January 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 25°F


Ithaca College faculty and students join Seneca Lake protests

A handful of Ithaca College students and faculty have joined protests against a new natural gas storage facility at nearby Seneca Lake.

Crestwood Midstream’s proposed LPG and methane storage facilities in Reading, New York, on the west shore of Seneca Lake, have become center stage for protests organized by We Are Seneca Lake, a group that believes the expansion project poses environmental risks to the area. The group was founded in October 2014 in response to the expansion of Crestwood’s gas storage facilities on the lake.

According to the the group, 400 arrests have been made so far. In addition, 144 people have successfully blocked the gates of Crestwood Midstream for an entire day.

Sandra Steingraber, a distinguished scholar in residence in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, is one of the founding members of We Are Seneca Lake and was arrested for her involvement at the first rally last October.

“We grew up here, my kids go to summer camp on the lake. It’s about protecting that. This is the first time in my life where I felt called to action,” Steingraber said.

The group is concerned about gas leaking into the lake, which could contaminate drinking water, and catastrophic accidents like gas explosions or derailments of trains bringing gases to the site.

Crestwood, a natural gas treatment and storage company out of Houston, Texas, believes the project will benefit the area, Bill Gautreaux, chief marketing officer and president of Crestwood’s supply & logistics group, said.

“More than 250,000 households and thousands of schools, farmers, municipalities and businesses in New York alone have chosen propane over conventional fuels, and our project will help lower their energy costs in an environmentally responsible manner,” he said in a statement.  

Josh Enderle, a junior at the college studying environmental studies, was arrested Aug. 8. He and junior Faith Meckley are the two Ithaca College students to be arrested. Enderle participated in a rally Aug. 26 which was directed at students.

Involvement from the college has been lower than other local colleges and universities, Enderle said, due to the lack of student awareness of the movement and school not being in session when the movement gained much of its ground this summer. However, Enderle said he believes student involvement would increase as awareness increases.  

“It’s important for the company and the general public to know that our generation is very aware of what’s happening, and it directly affects us because it’s our future,” Enderle said. “We have a longer stake in it than most other people.”

The Aug. 26 protest of around 40 people featured mostly students from surrounding colleges like Cornell University, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Hampshire College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Harvard University, Enderle said. Thirteen people, eight of them students, were arrested by Schuyler County Sheriff officers.

Schuyler County Sheriff William Yessman oversees the arrests and detention of the protesters.

“I’ve been talking to people and they seem to be just tired of it,” he said. “The protests are costing the county money … but it is what it is, so we deal with it.”

The salt caverns Crestwood plans to store the methane, natural gas and LPG in formed as a result of decades of salt mining. These mammoth, cathedral-sized caves were chosen purposefully because, Crestwood claims, the alternative would be more environmentally harmful.

“We take all concerns into account, noting that our project’s use of existing infrastructure is an environmentally friendlier option to constructing a new storage facility elsewhere,” Gautreaux said.

Gautreaux said the claims made by We Are Seneca Lake are false, and that there have been over 60 years of safe storage operations in the Finger Lakes.

“It’s no secret that misinformation incites fear about the project even though regulators have gone out of their way to explain why Gas Free Seneca’s and We Are Seneca Lake’s claims are unsupported by science and history,” Gautreaux said.

Steingraber said Crestwood plans for the Finger Lakes region to be the hub for natural gas storage in the northeast. A website related to Crestwood claims that to be a myth, citing that the notion that Crestwood’s natural gas storage operations could become a regional hub was based on a statement taken out of context. Crestwood claims misinformation is resulting in dissent of the project.

The Schuyler County legislature came out in favor of the project, citing economic advancement and energy stability of the region. However, Ontario, Seneca and Yates counties, all bordering Seneca Lake, passed resolutions against the project.

We Are Seneca Lake has an average age of about 55, Steingraber said, with between 600 to 700 trained participants and a total of over 2,000 participants that have signed the pledge and have yet to be trained. Members who need to be trained go through nonviolence, civil disobedience training, which includes studying past movements like the civil rights protests. Those who have pledged and want to participate must go through a screening process alongside their training to make sure their motives are clear, Steingraber said.

Members of We Are Seneca Lake lined up for protests each week throughout the month of August resulting in numerous arrests. Prior to each demonstration, We Are Seneca Lake members elect to either be at risk of arrest or be a support role, Jill Weidman, a senior at Ithaca College studying environmental studies, said. Weidman has participated in numerous protests in a support role, which means she remains outside of the property line so that she cannot be arrested. The members who elect the protest role stand in the way of the entrance to the facility with banners, signs and the like. After they are arrested, members are taken by police to the Schuyler County Police Department.

Once members reach the police station, they are offered a choice: to plead guilty or not guilty. The options from there are: pay a $250 fine, with possible court fees of up to $125, or face a maximum 15-day jail sentence, Weidman said.

“It’s pretty much you get your ticket, you get your date to come back to court and we went out to breakfast like half an hour after,” Weidman said.

Elizabeth Simkin, associate professor in the School of Music, is an active participant of We Are Seneca Lake and was arrested July 27. She said civil disobedience is important to the movement.

“It’s about expressing our moral values,” she said. “Showing people that the common good can replace the bottom line as a moral value.”

Simkin sees We Are Seneca Lake as an opportunity to carry the torch of other local historical moments, such as the women’s suffrage movement in Seneca Falls, but in order to do that, they need young people, she said.

“We all say how we want to protect the future, and [young people] are the future,” Simkin said.

Steingraber said an increase in student involvement would enhance the movement.

“The past, the natural gas companies, and the future, renewable energy opportunities, are clashing on the west bank of Seneca Lake,” Steingraber said.

Kyle Arnold can be reached at karnold1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @KyleArnold12