By Wenonah Hauter
It all began taking shape back in March of 2013, when Sandra Steingraber — the noted biologist, author, educator and advisor of Americans Against Fracking — and 11 other courageous individuals were arrested for blockading the entrance to a natural gas compressor station on the banks of Seneca Lake, in the environmentally sensitive Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. These so-called “Seneca Lake 12” were simply doing what countless other Americans have done over generations when they knew their health and safety were threatened, when their elected leaders weren’t there to help, and when they had no other choice: they stood up for their neighbors, their families and themselves, and were hauled off to jail. Sandra spent 10 days behind bars after defiantly refusing to pay a fine.
The narrative of the Seneca Lake 12 is becoming all too familiar, as concerned residents across the nation are often finding no legal means of resistance against the incessant development of dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure spurred on by fracking. Thanks to the decimation of campaign finance laws by the U.S. Supreme Court, state and federal politicians have become increasingly bought off by the unlimited wealth of the oil and gas industry. As such, pleas from desperate local officials and community groups to reject hazardous infrastructure projects fall on deaf ears.
As for FERC, the federal commission charged with regulating the construction and operation of our nation’s energy supply, forget about it. The faceless, bureaucratic agency is simply a machine-like rubber stamp for the whims of the fossil fuel industry and a president who usually backs them.
And so, the numerous infrastructure components required to support and enhance the productivity of fracking operations – pipelines, compressor stations, toxic waste facilities, export terminals, etc. – are sprouting up and branching out through our communities at an alarming rate. The compressor stations, in particular, are downright nasty to live near. They’re intolerably loud, and they regularly emit vast plumes of toxic gasses, including benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide, into surrounding environs.
Which brings us back to the Seneca Lake 12, arrested last March for an act of civil disobedience that sought to draw attention to the hazards inherent in a new Inergy (subsequently bought by Texas-based Crestwood-Midstream) compressor station on Seneca Lake, in Reading, New York. Were this any typical gas compressor station about to come on line, community resistance to it would be fully understandable. Though this was no ordinary compressor station.
The Crestwood facility is intended to serve a much more audacious industry goal. The intended expansion project aims to compress and pump billions of cubic feet of natural gas, and millions of gallons of liquid petroleum gas, into vast, underground salt caverns that lie along Seneca Lake. These unlined salt caverns have existed for more than a century. The underground caverns abut the pristine lake, one of New York State’s largest drinking water sources. The repurposing of caverns like these are known to leak, collapse and explode. All fracked gas infrastructure is dangerous and polluting. Salt cavern storage is simply absurd.
Flash forward to October 24, 2014: FERC has just approved – rubber-stamped – Crestwood’s plan to ramp up operation at the Seneca Lake compressor station and salt caverns, and construction is authorized to begin. All means of local community appeal, veto or delay of the project, have been exhausted. And Sandra Steingraber and a dedicated, determined band of community members unwilling to be quietly dismissed are again blocking an entrance to the Seneca Lake Crestwood gas storage facility. Sandra wasn’t arrested again on Oct. 24, but she was a week later.
By early November, dozens of community members, organized and supported by the grassroots We Are Seneca Lake campaign, had been arrested for actions of nonviolent civil disobedience at Crestwood Seneca Lake. No doubt these courageous, intelligent demonstrations of community resistance and education will continue and expand at Seneca Lake, and in countless locations nationwide. Until our elected leaders and government institutions stand up for the health and safety of all residents, and against the profiteering interests of the oil and gas industry, arrests will surely mount.
I am proud to stand in solidarity with Sandra Steingraber and all the brave, nonviolent activists in the Finger Lakes region, and all those engaged in similarly righteous acts of resistance and education elsewhere throughout the nation.