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Nightly Vigils Support Activists Jailed for Protesting Corporation's 'Toxic Trespass'

Sandra Steingraber, Melissa Chipman and Michael Dineen begin serving 15-day jail sentences

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Nightly vigils began Thursday in support of three activists serving 15-day jail sentences for their act of civil disobedience against the "toxic trespass" of hazardous chemicals by an energy company.

Sandra Steingraber speaking to Bill Moyers this week. (Screengrab) The jailed upstate New York activists/community members, biology professor, author and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber along with Melissa Chipman and Michael Dineen, the Ithaca Journal reports,

were among a dozen people, dubbed the “Seneca Lake 12,” who were arrested for trespassing at the Inergy natural gas storage facility on state Route 14 in Reading.

The 12, along with another dozen people, blocked the gates to protest Inergy’s plan to store natural gas and propane in salt caverns under Seneca Lake and what they see as the company’s plan to turn the region into a transportation hub for natural gas and propane shipments.

But using salt caverns for such storage has proven "catastrophic," Ellen Cantarow explains:

For millennia, salt has been mined for consumption and food preservation. The caverns, or disused mines, located a thousand feet and more beneath ground and water, are now being used for unconventional oil and gas storage, with catastrophic results. In Louisiana, the collapse of salt caverns used this way has resulted in massive seepage of gas and oil into surface and groundwater, necessitating the evacuation of whole communities. According to a report this past January, in 2002 salt caverns constituted only seven percent of the U.S.’s 407 underground gas storage sites. But between 1972 and 2004 they were responsible for all 10 of the catastrophic accidents involving gas storage.

For the past several years one of New York’s grassroots anti-fracking groups, Gas Free Seneca, has been trying to draw public attention to plans by a Missouri-based corporation, Inergy, LP, the U.S.’s largest energy storage and transportation corporation, to use two salt caverns located beside the lake for storing millions of gallons of unconventional gas. This would transform a New York State wonder, the historic Finger Lakes region, into the Northeast’s biggest gas storage and transportation hub, endangering the area’s ecology and the lives of residents.

Steingraber called the practice "tantamount to burying giant cigarette lighters in the earth."

Speaking to Bill Moyers a day before her sentencing, Steingraber said,

I believe, as do many of my colleagues in the sciences, that it’s not safe to compress explosive gases and store them underneath and beside a lake that serves as the drinking water for a hundred thousand people.  

And ahead of starting his jail term, Dineen also warned of the potential ecological catastrophe that could come with Inergy's plans:

I believe the Inergy gas storage complex will, at best, damage the community, and has the potential to do catastrophic damage. Important information has been kept from the public with the DEC’s cooperation. I do this to attempt to protect the community when all other means have failed. I blocked the entrance to the Inergy gas storage facility because I believe that the institutions who, by law and purpose, are required to protect the people and the environment from harm can no longer be relied on to do so."

In her sentencing statement, Steingraber highlighted how it is Ingery, not the activists, who are engaging in dangerous trespass, saying

my small, non-violent act of trespass 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.

She added to Moyers:

From my point of view as a biologist and a mother, this out-of-state company… is trespassing in our community.

In a letter from jail on Thursday, Steingraber wrote, in part:

If we do not want New York to become a prison of wellheads, pipelines and compressor stations; if we do not want the violence of climate change instability and mass species extinction; if we do not want to leave our children a diminished world bereft of frog song, bees, coral reefs, sea ice; then coming to a place as far removed from the rhythms of the natural world as a jail cell is not an inappropriate place to say so.

Environment and culture magazine Orion, where Steingraber is a columnist, posts this:

In lieu of letters to jail, Sandra asks supporters to direct their energies toward writing their local media outlets.

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