Seneca Lake Activists Arrested While Reading Pope’s Climate Change Encyclical

On August 4, 13 activists were arrested as they formed a human blockade at a gas storage facility at Seneca Lake, New York. The activists, who are from six New York state counties, were reading verses from Pope Francis's encyclical on climate change.

The peaceful act of civil disobedience, which came a day after President Obama released the EPA's Clean Power Plan, brought attention to the proposal to store of tens of millions of gallons of liquefied petroleum gas, and up to two billion cubic feet of natural gas, in abandoned subterranean salt caverns thousands of feet below the shores of Seneca Lake. The lake is the deepest in New York and the largest of the glacial Finger Lakes located in the west-central section of the state. It provides drinking water to over 100,000 people. Environmentalists say that the gas storage facility is an accident waiting to happen.

The blockade prevented all traffic from entering or leaving the gas storage facility, which is operated by Crestwood Midstream Partners (NYSE: CMLP), a Houston-based firm that provides storage and transportation to crude oil and natural gas companies.

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We Are Seneca Lake protesters block a truck from entering the Crestwood gas storage facility on August 4, 2015. (image: We Are Seneca Lake)

Joining the pontifical read-aloud was the Reverend John D. Elder, former pastor of the historic First Church in Oberlin, Ohio, and current part-time resident of Schuyler County. He was not arrested. The protesters — part of the We Are Seneca Lake activist group that opposes Crestwood's plans for methane and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) storage in lakeside salt caverns — carried banners that quoted lines from the prayers that closes the encyclical, such as "Love the Common Good" and "And Care for This World."

"Yesterday, President Obama released the Clean Power Plan and put the nation on the path to renewable energy," said Dan Taylor, 64, of Oxford in Chenango County, who was one of the arrested activists. "Today, we are standing at the gates of dirty energy to say that Crestwood’s plan for the Finger Lakes is not a clean power plan. I am here to help impede the build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure."

The August 4 blockade continued the encyclical recitation that began during a blockade on June 30 and that continued during blockades on July 7 and July 20. A total of 44 people have been arrested as part of encyclical-themed blockades at the Crestwood facility. The total number of civil disobedience arrests in the eight-month-old campaign against gas storage now stands at 332.

Crestwood is already permitted to store more than one billion cubic feet of natural gas in salt caverns near Watkins Glen, the county seat of Schuyler County where it owns the U.S. Salt plant. The company says that their new project will bring new jobs and millions of investment dollars to a region whose once strong industrial sector has been flagging in recent years.

“Certainly if we were starting from scratch and saying, ‘Where would you build a liquefied petroleum gas storage facility?’ you probably wouldn’t put it right there over Seneca Lake, near the wine country,” said Bill Gautreaux, president of Crestwood’s liquids and crude business unit. “But the reality of it is that it already exists.”

Over the last two decades, the Finger Lakes region has been transformed into a world-class wine region. “Do we want to be known for world-class wine grapes, farm-fresh food and great hospitality?” said Will Ouweleen, an owner of Eagle Crest Vineyards on Hemlock Lake, near the region’s western edge. “Or do you want to be the gas-storage hub of the Northeast?

Wine growers and environmental activists have urged Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been a champion of upstate tourism, to reject Crestwood's new storage plan. Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, said that Mr. Cuomo’s focus on tourism and concern over water quality in the region were “precisely the reason D.E.C. is undertaking a thorough review of this project.”

“We are all of us stewards of the earth. I am a native of Reading and know that this area and Seneca Lake are gifts to be cherished and protected," said activist and arrestee Faith Muirhead, 45, of Beaver Dams in Steuben County, grew up in the Town of Reading near the salt caverns. "I feel a responsibility to do what I can to protect these waters and this land. So I pray, I walk, I send letters, I call my state representatives, and today, I stand at the gates of Crestwood to demonstrate my resolve. I am a teacher, and a teacher of teachers. Today, I teach by putting my freedom in jeopardy in order to bring attention to the potential risks inherent in Crestwood’s plans."

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