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Dispute over Seneca Lake gas storage proposal rages on

The debate over proposals to store natural gas, propane and butane in salt caverns under Seneca Lake has become increasingly vocal, especially after a federal agency approved part of the project last May.  Last week opponents organized the biggest rally yet in the Finger Lakes village of Watkins Glen.

As the members of the Schuyler County Legislature left their meeting last week, the emotion, passion and anger of opponents of the gas storage projects -- and fracking in general -- burst into full display.

“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the protestors chanted.

Dozens of protesters — part of a much larger rally earlier in the evening — had waited for the county legislators who refused to reverse an earlier vote supporting the plan to store liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, in underground salt caverns alongside Seneca Lake.

Credit David Chanatry / NYRP
Protests outside the Schuyler Legislature in Watkins Glen got heated last week.

The project is being proposed by Texas-based Crestwood-Midstream. The company also wants to use other salt caverns to increase the amount of natural gas it already stores there. It hopes to make the facility a hub for distributing the fuels throughout the northeast.

But the plan has run into strong resistance.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the lakeshore earlier in the evening while the legislators were meeting. Speakers warned of danger to the region’s tourism and wine industries . They say the project threatens Seneca Lake itself, the source of drinking water for 100,000 people.

Steve Churchill, a county legislator in neighboring Seneca County, was one of the protestors.

“Don’t let her live another day under the threat of mass industrialization, contamination, and possibly death...it wouldn’t be the first lake that man has killed” said Churchill.

Biologist Sandra Steingraber read a list of demands for the legislature. Last year she spent 10 days in jail for being part of a human blockade to stop prep work on the project.

“And we want this body to resolve not to support any gas storage project on Seneca Lake now or anytime into the future,” Steingraber told the assembled protestors to wild cheers.

But the chairman of the legislature in Schuyler County, where the caverns are located, pushed for the vote of support. Dennis Fagan is a retired environmental engineer. He spoke last year with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

“Based on based on my background I feel this can be done in an environmentally sound manner,” said Fagan. “An increase in our tax base is sorely needed in any area of the state, and I think that this facility can coexist with our tourism industry without having an adverse impact on it.”

After a lengthy review, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, recently gave its approval to the natural gas part of the project. Now only the state Department of Environmental Conservation stands in the way.

But protestors like Yvonne Taylor, of the group Gas Free Seneca, had a clear message for Gov. Andrew Cuomo at last week’s rally about what his administration should do.

“We have a big, mean neighborhood watch. And we are here to say that we will unabashedly protect our neighborhood and all of the Finger Lakes and whatever threatens our health safety and way of life here, make no mistake,” said Taylor.

Fagan, the legislature chairman, says Taylor and the other opponents are environmental bullies who don’t represent the community.

“The vast majority of my constituents that I have talked to are not in opposition to this project., but they’re they silent majority,” said Taylor last year.

Different visions of the future competing outside the Schuyler County courthouse last week, as they will likely continue to do until the issue is settled.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's storiesat their website, nyrp-uc.org.