­ries and what they’re fac­ing, and it’s hap­pen­ing everywhere.”

Despite, or per­haps because of, this frus­tra­tion, oppo­nents of the projects are dig­ging their heels in. “[Win­ning] is the only option for me,” Meck­ley said ear­li­er this month. We’re going to keep putting our­selves in the way of Crest­wood activ­i­ties as much as we can” and putting pres­sure on local offi­cials, she said, adding that We Are Seneca Lake’s ranks are grow­ing, as more and more peo­ple are will­ing to put them­selves on the line at Crestwood’s gate. We have rein­force­ments com­ing in, so that we can sus­tain this for a long time,” she said.

Meckley’s words were borne out this week, as the cam­paign inten­si­fied with dai­ly block­ades, and dai­ly arrests (includ­ing of Meck­ley, who was arrest­ed Mon­day). Yes­ter­day, orga­niz­ers say, the block­ades shut Crestwood’s trucks out of the facil­i­ty for sev­en hours. Ten­sion between the pro­test­ers and local law enforce­ment has also inten­si­fied, as the sher­iff has accused the pro­test­ers of eat­ing up his department’s resources, with pro­test­ers coun­ter­ing that pro­tect­ing the inter­ests of a Texas-based com­pa­ny shouldn’t be among the sheriff’s priorities.

Speak­ing to a crowd of over 100 peo­ple at a ral­ly before her sen­tenc­ing Wednes­day night, Ste­in­graber asked, Why are the Schuyler Coun­ty deputies being turned into a pri­vate secu­ri­ty force for Hous­ton-based Crest­wood when gen­er­a­tion of res­i­dents are endan­gered by Crestwood’s plans to bring explo­sive gas into our com­mu­ni­ty and bury it by a source of drink­ing water for 100,000 people?”

She also urged the crowd not to let up. If I don’t go home tonight, I do not want a vig­il,” she said. All I want is for you to take my place.”

The next morn­ing, nine more pro­test­ers were arrest­ed at Crestwood’s gates.

Mol­ly Ben­net is an Asso­ciate Edi­tor at In These Times. She attend­ed Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty and was pre­vi­ous­ly a reporter for New York Magazine.
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