Charges Dismissed ‘In the Interest of Justice’ for 42 Seneca Lake Gas Storage Protesters

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Mar 192015


Charges Dismissed ‘In the Interests of Justice’ for 42 Seneca Lake Gas Storage Protesters
Mariah Plumlee | March 19, 2015 10:57 am | Comments

[Author’s Note: As this goes to press, Reverend Nancy Kasper’s charges were dismissed in the interest of justice. She was one of 42 dismissals at the Reading Town Court on March 18.  Reverend Kasper will still go to trial for her second arrest.]

It was 4 degrees on February 23, on the drive from Mecklenburg to the Reading Town Court. It had become a familiar route. Since October, I’ve been part of a local movement protesting the expansion of gas storage beside Seneca Lake by a company called Crestwood Midstream. The argument is a familiar one. People against the expansion cite environmental concerns: unstable caverns with a history of collapse, air quality issues and their associated health risks, increased train and truck traffic. Local winemakers are concerned about their grapes, being sullied by an industry known for its cavalier destruction.

To date, there have been 216 arrests at the gates of Crestwood. Since November, I have watched musicians, professors, nurses, teachers, bakers, chefs, psychologists, farmers, philosophers, business owners, winemakers and parents face charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct at the Reading Town Court. It is, my husband says, my miniseries.

The best part of the drive is heading west on 79 out of Burdett when the lake just appears. Boom. Like a guy jumping out of a cake. I grew up downstate, in a family that eschewed fresh water for salt. I find it hard to trust water that doesn’t move with the moon. (I once burst into tears at a gas station in Queens because I could smell the ocean). My children, however, were born here. Ignorant of sand up their swimsuits, or being caught in a dead man’s roll, they make piles of shale on Lodi Point every summer, squawking with excitement when a boat goes by, and for a moment, there is a wave. They are lake people. Headed down the hill, the lake was on my right, massive and unapologetic. It was so cold I was driving with my gloves still on.

Today was Reverend Nancy Kasper’s trial. She pled not guilty at her arraignment, and chose to go to trial with a public defender. For a violation, there is no jury, just the judge, which I have learned, is called a bench trial. The deputy at the door of the courthouse asked me if I was there for an arraignment or if I was ‘just visiting”. This is the euphemism he uses every time he sees me, though I am attending a public trial, in a public building. Then it was time for the search. I held my arms out in a T, and told him I’d left my phone in the car. We both agreed that I didn’t have any weapons or bombs on me. He outlined my down coat with the metal detector, and it beeped its assent. All I had on me were mechanical pencils.

I’ve been attending these court proceedings for two reasons. One: moral outrage. Jamming fracked gases into unstable caverns under one of the biggest sources of freshwater in the state, in the heart of a thriving, award winning wine industry is madness. Two: Gratitude. I came of age in a world without trustworthy role models. My heart has grown three sizes watching the people here stand up to defend their home, their water. They have given me the beginnings of faith. So I show up.

There were a handful of people in the courtroom: a few Seneca Lake Defenders that I knew; Barry Moon, the director of operations at Crestwood; and a young man in a dark suit and hair product sitting beside him. He never identified himself.

Wesley Roe, Reverend Kasper’s public defender, started things off by reminding Judge Berry that he had passed a motion requesting an expert witness. His argument, he said, was two-pronged. One, the Reverend had acted on a belief of imminent harm, and two, that harm was real. In order to show this, he said specific testimony was necessary from an expert witness.

John Tunney, the assistant District Attorney, took issue with Mr. Roe’s request, saying, “justification is not an applicable defense.” The question, he said, was not why the defendant had trespassed, but whether or not she had trespassed. Judge Berry said he agreed with ADA Tunney and that there would be no expert witness.

Judge Berry went on to say that in his understanding the application for construction of a compressor station had not yet been approved by the DEC. Roe reminded him that FERC had approved Crestwood’s request to expand their current methane storage to 2 billion cubic feet last summer. Judge Berry still would not allow the expert witness.

Mr. Tunney called Barry Moon and Deputy Eberhardt to testify. Mr. Moon, who is the Director of Operations at Crestwood, has worked for the company for the last 27 years, since they were Bath Petroleum. He is familiar with the physical plant, and involved with the wells and layout of salt and gas facilities. He told us about the NO TRESPASSING signs at the site and that the protestors did not have Crestwood’s permission to be on the property. He was working at the brine field on November 19, 2014, when he was informed that the gate was being blocked. He made the official complaint to the police that resulted in Rev. Kasper’s arrest, among others. This was my first time seeing Barry Moon in the flesh. He wore a striped shirt and corduroy pants. He was unassuming and polite while on the stand. I wondered what he really thought about all of this.

