On Thursday morning, September 6, 2012, seventeen protesters, in an act of civil disobedience, gathered in the entrance road to the Seneca Lake Compressor Station (3768 Route 14), which is part of the Inergy LLC facility north of Watkins Glen.
Two protesters chained themselves to the fence and, for two hours, blocked all traffic in and out of the property. At 12:10 p.m., they were cut loose and arrested by Schuyler County Sheriff Bill Yessman along with a third protester who stood, unchained, next to the others and disobeyed orders to vacate the site.
All three were charged with trespassing, transported to the Schuyler County sheriff’s office for processing, and released.
Those arrested were Jeremy Alderson of Hector, age 63, the editor of the No Frack Almanac; Gary Judson, age 72, a retired Methodist minister; and Susan Walker, age 53, of Dundee.
I was there. And, in the words of poet Lucille Clifton, I brought my witness eye. Here is some of what I saw and heard.
Reverend Judson, while chained, talked about fish. He said that he has fished in Seneca Lake since he was a small boy. Now the lake is threatened by the plans of Inergy, which is busy repurposing the depleted salt caverns on the west shore for the storage of liquefied petroleum gases, including methane. To do so, the company is drilling into the caverns and constructing brine pits on the hillside above the lake to serve as holding ponds for the toxic brine it is pumping out of the caverns. Spills have already occurred.
Reverend Judson said, “They don’t have the right to do this—to put the lake in jeopardy. There is too much at stake. We all stand to lose. We’ll all end up paying for their mess.”
“I don’t want brine ponds overflowing. I don’t want fracking in this area. It’s not safe. This could destroy the area for centuries.”
His wife, Jeanne Judson affirmed that her husband is a great fisherman. She also feels called to protect Seneca Lake. “It is my passion.” Jeanne was born in Watkins Glen.
“My heart is here,” she said, although I was unsure if she was referring to her hometown or her chained-up husband standing next to her.
On the other side of the fence, there were piles of pipe, a busy forklift, a large tank, a gear-grinding truck. Workers carried on with sandblasting. Behind it all, the blue water of Seneca Lake sparkled under a September sky.
Susan Walker spoke to me about a nearby cottage that she loves and which, she said, has been in her family for five generations.
Along Route 14, tanker trucks flew by. Some were labeled “Ferrell Gas.” Some were labeled “LPG.”
While we blocked the entrance road, a large truck pulled up. The truck bed was stacked with sacks of sand, labeled Quikrete. It idled on the side of the highway in front of us for a few minutes and then roared away, heading north.
Bill Huston was there. He said that he’d been coming to Watkins Glen since he was four years old. There is a path somewhere nearby that he remembers hiking as a child. Bill said he’s been trying to relocate it for years. So far, it’s eluded him.
Bill said, “This is a sacred place to me. My family has lived here for generations.”
Bill said, “When I study democracy, I see remedies for redress of grievance. But what do you do when you’ve exhausted the administrative remedies?”
Bill said, “Why should we trust them? Inergy is just here to extract stuff.”
Melissa Chipman was there. Melissa, age 54, lives in Hector. She said, “I feel strongly that this is wrong.”
Inside the fence, clouds of dust enveloped the workers and their machines, which were very loud.
Melissa said, “I feel that this might be what I was born to do.”
None of the workers wore masks.
Dick Adams, age 77, was there. Raised in Hector, he now lives a quarter mile from where he was born in 1935. He attended first through sixth grades in a one-room schoolhouse that was located not so far from here. Dick Adams is not an outside agitator.
Dick and others spoke with me about their frustration. Frustration because Inergy is duplicitous: it reassures the public that the company’s plans have nothing to do with fracking but then boasts to investors of its intention to operate a storage and transportation hub for natural gas. Frustration because, here and elsewhere, Inergy has a ghastly safety record, including non-compliance with federal regulations and repeated equipment failures. Frustration because this company plays by its own rules and no one in the government cries foul: Inergy has already started digging and drilling even before its environmental impact statement is finalized and permits granted.
