Award-winning documentary filmmaker Josh Fox, who wrote and directed the acclaimed fracking film Gasland, was arrested this afternoon while engaging in a human barricade at a natural-gas storage facility in the Finger Lakes.
“People need to see what’s happening at Seneca Lake, and also understand that this isn’t isolated, it is happening everywhere,” Fox told The Daily Beast before the protest. “We need to educate people that our dependency on fossil fuels has got to change, and it has to change now.”
Working through the night prior to his arrest, Fox put together a new short documentary, exclusively premiered below, on what he says are the facts behind the situation in Seneca Lake.
Located in the rural central-western part of the state, Seneca is the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes, providing water to over 100,000 residents. Its long, thin, 38-mile expanse is sandwiched between the towns of Watkins Glen and Geneva, and it is the keystone to an ecosystem that fuels sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism, and world-class wineries. It’s a picture-perfect location, with one exception—Crestwood Midstream, a firm that many in the region claim is a bad neighbor, one that bullied its way in after quietly buying up five miles of pristine shoreline in order to install one of the largest natural gas distribution centers in the country. The gas is produced out of state—by, surprise, fracking.
Fracking is illegal in New York, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s landmark decision to ban it statewide. But storing and transporting massive quantities of methane right on the shores of not just a public water supply, but the heart of the iconic Finger Lakes, and a few miles from Watkins Glen? Totally fine, at least according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which last September, casually and without explanation, brushed aside all regional and outside scientific concerns and allowed the project to move forward.
A second phase of the Crestwood development that would add liquid petroleum gas storage falls under the auspices of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which is still mulling the proposal over.
It’s not just where Crestwood wants to build this distribution center that has locals and environmentalists in an uproar, but how. Located a half-mile beneath the land Crestwood owns are 120-year-old abandoned salt caverns, and it’s within these that they will be storing their product. And that, experts like geophysicist H.C. Clark warn, is not a good idea.
First, Cark claims there are structural issues. In the 1960s, a 400,000-ton hunk of rock fell from one of the ceilings, and now rests on the floor of the cavern, leaving behind a potentially unstable irregular hole the size of a football field. And while salt caverns are nearly impervious to gas, when you have irregularities, they can cause leaks, or, worse, collapse.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
In 2102 in Louisiana, the Bayou Corne sinkhole occurred when an underground salt cavern, which was being used to store crude oil, collapsed, creating a still-expanding 26-acre sinkhole and leading to the potentially permanent evacuation of more than 350 residents. More shocking is the Lake Peigneur incident, in which an oil rig accidently drilled into a salt mine under the lake and drained the lake into the maze of underground chambers, sucking down the drilling platform and eleven barges in the process. And in January, 2001, in Hutchinson, Kansas, 143 million cubic feet of natural gas leaked from a salt cavern facility, creating 15 gas blowholes as much as a mile away and leading to explosions that destroyed businesses and killed two people.
Second, there is the issue of salinity.
Should there be a leak, the increased pressure in the caverns would force salty brine —which currently fills the chambers and is pumped out to specially lined pits when the gas is forced in—into Lake Seneca, driving the lake’s already high salinity past the point of human consumption. In 1995, a study found that Seneca Lake contained chloride (salt) levels at “2-10 times higher than the other Finger Lakes.”
Protestors also say negative impacts on Seneca Lake tourism and the burgeoning local wine industry are concerns.
But the locals of the Finger Lakes are not ones to take being bullied by a federal agency, especially not one with a reputation as a “rubber stamp” agency for oil concerns. And so they have mounted an ongoing civil disobedience campaign against the Crestwood project, organizing to block construction vehicles from reaching the site. Thus far, there have been dozens of these blockades, and, subsequently, hundreds of arrests.
Acclaimed author and biologist Sandra Steingraber is one of the driving forces behind the protests, which happen under the collective auspices of a group calling itself We Are Seneca Lake. She says there has been a change to the way the district attorney has been handling the arrests.
While many people find themselves simply released by a judge—a recent group of 42 had their charges “released in the interest of justice”—some, including Steingraber, have found themselves sentenced to the maximum of 15 days in jail after refusing on philosophical grounds to pay a fine. Perhaps wising up to the group’s willingness to spend some time behind bars, a new penalty has arisen—a judgment lien. This can result in bad credit, loan refusal, inability to register a car or renew a drivers license, seized wages or property, and, in extreme cases of failure to pay, even contempt of court charges.
“Our civil disobedience is always done politely, and in as much cooperation with police as possible,” Steingraber explained. “We don’t want to make their jobs harder. After all, if a disaster were to happen here, they’d be the first repsonders.”
Steingraber also alleges that Crestwood hasn’t been entirely honest with the region about their intentions for the facility, which it has boasted to stakeholders would transform the Finger Lakes into a “gas storage and transportation hub” for much of the northeastern United States and parts of Canada. Protesters claim that the company overstated the potential jobs and other benefits it would provide.
Many of the ongoing barricade protests have take on themes—there were mothers for Mother’s Day, and recently a group of birdwatchers gathered to halt trucks while searching the skies. In December, a group of activists dressed as Santa Claus were arrested. Until today, however, the actions have been mostly local.
That just changed with Fox’s arrest.