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Seneca Lake protesters soldier on

David Chanatry/File Photo
New York Reporting Project at Utica College
Protestors at Seneca Lake.

Every few weeks since last fall, groups of protesters have been blocking access to a work site on Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. They want to stop plans to store natural gas, as well as propane and butane, in the emptied-out salt caverns alongside the lake.

On a Tuesday morning in late May, about 25 people gathered at a park in Watkins Glen, getting ready for another in a months-long series of blockades.

First, they discuss the logistics of who needs to go where. And the planning includes leaders instructing the protestors about what to do if they get arrested.

Then they take a quick drive a few miles up the lake to the site where Texas-based Crestwood Midstream wants to store natural gas in deep underground caverns left over from decades of mining salt. The protesters hope to stop prep work at the site by blocking the gate and keeping trucks out.  

Standing side by side and holding a banner saying “What we love we must protect,” they begin a long day of making a statement.

The group on this day included several clergy members, including Presbyterian minister Rev. Jane Winters.

“I’m putting my body on the line because I love my neighbors, especially the ones that live right here,” said Winters.

The Rev. Lesley Adams is the chaplain at Hobart and William Smith College, at the northern end of Seneca lake.

To me, it’s like they’re about to put a bomb under this lake and it’s just outrageous. I can’t even believe it’s going forward.

But this plan is going forward. It’s already been approved by the federal government, which has jurisdiction over natural gas. Another related project -- storing propane and butane, or LPG, in adjacent caverns -- still needs New York’s approval before Crestwood can proceed.

Many of these protests have had themes -- farmers, health care workers, chefs and winery owners, even Santa and seven elves last December. Protesters were on site during that bitterly cold winter, and like Louise Sullivan-Blum they’re here now that the weather has turned.

“I’m hot. My feet hurt. But it’s a very little thing compared to what’s going to be happening in about 30 years,” said Sullivan-Blum.

Credit David Chanatry / New York Reporting Project at Utica College
New York Reporting Project at Utica College

The opponents of the gas storage plan fear a catastrophic event -- an explosion at the site, or a truck or train accident that spills gas. They worry the caverns are unstable and could collapse, that leaking brine could make the lake too salty for the hundred thousand people who drink it, and that the bucolic Finger Lakes region will become more industrialized.  

Crestwood says creating a storage depot, especially for propane, will relieve the gas shortages and price spikes that have hit the Northeast hard in recent winters. They maintain the project is simple engineering and very low risk. But Crestwood executive Gill Gautreax says the company underestimated the local reaction, with unfortunate results.

“We probably under-respondedin the early years and so a lot of irrational and inaccurate information steered the conversation, and that wasn’t good,” said Gautreax.

Twenty-six municipalities have passed resolutions against the project, but not Schuyler County, where the project is located.  Legislature Chairman Dennis Fagan took the members to visit another Crestwood facility nearby.

“Very similar facility with brine storage on the surface and salt cavern storage underground, that has been in operation for over 50 years with no serious accidents in that time,” said Fagan.

Almost 300 people have been arrested for trespassing during these blockades. Most pay a fine, but biologist Sandra Steingraber has refused and served a short term in jail.  She says it’s critically important to stop Crestwood’s project, but she sees an even bigger issue at stake.

“We have another project going on here, which is decarbonization. We want to be the incubator and laboratory for renewable energy but we can’t open that door until we close this one,” said Steingraber. “We want to birth the future and we want to do it right here in this driveway.”

After seven hours of standing in that driveway on that day in May, the protesters went home. No trucks came, perhaps a minor victory for a movement that wants to change the way New Yorkers use energy, and in their view, protect the largest of the Finger Lakes at the same time.

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.