Good afternoon. My name is Sandra Steingraber. I’m a biologist and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College. I’m 53 years old and the mother of an 11-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. I’m married to an art teacher, and we all live in the village of Trumansburg, which is about 15 miles to the northeast, as the crow flies.
On March 18, 2013, together with 11 other local residents, I stood in the driveway of this site, which is owned by the Kansas City-based energy company called Inergy and located on the west bank of Seneca Lake. In so doing, I broke the law and am charged with trespassing. Before my arrest, I and the others with whom I linked arms, temporarily blocked a truck carrying a drill head from going where it wanted to go. This is my first experience with civil disobedience. Here is an explanation of my actions.
First, and most importantly, this act of civil disobedience is a last resort for me. Prior to this, I and other community members have taken every legal avenue to raise the serious health, economic, and environmental concerns associated with the Inergy plant. However, time and again, we’ve been deterred from participating in the decision-making process. For example, Inergy has declared the geological history of the salt caverns to be proprietary business information, so that much of the basic science on the structural integrity of the salt caverns is hidden from view. How can we offer informed public comments and raise scientific objection when we are denied this fundamental information?
Inergy has asked for fast-track FERC approval and that we fear that authorities are poised to rubber stamp these applications before the public has had a chance to review all the relevant information and the full impacts of these combined projects have been considered.
This act of civil disobedience was also undertaken to bring attention to the fact that this company has been out of compliance with the Clean Water Act every quarter for the last 12 quarters—which is as far back as the data go—exceeding its effluent discharge limit. For this behavior, the company has been fined, not once, but twice, to the tune of over $30,000.
Effluent discharge means that the company dumps chemicals directly into Seneca Lake, which is a source of drinking water for 100,000 people.
It is my belief that paying trivial fines does not excuse the crime of salting the lake. And it’s because I have such a high respect for the rule of law that I will be choosing not to pay a fine for my act of trespassing and will instead will show responsibility by accepting a jail sentence.
Second, I seek by my actions to shine a spotlight on the dangerous practice of converting abandoned salt caverns into storage containers for highly pressurized hydrocarbon gases, namely propane and butane. Legal or not, this practice is tantamount to burying giant cigarette lighters in the earth.
This form of liquefied petroleum gas storage has a troubled safety record. Leaks, explosions, and collapses have occurred in at least ten other places. Additionally, the fleets of diesel trucks and the planned 60 ft. high flare stack—even absent calamitous accidents—will add hazardous air pollutants to our communities. Thus, my small, non-violent act of trespass is set against a larger, more violent one: the trespass of hazardous chemicals into water and air and thereby into our bodies. This is a form of toxic trespass.
Lastly, I desire to bring attention to the rapid build-out of fracking infrastructure in New York. Even as we are engaged in a statewide conversation about whether our governor should maintain or lift the current moratorium on shale gas extraction via horizontal fracking in New York, technology that further entrenches our dependency on shale gas—pipelines, storage, compressor stations, processing plants—is being rapidly deployed. These infrastructure investments make fracking in New York State more likely and aid and abet fracking in other states, where it is associated with sickness and misery among people causes devastation to land, water, and air quality.
In a time of climate emergency, the transformation of the Finger Lakes into a massive transportation and storage hub for climate-destroying fossil fuel gases that have been fracked out shale in other states is the absolute wrong form of development.
I am a biologist, not a lawyer. But when I looked up my crime on Wikipedia, here is what it said:
Trespass to land involves the wrongful interference with one’s possessory rights in [real] property. William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England articulated the common law principle…translating from Latin as “for whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell.” In modern times, courts have limited the right of absolute dominion over the subsurface. For instance, drilling a directional well that bottoms out beneath another’s property to access oil and gas reserves is trespass, but a subsurface invasion by hydraulic fracturing is not [emphasis added].
In other words, trespassing laws are unjust. They make criminals of people who stand on a lakeshore purchased by an out-of-state fossil fuel company only interested in the hollowed out salt chambers that lie 1500 feet beneath the surface, while, at the same time, allowing drilling and fracking operations to tunnel freely under homes, farms, and aquifers, shatter our bedrock, and pump the shards full of toxic chemicals.
I broke the law by standing in a privately owned driveway. Fossil fuel companies are not breaking the law by trespassing into the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases and so creating planetary crisis. There are the disparities that I seek to communicate with my actions and, out of respect for the fidelity of law, with my willingness to accept a jail sentence rather than pay a fine.
As a working mother of two school-aged children, this is a decision I have reached after much discernment.
Your Honor, I am not a lawyer. I am a biologist and a human being. I am also a mother of a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old. I bring all these identities to your courtroom tonight.
I am guilty of an act of trespass. On March 18, I willfully stood on private property owned by the Inergy company and blocked access to a compressor station site that is being constructed in order to prepare explosive hydrocarbon gases, propane and butane, for storage in abandoned salt caverns that are located beside and beneath Seneca Lake.
In my field of environmental health, the word trespass has meaning. Toxic trespass refers to involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant. It is a contamination without consent. It is my belief, as a biologist, that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass. Inergy has been out of compliance with EPA regulations every quarter for the past three years. In spite of this, Inergy applied for, and has received, from the state of New York a permit to discharge, every day, an additional 44,000 pounds of chloride into Seneca Lake.That’s 22 tons a day. That’s 8000 tons a year. Seneca Lake is a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. Those industrial discharges trespass into the bodies of those who drink it.
Additionally, Inergy’s planned 60-foot flare stack will release hazardous air pollutants, including ozone precursors, as will the fleets of diesel trucks hauling propane. This kind of air pollution is linked to heart attack and stroke risk, preterm birth, and asthma in children. Thus does Inergy trespass into our air and lungs. I see this as a real danger to my 11-year-old son, who has a history of asthma. We live 15 miles to the east—directly downwind—from this facility.
Inergy’s plans to industrialize the lakeshore will bring 24/7 light and noise pollution into a tranquil community. These forms of trespass also have health consequences, including increased risk for breast cancer and elevated blood pressure.
And because Inergy is building out infrastructure for the storage and transportation of greenhouse gases obtained by fracturing shale, Inergy trespasses into our climate and contributes to its ongoing destablization at a time when the best science show us that we need to be rapidly moving away from fossil fuels of all kinds.
Lastly, the risk of catastrophic accidents from the storage of liquefied petroleum gases in salt caverns is real. It has happened in at least 10 previous occasions. The 14-acre sinkhole in Belle Rose, Louisiana, which is now making headlines, was caused by a collapsed salt cavern. It sent crude oil gushing up into surface water and natural gas into groundwater.
As a biologist, I have submitted expert comments and petitions about Inergy’s application for permits to both the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. However, I am hampered in my efforts to judge the structural soundness of the salt caverns because the company that owns them insists that the scientific research that documents the history of these caverns—at least one of which sits on a fault line—is a trade secret.
Your honor, how can geological history become proprietary information? Without access to data, how can any member of the public evaluate the risks we are being compelled to endure by the repurposing of salt caverns into giant underground cigarette lighters?
In closing, my actions were taken to protest the trespass of Inergy into our air, water, bodies, safety, and security. My small, peaceful act of trespass was intended to prevent a much larger, and possibly violent one.
The people of Bellrose, Lousiana, are now facing relocation after the catastrophic collapse of the salt cavern there. Family homes are being abandoned. And the signs on the front lawns of the empty houses read, “No trespassing.”
To bring attention to such hazards for the Finger Lakes–and for the act of protecting water, which is life itself–I trespassed. It was an act of civil disobedience. For that, and because I have deep respect for the rule of law, which Inergy company does not, I am willing to go to jail.