Deputy Eberhardt described the scene at the site of the arrest and identified Rev. Kasper as one of the people blockading the south gate. Mr. Roe asked him if the blockaders were doing any harm. Mr. Tunney objected to that line of questioning. Mr. Roe was finally allowed to ask Mr. Eberhardt if the protestors had been compliant. “Did they resist? Were they reasonable? Did they answer your questions?” They had not resisted, they were compliant.

Reverend Kasper testified on her own behalf. Tall and neatly dressed, she spoke calmly with clarity. She said she was compelled as a mother and as a citizen of this planet to protect our future. She spoke of mass extinctions and environmental degradation, about being a minister, and the harm that she has witnessed to the earth over the course of her lifetime. She said she put her body in the way of progress, that … But Tunney stopped her before she was finished, saying, “I have tried to be indulgent. I understand the point. It is not unfounded. I am objecting on the subject of relevance.” The only thing that mattered, he argued, was that she admitted to trespassing. Mr. Roe urged Judge Berry to dismiss the charges in the interest of justice. Mr. Tunney insisted that was a pretrial motion and couldn’t be requested now. Mr. Roe objected to the preclusion of his expert witness and asked again how imminent harm could possibly be irrelevant. He got no answer from Judge Berry.

The court was adjourned. I asked Mr. Tunney to explain his argument about the justification defense not being relevant. He said in Section 35 subdivision 2 of the Penal Code it says that under certain circumstances criminal conduct may be justified and reasonable and necessary to avoid imminent harm, such as a man breaking into a house that is on fire to save a child’s life. As an example, he mentioned a case down state where some people had blocked a bulldozer in an attempt to save a park from destruction, but they did so 7 hours before the demolition was to begin. They could have used those 7 hours to call a lawyer and get an injunction, Mr. Tunney explained to me, so they therefore could not use the justification defense. Rev. Kasper’s case was even more pronounced, he said, as it had been several months since her arrest, with no new developments at the construction site.

I drove back the way I had come, my face smarting from the short walk to the car. The wind had picked up, and the air was exquisitely painful. The lake was on my left now. Tidal or not, the sight of all water was comforting. Still a liquid, holding strong at 32 degrees. A warm spot. A 600-foot deep, forty-mile long warm spot. Even now, in this harsh winter, the lake was moderating the climate for us. A miracle.

‘I have tried to be indulgent,’ Tunney had said, as he interrupted Nancy. I have indulged many a toddler in my career, and I know that telling them they are being indulged is the final flourish on the manipulation. He didn’t have to let her talk about why she trespassed, but he did. For a little while.

State Route 14 south merged from two lanes into one and I eased in behind a truck. It was hard to keep my attention on the road, rendered a gray by the salt, boring compared to the shifting textures and tones out on the lake. There was wind out there, slicing the water into pieces of light. I ran through the words for blue that I knew: Cobalt. Cerulean. Aegean. Azure. Ultramarine. Sapphire. Lapis. None of them were accurate enough for what I saw. Take all the words for blue, put them into a kaleidoscope, look straight into a cold sun. That’s what color it was.

I thought about Mr. Tunney’s definition of imminent harm, how small it was. Nancy Kasper, on the other hand, made the issue big. Big like the lake is big. She had big reasons for risking arrest. Our water, our soil, is at the very root of what this place is, and why we are able to live here. Tunney said our concerns weren’t unfounded. Why isn’t he fighting for us? Why is the DA’s office protecting an industry that considers the lake, the grapes, and the farms an insubstantive issue?

Of the 216 arrests that have occurred, Reverend Kasper’s trial is the first. She is the first voice of many to publically stand trial in an attempt to protect their home, their water. They aren’t going to stop, those clear, calm voices. The water was still on my left as I put my Subaru in fourth to get up the hill. Soon it would be behind me, just out of sight.



Gas storage at Seneca Lake fuels outrage and support

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Jan 172015

Opponents cite safety, environmental concerns; supporters point to need for additional storage of natural, liquified petroleum gases

Ray Finger, | @SGRayFinger 4:56 p.m. EST January 16, 2015


The continuing uproar in the Finger Lakes region over storage of natural and liquefied petroleum gases in salt caverns at Seneca Lake shows no sign of resolution anytime soon.