Jeremy Alderson, while chained, was tended by his daughter Liz, age 30. When the sheriff arrived with his deputies and a videotaping cameraman, Alderson greeted them all warmly and pointed to a nearby cooler of soft drinks, which, he said, he had brought for the law enforcement.
“You are not my opposition,” Jeremy said to the sheriff and his deputies. “I am defending the land for you, too.”
The sheriff, who did not accept the offer of soft drinks, invited all of us to visit him in his office in Watkins Glen and discuss things. He also issued, at 11: 50 am, a 15-minute warning: leave or be arrested.
“Inergy does not want you on their property.”
At 12:10 pm, the handcuffs and bolt cutters came out. Those of us who chose not to be arrested were told that we could not stand on the grassy strip on either side of the entrance road. As we crowded onto the shoulder of the highway, an older woman tripped, fell backwards, and was helped to her feet.
The dominant hair color was gray. The youngest of us was 28. The oldest, 85.
Someone shouted over to the sheriff, who was younger than many of us. “This is our home. We love this land.”
Sheriff Yessman’s response: “I will not disagree with you. But under the law, I have an obligation to fulfill.”
Someone asked, “Are you going to proceed with arrests for the corporations that are engaged in activities here that are not licensed?”
The sheriff’s response: “That is outside my jurisdiction. Another agency is looking into that.”
Someone asked, “And what agency would that be?”
The sheriff’s response, spoken with no irony: “The New York Department of Environmental Conservation.”
Sheriff Yessman, unfailingly polite and respectful, said that the arrestees would be charged with trespassing, a violation, and would be given tickets and a court appearance date. He also said that anyone coming here again would likely risk more than a violation.
Jeremy said, “I think we’ll be getting to know each other, sheriff.” There was laughter.
As the three disobedient protesters were arrested, the rest of us obedient protesters sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” while standing on the shoulder of Route 14. Even though we had just been moved.
As Reverend Judson was led, handcuffed, to the patrol car, his wife approached him. They spoke quietly together. Jeanne reached up and adjusted her husband’s glasses. And then they took him away.
Jeanne Judson is 74 years old.
With the three disobedient protesters in custody, we obedient ones felt lost. Walking close together, we slowly returned to our cars, parked in a shady pull-off just south of the facility. Someone handed me Susan Walker’s car keys and cell phone. Would I drive her car to the county jail behind the courthouse? Well, yes, I would.
Her wallet was open on the passenger seat. She must have grabbed her driver’s license before she got out. There were ski poles in her back seat and nearly 200,000 miles on her odometer.
I don’t know Susan. But we are the same age. As I drove down the hill and into Watkins Glen, past the marina and the old machine shop and the downtown restaurants, I tried to imagine her thoughts as she had driven up the hill earlier in the day. At what point had she resolved to disobey and be arrested?
I was the first to arrive at the jailhouse. A waiting room phone connected me to a dispatcher on the other side of a steel door. Yes, the three protesters were being processed. No, there was no information about their estimated time of release.
The waiting room at the Schuyler County jail has three choices of reading material: “The Informational Inmate Handbook, “Pay Bail Simply,” and “How to Choose a Life Jacket.”
I studied the inmate visitation schedule (confined to Wednesdays and Sundays). I studied the faces of missing children on a tacked-up poster.
And then, suddenly, everyone arrived. Not only the family and friends of the three arrested protesters but anti-fracking protesters from all over the area—who had seen a Facebook announcement or a tweet. Too late to participate in the direct-action protest, they wanted to show their solidarity at the sheriff’s office. We filled all the waiting room chairs and sprawled on the floor, sharing cold drinks and granola bars as we waited.
Mounted above the steel door where our arrested friends would finally, we hoped, walk through, there was bronze plaque. It was the only decorative element in the place, and it was engraved with a prayer:
Lord, I ask for courage.
Courage to face my own fear.
Courage to take me where others will not go.
I ask for strength.
Strength of body to protect others.
Strength of spirit to lead others.
I ask for dedication
Dedication to my job, to do it well.
Dedication to my community, to keep it safe.