One year ago, on Apr. 17, 2013, environmental scientist activist Sandra Steingraber gave a prepared statement concerning natural gas extraction and its potential consequences, on the occasion of her sentencing for trespassing, an act of civil disobedience which prompted her arrest. On March 18, 2013, she and 11 others stood in an access road near Seneca Lake, NY and blocked the passage of a truck carrying a drill head belonging to the energy company Inergy, destined for a fracking site. Before they were arrested for trespassing, the group linked arms, and Steingraber read from another prepared statement. “This is my first experience with civil disobedience. Here is an explanation of my actions.” She introduced herself as a biologist and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College. She is 54 years old and the mother of a teenage son and daughter. She is married to an art teacher and lives approximately fifteen miles from the gas storage site.
She emphasized that civil disobedience was a last resort: “Prior to this, I and other community members have taken every legal avenue to raise the serious health, economic, and environmental concerns associated with the Inergy plant. However, time and again, we’ve been deterred from participating in the decision-making process.” Inergy had, she explained, shut down discussion of the suitability of Seneca salt caverns, potentially unstable, to the underground storage of tens of millions of gallons of natural gas. Having been declared proprietary business information, basic science on the geological integrity of the salt caverns was hidden. “How,” Steingraber asked, “can we offer informed public comments and raise scientific objection when we are denied this fundamental information?”
At that time Inergy was seeking fast-track approval for the project. Steingraber, and the community of citizens concerned about fracking, worried that regulators would pass the necessary permits through without the public being able to review relevent information. The potential risks could not be assessed without the impact of a series of combined projects being properly understood and presented for public review. She wanted to call attention to the fact that Inergy had not been in compliance with the Clean Water Act for the previous 12 quarters because of exceeding effluent discharge limits. The company was fined twice for $30,000. At sentencing Steingraber refused to pay her fine, of $250 and a $125 state surcharge, and was sentenced to 15 days in jail and released after 10.
One year ago her civil disobedience arrest brought natural gas activist Steingraber to national attention. “My small, non-violent act of trespass,” said Steingraber to the crowd present on Mar. 18, 2013 “is set against a larger, more violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into water and air and thereby into our bodies. This is a form of toxic trespass.” Steingraber spoke to Bill Moyers the day before her sentencing, and explained the ethical imperative community members felt, to call attention to the plans of Inergy to put highly pressurized liquid propane and butane, likely produced through fracking, into potentially unstable salt caverns. She spoke to Moyers about taking action to stop these “toxic trespassers.”
In 2014, Crestwood Midstream, a Houston company, has merged with Inergy Midstream. The plan calling for nearly 5 million barrels of propane and butane storage has been submitted for approval to both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the NY Department of Environmental Conservation. Crestwood revealed to share holders and the Securities and Exchange Commission, that they expect tens of millions of gallons of natural gas might be stored in the area. They say they hope to turn the Finger Lakes region into a gas storage and transport hub serving the Northeast.
The environmental legal advocacy group Earthjustice is lending their support on the issue, and concur with fears of risk held by the local community. Earthjustice Associate Attorney Moneen Nasmith noted that these caverns had seen a slab weighing 400 thousand tons fall from the roof of one of the caverns. Inergy and Crestwood maintain that the caverns are stable and hold no risk of instability. The movement protesting the Seneca Lake storage facility has grown significantly. A de facto moratorium holds steady in New York and there are substantial mobilization in states where fracking already occurs (e.g. California) or may (e.g. Maryland). Steingraber is involved in both mobilizations.
Last month over 100 small-business owners and employees gathered at a forum sponsored by the group Gas Free Seneca to voice their opposition to the proposed storage facility, including many representatives of the wine and tourist industries in the region. Throughout the state, there is increased awareness of the massive infrastructure required to support expanded natural gas development made possible by fracking, and, as has become clear in recent weeks, the possibility of export of U.S. natural gas abroad. Steingraber remains focused on these issues, as a de facto moratorium on fracking itself holds in New York but could change at any time.
Activist Sandra Steingraber, one year after her civil disobedience arrest, remains a very important leader and activist in the natural gas, public participation process. According to sources, Steingraber stands behind her personal decision to practice civil disobedience. Her online projects have generated tens of thousands of public comments on issues that could have easily slipped past the public’s awareness, such as this past year’s draft regulations on liquefied natural gas infrastructure in New York State.
By Lawrence Shapiro