The furor is over construction plans by Crestwood Midstream Partners to expand natural gas storage and add LPG storage in existing caverns on the lake’s western shore. Gas would be withdrawn during the heating season, with the facility connected to an interstate pipeline and options to ship by truck and rail.

Supporters of the project say gas has been stored in the caverns safely for many years, and that the LPG facility will protect propane customers from price fluctuations while meeting the needs of homes and businesses because propane is not produced in the state.

Opponents of both storage plans see a threat to their safety, health, drinking water supply and the economic sustainability of the region’s hospitality industry because of the potential for heavier industrialization.

“People are very passionate about what’s going on,” said state Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, whose district includes Schuyler County and who has not taken a position on Crestwood’s LPG plans. “Without question, it’s one of the most emotional, passionate issues that I’ve seen.”

And there’s no end in sight to all of the wrangling.

So far, 180 protesters participating in the We Are Seneca Lake civil disobedience campaign have been arrested at the gates of the Crestwood facility in the Town of Reading, about 2 miles north of Watkins Glen.

Those arrested are among more than 300 people who have been trained in protest tactics that include nonviolence, said Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.

More than 1,000 people have signed a pledge to protect the lake, meaning there are 700 people who haven’t been trained yet, she said.

“We can keep this thing going for quite a long time, and we intend to do so,” said Steingraber, who was arrested at a protest on Oct. 29.

The most recent protest campaign began on Oct. 23 in the wake of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s conditional approval on Sept. 30 of Crestwood’s plans to expand methane storage.

“This civil disobedience campaign was born at the gates of the compressor station site the day after this project received approval,” Steingraber said. “Our intent is to prevent the construction and to attract national attention to reverse that what we think was a wrong decision.”

Crestwood has not begun construction on the propane storage project or the FERC-approved natural gas storage expansion, so protestors are really only interfering with the local salt business, said Bill Gautreaux, the company’s president of liquids and crude.

Cost of protests

While local officials have said they appreciate people’s right to protest, it doesn’t come without cost to Schuyler County.

Timothy O’Hearn, Schuyler County administrator, said he asked county Sheriff Bill Yessman Jr. to track the county’s expenses regarding the protests and arrests. Though he does not have a cumulative total, he is able to speak to individual protest events:

The county’s law enforcement cost ranges from $500 to $1,000 per event, depending on the size of the group and number of arrests made. That does not include the cost of state police, village police or other law enforcement agencies that have also been involved.

The county spends $400 on average for each court night to staff the court with deputies.

“We don’t have an abundance of staff, so bringing people in for court is overtime,” O’Hearn said.

When it comes to jail time, female inmates cost the county more because they have to boarded in other jails and that also involves transportation costs. On average, the cost for both male and female prisoners is $100 per day, per person.

“None of this is a budgeted expense, so it is something the sheriff and the taxpayers are having to absorb,” he said.

The protests are affecting more than Schuyler County, Yessman said, noting assistance was needed from Yates County during one protest.

“I think the only thing that would make this go away at this point is if Crestwood packed up and left, which isn’t going to happen,” Yessman said when asked if there was any way this situation could be resolved.

“These people are really passionate about their cause, and I don’t find fault with that. Everybody has a cause out there in one way or another,” he said. “But I don’t see the civil disobedience advancing their cause any.”

Varied motivation

The protesters don’t represent a single demographic, Steingraber said.

“Different people who are participating are motivated very differently,” she said. “Many people are animated by the assault on their source of drinking water and are interested in protecting the lake.”

Others are angry because they see the project as part of a climate emergency and want to shut the door to dirty energy, Steingraber said. “They see this as a step in the wrong direction.”

For some professional musicians, Seneca Lake and the Finger Lakes region is a beautiful place that inspires them, she said. “It feels like such a transgression to build out something ugly and primitive and brutal on our shores.”

She has also heard teachers talk about the threat to children posed by the gas storage facility, such as tanker trucks filled with hazardous materials on the road when teenagers are learning to drive. Others complained about air pollution from the flare stacks and methane leaks that would increase childhood asthma, she said.

Many grandparents are motivated by their obligation to protect the lake and the region for future generations, while younger protesters in their late teens feel strongly that all the risks of the project are going to accrue to them, Steingraber said.

Many who have been arrested have been winery or bed-and-breakfast owners who see the wineries as the source of the region’s economic sustainability, she said. Fewer people will be attracted to a cottage on the lake if the area is heavily industrialized, with flare stacks, the noise of compressor stations and security lights along the banks, she said.

