Three upstate New York community members-cum-activists, charged with criminal trespass for blockading a gas company installation last month, were sentenced to 15 days in jail on Wednesday by a local judge in an upstate courthouse.
Among those sentenced was university biology professor and author Sandra Steingraber, who delivered an impassioned statement ahead of the sentencing explaining why she was compelled to civil disobedience and why she would refuse to pay the fine levied by the judge.
"My small, non-violent act of trespass," said Steingraber to the crowd, "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."
Speaking with journalist Bill Moyers just one day prior to the sentencing, Steingraber explained why she and other community members felt in necessary to protest "plans to store millions of barrels of highly-pressurized liquid propane and butane — gases produced in the controversial process of fracking — in [local] salt caverns."
Also sentenced on Wednesday were massage therapist Melissa Chapman and local farm owner Michael Dineen.
The courtroom at sentencing, according to reports, was brimming over with more than 150 supporters and onlookers.
The gas compression site they were blockading, owned by Missouri-based Inergy corporation, is part of an underground 'gas storage operation' near the region's Seneca Lake, which provides drinking water for more than 100,000 area residents.
Opponents of the project, including those sentenced, say the project is a danger to families, farms and the health of the local ecosystem. In addition, they contend, Inergy has continually undermined safety regulations and blocked calls attempts to compell disclosure of vital information about the nature of the project.
"I do not take this step lightly," said Michael Dineen, reflecting on his own actions. "My wife and I have a small farm in Seneca County. We grow organic grains and maintain a large garden we use to feed our and our daughter’s families. Our garden is irrigated with lake water. 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."
Local Channel 34 News explained the case's background:
On March 18, Steingraber and 10 fellow residents of the Seneca Lake region, in a peaceful act of civil disobedience, blockaded a gas compressor station site run by Missouri-based Inergy, LLP, on Seneca Lake. They did so to demonstrate their opposition to Inergy’s planned heavy industrialization of the Finger Lakes region, renowned for its natural beauty, vineyards, and tourism- and agriculture-based economy.
Inergy’s gas storage and transportation project in the Town of Reading, right on Seneca Lake, threatens the water supply for 100,000 people.
All 11 protesters, along with a legal liaison, were arrested and charged with trespassing.
On April 17, Judge Raymond Berry of the Town of Reading imposed a fine of $375 for trespassing for Chipman, Dineen, and Steingraber, the three people appearing that evening. All three refused to pay (their statements are attached), and the judge ordered that each spend 15 days in jail.
Steingraber's full sentencing statement follows:
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Good afternoon. My name is Sandra Steingraber. I’m a biologist and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College. I’m 53 years old and the mother of an 11-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. I’m married to an art teacher, and we all live in the village of Trumansburg, which is about 15 miles to the northeast, as the crow flies.
On March 18, 2013, together with 11 other local residents, I stood in the driveway of this site, which is owned by the Kansas City-based energy company called Inergy and located on the west bank of Seneca Lake. In so doing, I broke the law and am charged with trespassing. Before my arrest, I and the others with whom I linked arms, temporarily blocked a truck carrying a drill head from going where it wanted to go. This is my first experience with civil disobedience. Here is an explanation of my actions.
First, and most importantly, this act of civil disobedience is a last resort for me. 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. For example, Inergy has declared the geological history of the salt caverns to be proprietary business information, so that much of the basic science on the structural integrity of the salt caverns is hidden from view. How can we offer informed public comments and raise scientific objection when we are denied this fundamental information?
Inergy has asked for fast-track FERC approval and that we fear that authorities are poised to rubber stamp these applications before the public has had a chance to review all the relevant information and the full impacts of these combined projects have been considered.
This act of civil disobedience was also undertaken to bring attention to the fact that this company has been out of compliance with the Clean Water Act every quarter for the last 12 quarters—which is as far back as the data go–exceeding its effluent discharge limit. For this behavior, the company has been fined, not once, but twice, to the tune of over $30,000.
Effluent discharge means that the company dumps chemicals directly into Seneca Lake, which is a source of drinking water for 100,000 people.
It is my belief that paying trivial fines does not excuse the crime of salting the lake. And it’s because I have such a high respect for the rule of law that I will be choosing not to pay a fine for my act of trespassing and will instead will show responsibility by accepting a jail sentence.
Second, I seek by my actions to shine a spotlight on the dangerous practice of converting abandoned salt caverns into storage containers for highly pressurized hydrocarbon gases, namely propane and butane. Legal or not, this practice is tantamount to burying giant cigarette lighters in the earth.
This form of liquefied petroleum gas storage has a troubled safety record. Leaks, explosions, and collapses have occurred in at least ten other places. Additionally, the fleets of diesel trucks and the planned 60 ft. high flare stack—even absent calamitous accidents—will add hazardous air pollutants to our communities. Thus, 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.
Lastly, I desire to bring attention to the rapid build-out of fracking infrastructure in New York. Even as we are engaged in a statewide conversation about whether our governor should maintain or lift the current moratorium on shale gas extraction via horizontal fracking in New York, technology that further entrenches our dependency on shale gas—pipelines, storage, compressor stations, processing plants—is being rapidly deployed. These infrastructure investments make fracking in New York State more likely and aid and abet fracking in other states, where it is associated with sickness and misery among people causes devastation to land, water, and air quality.
In a time of climate emergency, the transformation of the Finger Lakes into a massive transportation and storage hub for climate-destroying fossil fuel gases that have been fracked out shale in other states is the absolute wrong form of development.
I am a biologist, not a lawyer. But when I looked up my crime on Wikipedia, here is what it said:
Trespass to land involves the wrongful interference with one’s possessory rights in [real] property. William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England articulated the common law principle… translating from Latin as “for whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell.” In modern times, courts have limited the right of absolute dominion over the subsurface. For instance, drilling a directional well that bottoms out beneath another’s property to access oil and gas reserves is trespass, but a subsurface invasion by hydraulic fracturing is not [emphasis added].
In other words, trespassing laws are unjust. They make a criminals of people who stand on a lakeshore purchased by an out-of-state fossil fuel company only interested in the hollowed out salt chambers that lie 1500 feet beneath the surface, while, at the same time, allowing drilling and fracking operations to tunnel freely under homes, farms, and aquifers, shatter our bedrock, and pump the shards full of toxic chemicals.
I broke the law by standing in a privately owned driveway. Fossil fuel companies are not breaking the law by trespassing into the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and so creating planetary crisis. There are the disparities that I seek to communicate with my actions and, out of respect for the fidelity of law, with my willingness to accept a jail sentence rather than pay a fine.
As a working mother of two school-aged children, this is a decision I have reached after much discernment.