WRITE ON: Two rallies for one lake

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Jan 232015

WRITE ON: Two rallies for one lake

By MICHAEL FITZGERALD | Posted: Friday, January 23, 2015 5:05 pm

Finger Lakes Times, Geneva, NY


What a difference six months can make.

A regional rally of nearly 500 people marched through Watkins Glen last July to protest a narrowly approved Schuyler County Legislature resolution supporting liquid propane gas storage in unlined salt caverns on the west shore of Seneca Lake.

That county resolution urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to approve a proposal to store 88 million gallons of LPG in caverns three miles north of Watkins Glen.

Next Saturday, Jan. 31, Geneva will be the site of another regional rally. But this one is to make it clear the future of the lake is not solely in the hands of misguided Schuyler County elected officials.

The rally has also been organized to demonstrate the rapidly growing regional — and nearly unanimous — Finger Lakes solidarity against the project.

The Geneva rally will begin at Waterfront Park followed by a march through downtown (with a visit to GOP Congressman Tom Reed’s office) before ending up at Geneva City Hall.

Speakers include Seneca County’s Steve Churchill, environmental activist Sandra Steingraber, Geneva City Councilman Ken Camera and Doug Couchon, one of the key organizers of the “We Are Seneca Lake” group.

We Are Seneca Lake has been grabbing state and national headlines since October for its blockade and arrests at the Town of Reading site where Crestwood of Houston has federal approval to store natural gas and is seeking permits to add LPG — under high pressure — to its underground inventory.

Two hundred people had been arrested for trespassing as of Monday. Arrests continue almost daily.

The Geneva rally, dubbed “We Are Seneca Lake, Too,” is part of the run-up to the Feb. 12 state Department of Environmental Conservation issues conference in Horseheads.

James T. McClymonds, chief administrative law judge for the DEC, will be taking testimony from proponents and opponents.

If McClymonds believes the issues and evidence opposing a state permit for the LPG storage are weighty enough, he is expected to recommend a court hearing at a later date.

It’s like a playoff game. Everything is on the line for opponents who need to convince McClymonds to give them a day in court. The same for Crestwood, which wants the permits issued to start LPG storage in the caverns right away.

Among other issues, the danger posed to lake water quality is expected to be a key matter on the table. Seneca Lake currently provides water to more than 100,000 people.

While both sides have prepared their evidence and lined up a slew of experts to testify, the Schuyler County Legislature — the same legislature that voted to support the LPG storage in July — decided against becoming involved in the conference, instead opting to let gas industry lobbyists make their case for approval.

But in a surprise move, Schuyler legislators Michael Lausell, a Democrat, and Van Harp, a Republican, broke ranks with their colleagues and filed with the DEC to be allowed to offer evidence and testimony outlining concerns about sketchy safety protocols in the county to handle any propane storage related emergency.

Their action constitutes a political earthquake and directly challenges Dennis Fagan, just reelected legislative chair and an ardent booster of LPG storage. His support comes despite citizens’ demands he recuse himself from all gas matters because of a perceived conflict of interest. Fagan is up for reelection in November to keep his legislative seat.

The political case has been tightly stitched against the LPG storage with each rally, the regional alliance, official government-backed resolutions, arrests and overwhelming public opposition.

If the scientific case presented Feb. 12 is as strong, perhaps the next regional rallies will be celebrations of making it through this playoff.

Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He lives in Valois and Watkins Glen with his wife. They are owner/operators of a publishing enterprise called *subject2change Media. His “Write On” column appears Fridays. He can be contacted at Michael.Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com.


WRITE ON: Shrubbery over citizens

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Jan 172015

WRITE ON: Shrubbery over citizens

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2015 5:05 pm

The Town of Reading’s elected officials have failed a real-world civics test three times in less than a month.

They locked the public out of the Reading Town Hall — a town hall paid for, maintained and heated with taxpayers’ dollars — on Dec. 17, on Jan. 7, and then again Tuesday, each time leaving as many as 50 people outside in bitter winter cold.

On Jan. 7 and Tuesday, the wind chill dropped the effective temperature to well below zero.

While people shivered outside, a judge in a toasty-warm courtroom (with very limited seating) heard cases against people facing trespassing charges for blocking the gates at the Crestwood salt-cavern gas storage site on Route 14.

But the spacious (and also well-heated) town hall room was kept vacant, except for two Schuyler County Sheriff’s Deputies, charged with keeping the people outside from entering the building while also guarding the courtroom.

Until the weather turned really cold in December, the town hall meeting space outside the courtroom was open to these same citizens, many of whom were either waiting to go into the court themselves or there to support arrestees.

But according to one town official, board members got their knickers in a twist when someone accidentally stepped on some decorative plants outside.

Town Supervisor Marvin Switzer said the town board told him it won’t stand for people damaging “the shrubbery” and ordered the lockdown of the hall.

How the town’s shrubbery is protected by locking citizens out of a public building in the middle of winter is a tangle of such illogic it seems impossible to unravel. Impossible unless the town board’s deliberate, mean-spirited action has its real roots in board members’ pique at the Crestwood protesters.

Since the massive natural gas and liquid propane gas storage project was first proposed, the Town of Readinghas behaved as if persons unwilling to join them as boosters of salt-cavern gas-storage are annoyances, not concerned citizens with a differing opinion.

Early in the debate several years ago, the town planning board suspended all public comments about gas storage. Other topics were welcome for comment, for questions or to engage the planners in discussion. But any utterance mentioning gas storage would rile the chairman to angrily demand silence.

That Reading slap at the free speech clause of First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been eclipsed with this freeze-the-public maneuver. It’s a not-very-subtle attempt to thwart the public’s constitutional right to assemble.

In addition to locking people out on Dec. 17, no parking signs were posted on the roads around the town hall, ostensibly for safety reasons. More likely they were to discourage people from attending court or a peaceful anti-gas storage rally because the signs haven’t appeared in Reading for other recent events.

In the wake of these disgraceful incidents, the members of the Reading Town Board need to brush up on their civic responsibilities as elected representatives whose duty is to serve the public, not just those people they choose to favor based on politics.

Differences of opinion about the safety and suitability of the Houston-based company’s natural gas and proposed LPG storage facility are part of the healthy give and take of democracy.

Had the Schuyler County Legislature done its civic duty four years ago and led discussions and debate about the project, the nearly 200 people arrested for trespassing might not be visiting the Reading Court at all.

But it didn’t and so now it’s time for the Town of Reading to reread (or read for the first time) the pertinent sections of the U.S. Constitution and then adjust its civic priorities.

Priority should be given to the health and welfare of citizens and for the lawful right of citizens to assemble, not to protect ornamental shrubbery.

Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He lives in Valois and Watkins Glen with his wife. They are owner/operators of a publishing enterprise called *subject2change Media. His “Write On” column appears Fridays. He can be contacted atMichael.Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com.