Scott Signori, owner and executive chef of the Stonecat Café in Hector, said his livelihood is tied into the tourist industry, the wine trail and this region being a beautiful area to vacation. Storing liquid propane under pressure right on the lake is just an awful idea, he said.

“If Crestwood becomes what, in their own words, would be the Northeast hub for propane storage, to me, that’s a conflict of interest. You can’t have it be a beautiful tourist area and have thousands of trucks coming in and using it as a gas station,” said Signori, who was among protesters arrested Dec. 1.

“There are also safety concerns about the water supply. The restaurant gets its water from the lake, as do most of the wineries, and the storage facility is right on the lake,” he said. “Nobody has even guaranteed the safety of it. To me, it’s just absurd for them to do it without knowing that it’s safe. It’s on a fault line. It’s right on the lake.”

But Jim Franzese, owner of Longhouse Lodge Motel and Manor in Watkins Glen, doesn’t see a problem and considers it all a matter of common sense.

“We’ve been storing gas in salt mines for years and years and years, right up the street. To me, it’s a non-issue. I mean, the gas came out of the ground. We’re just putting it back in the ground. What’s the big deal?” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. All these people and these predictions about all these catastrophes are so unfounded and untrue. It’s just crazy.”

FERC has said the self-sealing nature of the salt formation and the several hundred meters of rock above the caverns ensures no leakage, and that the walls of a salt cavern also have the structural strength of steel, according to, a collaboration between the New York Propane Gas Association and Crestwood.

Environmental review

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Conservation continues its environmental review of the planned LPG facility on a portion of Crestwood’s 576-acre site. A draft permit for the project was issued on Nov. 10.

Public comment will be received on the proposed project at an issues conference scheduled by the DEC for 10 a.m. Feb. 12 and, if necessary, Feb. 13 at the Horseheads Holiday Inn Express, 2666 Corning Road. The objective of the conference is to determine if there are any significant and substantive issues that would require an adjudicatory hearing.

We Are Seneca Lake is focusing on the methane storage increase approved by the federal agency, Steingraber said. They oppose all gas storage but feel they still have redress of grievance through lawful channels for the LPG project, especially with the special issues conference, she said.

Another group, Gas Free Seneca, had been fighting both the methane and LPG storage issues but is now focused on LPG, co-founder Joseph Campbell said.

“We kind of exhausted our legal recourse with the natural gas storage expansion, so now we have to shift focus to the LPG,” he said. “It’s a much larger footprint, much more invasive and much more dangerous, really. We have a shot at stopping it.”

Accompanied by business owners and local elected representatives, Gas Free Seneca went to Albany last summer and met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s staff, Campbell said. “We must have made an impression on somebody because they’re scheduling the issues conference now,” he said.

Dennis Fagan, R-Tyrone, chairman of the Schuyler County Legislature, has been criticized for the legislature’s vote in June to support Crestwood Midstream’s LPG storage facility plans. He also points to next month’s issues conference.

“I’m sure that the experts from both sides will be providing input to the state,” he said. “Let the decisions be made based on science, as opposed to subjective feelings.”

Of course, that will depend on whose science is believed.

Don Siegel, a Syracuse University professor and hydrogeologist/geochemist, said the Seneca Lake storage site has unique geologic attributes that protect the environment.

“I can think of no better geological environment in New York state to store liquid gas than salt caverns filled with brine,” he wrote in a March 12, 2013, letter to DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens. “Indeed, if ‘proof is in the pudding,’ brine-filled salt caves near Seneca Lake already have been used to store liquid gas for decades and have had no problems.”

The engineering design of the brine pits is more than sound, and existing LPG facilities in salt in the Southern Tier that have less engineered controls than the one proposed at Seneca Lake do not leak after years of use, Siegel wrote.

“There are many environmental problems people should be concerned about, but I see no plausible scientific or engineering reason why this proposed LPG storage facility should be one of them,” he said.

But Dr. Rob Mackenzie, of Hector, retired president and CEO of Cayuga Medical Center, sees it differently. Speaking as a private citizen, he cited his training and experience in health safety work in discussing his findings to quantify the safety risk of gas storage.

He found the risk over 25 years is about 35 percent for an extremely serious or catastrophic salt cavern facility disaster, such as fire with explosion, deaths with multiple injuries, temporary or permanent evacuation and major property loss. The riskiest caverns are older ones with geology like those in Schuyler County, he said.

Regarding the hazards of transporting liquefied petroleum gas, MacKenzie said he found the overall risk over 25 years to be 42 percent, he said.

“The only way to significantly reduce these risks is to not store volatile fuels in Schuyler County’s salt caverns,” he said earlier.

