"Clean Air and Clean Water are Civil Rights," was the message as dozens of protesters, taking up the call for civil disobedience in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, continued their months-long blockade of a natural gas facility near the shores of Seneca Lake in upstate New York.
The group is protesting plans to turn the region's salt caverns into a storage facility for gases extracted during fracking operations. Despite strong local opposition and what the group says are "grave" geological and public health concerns, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently approved construction of the storage infrastructure on the west side of Seneca Lake.
With the Martin Luther King Jr. Day demonstration, the diverse group of protesters paid homage to the lessons learned from the civil rights movement.
"We believe, just as the civil rights marchers must have, that a small group of people taking a stand and showing determination and bravery can achieve something huge," Sandra Steingraber, Ithaca College biologist and co-founder of the grassroots group We Are Seneca Lake, told Common Dreams.
Emboldened by New York's recently announced fracking ban, the group intends to continue the demonstrations as long as Crestwood poses a threat to the health of the community and local environment. However, they see their fight as part of a larger war against an economy and infrastructure rooted in the exploitation of fossil fuels.
"Civil rights marchers didn't try to desegregate every single lunch counter across the South," Steingraber explains. "They planted their flag in one lunch counter and tried to make it a national story. We're trying to do that here."
This fossil fuel infrastructure project is one "among many," she adds, "but this is where we are planting our flag."
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Among those who took part in Monday's 3.5-hour long blockade or rallied in support of the blockaders were a 90-year-old woman, an 83-year-old polio survivor, and former Tompkins County legislator Pamela Mackesey, who marched with King as a teenager in 1963 and who was one of the 20 protesters charged with trespassing and released. The demonstrators are due to appear in court on February 18.
The coalition of concerned residents is seeking an injunction and rehearing on the risks posed by Crestwood's plan and are calling on U.S. Senators Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), as well as other officials, to intervene.
Seneca Lake, one of the deepest lakes in the nation, is the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. According to Steingraber, its unique geology moderates the temperatures in the area and allows the region's $4.8 billion wine industry to flourish.
"This is a story about ordinary people standing up for a lake that turns water into wine, as well as being a source of drinking water and source of beauty," said Steingraber.
Referencing a concept of King's, Steingraber says that their "beloved community" is pitted against a Texas-based energy company that is "only interested in our holes in the ground" to be used as a "gas station for fracking."
The below videos show demonstrators singing civil rights songs and the arrests during the MLK Day blockade.