Treatment of protestors violates democratic values, civility

Schuyler County Sheriff’s Deputy J.D. Sworts and Town Clerk Alice Conklin behaved abominably toward protesters of the We Are Seneca Lake movement on March 16 in Reading, New York.

According to the public statement from We Are Seneca Lake “Regarding Chaos, Danger and Negligence at the Reading Town Court on March 16, 2016,” when 70 protesters who had been arrested for disorderly conduct violations while peacefully protesting the storage of methane, butane and propane in the unlined salt mines below Seneca Lake showed up for their scheduled 5 p.m. arraignments at the town court, a large number of them were intentionally locked out of the building, supposedly due to the fact that the courtroom could only hold 48 individuals.

Despite their pleas––and the fact that there was an additional waiting room inside––the protestors and their supporters were forced to stand outside in the middle of a thunder and hail storm while waiting to be arraigned for approximately three hours. To make this act even more atrocious, most of the people were over the age of 60.

The sheriff’s department is charged with ensuring public order. It was perfectly reasonable of them to arrest the protesters who were blocking traffic to the Crestwood Midstream facility in order to peacefully object to their unsafe storage practices. But on the date of the arraignment, the sheriff’s department far overstepped the bounds of their duty.

One blatant example of this is when Conklin told one protester, “If you can protest in this weather, you can stand out in it now.” Such treatment is completely inappropriate coming from a public official, as it only suggests hostility toward the movement and an intolerance of those who perform acts of civil disobedience.

The We Are Seneca Lake movement began in October 2014 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved Crestwood Midstream’s application to store methane at their facility near Seneca Lake. Since that time, hundreds of people have been arrested for acts of peaceful protest outside the gates of the facility.

They are protesting because methane, butane and propane—often misleadingly called “natural” gases—are not substances that they want to be injected at high pressures into the unlined salt caverns next to Seneca Lake. There are several reasons why doing this is a bad idea, the main one being that these substances leak.

When methane is inserted into natural underground caverns like the ones in the Finger Lakes region, it has a propensity to travel through cracks in the underground rock in a process known as methane migration. This may lead to buildings that are miles away from the storage sites accumulating pools of odorless methane and exploding with no apparent warning.

There is also the risk that the gases will leak into the watershed. Seneca Lake provides drinking water for over 100,000 people and the area’s main economic engines are the tourist industry that relies on the beauty of the lake and the wineries that depend on its plentiful, clean water. The geological barriers between the salt caverns and the lake are not well understood and the potential for groundwater to be polluted is more than likely substantial.

Additionally, leakage from methane storage facilities into the atmosphere is now understood to be a serious contributor to climate change. Methane is 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide for its first 20 years in the atmosphere, so any atmospheric release has a substantial impact.

These are the threats that brought the protesters of We Are Seneca Lake to the gates of Crestwood Midstream’s facility. They are convinced that the threat to their community and their planet is real and they are willing to take radical action to oppose it. In a civil society, people in this position must be allowed to take action without undue risk to their safety. History has shown that laws and policies can be dangerous and wrong and without the ability to take peaceful, radical action, conscientious citizens have no avenue to draw attention to their concerns.

We Are Seneca Lake is performing acts of peaceful civil disobedience because there are no other avenues of objection available to them. Such actions are absolutely essential in a democracy and the disgraceful actions of the Reading officials violate not only the laws of civility, but also the basic principles of our society.