Since the 1980s, the number of salt cavern storage sites developed in the United States has grown steadily, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. Most salt cavern storage facilities were developed in salt dome formations located in Gulf Coast states.

In 2012, there were 26 natural underground gas storage facilities and three LPG storage facilities in New York state, concentrated in the central and western regions near both gas production fields and gas transmission facilities, the DEC said.

“The Northeast propane market lacks adequate infrastructure to serve consumers during peak winter demand, and it’s unnecessarily costing New Yorkers tens of millions of dollars,” Crestwood’s Gautreaux said in an email. “New York households paid more than $100 million of higher costs last winter that could have been avoided if our Finger Lakes storage facility had been in operation. It offers a safe, cost-effective solution to a problem that has plagued New Yorkers far too often.”

Higher costs resulting from propane shortages and the higher cost of rail and truck transport could be averted with the Seneca Lake facility, and savings from lower costs would be passed on to consumers, according to

FERC has repeatedly approved natural gas storage projects using salt caverns in the same formation as US Salt’s caverns at Seneca Lake, says.

Also, propane and natural gas have been stored safely in US Salt’s caverns for about 20 years, and propane has been stored underground without incident in Steuben and Cortland counties since the 1950s, the site says.

Constituents split

State Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats, said he has heard both sides of the LPG issue from constituents.

“I support the project if it can be done safely, based on DEC’s review,” he said. “This process has been going on for four years now. I’m not supplanting my decision-making for DEC’s. It’s up to them to determine the environmental and safety aspects of this.”

Having LPG storage in the region will save money for propane users, O’Mara said.

“If you have a closer delivery point to serve the region, you’re going to save on transportation cost. Just having that reserve helps the fluctuations in price. I believe very strongly in diversifying our energy portfolio and having things built in to avoid spiked prices. We certainly saw the spike in prices for LPG least year,” he said.

“The arguments are ‘it isn’t going to create any jobs,’ but it is going to create a great deal of tax base, which all of our local governments will find great assistance from in that area in helping with the property tax base,” O’Mara said, noting the New York Farm Bureau recently came out in favor of the LPG project.

In a Jan. 6 letter, Dean Norton, farm bureau president, notified Martens of the organization’s support following a majority vote at its annual state meeting last month. The proposed facility aligns with the group’s interests, he said.

“It will help lower propane costs for our members, help avoid temporary shortages from arising during the winter months and strengthen our communities by creating jobs and growing the tax base for a county that is in significant need of additional funds for schools, roads and community services,” he wrote.

Palmesano said has met with people at town meetings and at his office who have expressed opposition to the project. He has contacted the DEC and relayed the concerns to make sure they are addressed in the evaluation and risk analysis, he said.

“It’s certainly a very hot-button issue. It’s a very emotional issue, and I think part of the frustration probably on both sides is that it has taken so long to get to a decision on this,” he said. “They’re going to have to address this issue sooner or later.”

Palmesano said he understands the arguments and that questions are being raised.

“Certainly, we know what we went through with the propane shortage from last year,” he said.

“I know there are concerns being raised about truck traffic, although I think a lot of those trucks would be done more in the off-season, in the winter season, when the need for propane is greater, where they do more of their regional deliveries using trains and the pipeline,” he said.

Officials see the standoff over Crestwood’s plans continuing for the foreseeable future.

“Until an actual decision is made, I don’t see anything changing,” O’Hearn said. “It’s something we’re going to have to deal with — that we are dealing with, obviously.”

Follow Ray Finger on Twitter @SGRayFinger.

LPG issues conference

Supporters and opponents will soon have their say on a proposed liquefied petroleum gas facility at Crestwood Midstream Partners in the Schuyler County Town of Reading.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which issued a draft permit for the project, has scheduled an issues conference for 10 a.m. Feb. 12 and, if necessary, Feb. 13 at the Horseheads Holiday Inn Express, 2666 Corning Road. The objective of the issues conference is to determine if there are any significant and substantive issues that would require an adjudicatory hearing.

The deadline for individuals or groups to file to participate in the issues conference has already passed.

Supporters, opponents speak out

Supporters and opponents of a proposed liquefied petroleum gas facility at Crestwood Midstream Partners

in the Town of Reading have posted information online about their respective positions.

A civil disobedience campaign, We Are Seneca Lake, continues in opposition to the Federal Energy

Regulatory Commission’s conditional approval on Sept. 30 of Crestwood’s plans to expand methane storage in salt caverns at Seneca Lake.