Ithaca College distinguished scholar-in-residence Sandra Steingraber, whose environmental activism has often been the focus of national attention, was released from the Chemung County Jail at about 12:20 a.m. Thursday, according to her spokesperson. She was arrested at a demonstration in Watkins Glen last month, where she and a group of 11 others protested a planned salt cavern gas storage facility at Seneca Lake.
Steingraber is a renowned ecologist and internationally recognized expert on environmental effects on human health. She was featured on Bill Moyers’ talk show, where she discussed her arrest. On April 17, the day after the conversation was taped, she went to jail.
Steingraber was charged with trespassing and was sentenced to a maximum of 15 days in jail after she refused to pay a fine imposed by the Reading Court. She was released after eight days in jail.
Local businesswoman Melissa Chipman and farm owner Michael Dineen were also released along with Steingraber, after being sentenced to jail for refusing to pay their fines of $375 each.
The group was greeted by a crowd of about 100 supporters outside the jail Thursday morning, according the spokesperson.
On the day Steingraber was in court, more than 150 people gathered in Reading, N.Y., to support the three defendants who had previously pled guilty. Steingraber was among 11 Finger Lakes residents arrested in a demonstration on March 18 against Missouri-based company Inergy Midstream. L.P., Inergy is an energy infrastructure and distribution company. In 2008, Inergy purchased salt caverns from U.S. Salt and plans to develop liquefied petroleum gas storage. The protesters were opposing the company’s potential expansion. According to a press release from Steingraber’s spokesperson, Inergy’s gas storage and transportation project threatens the drinking water supply for 100,000 people.
Ithaca College senior Katarina Andersson was also among those arrested. Andersson said the courtroom was packed with people from the community, who gathered in support during the April 3 hearing. Andersson was also fined $375, which was paid for by a community of supporters from all over the state, including Schuyler County, Tompkins County and Yates County.
“Most of them, I didn’t know,” she said. “They were just people from all over who were standing in opposition to fracking and in support of the Seneca Lake 12.”
Chris Tate is the co-founder and a member of the board of directors of the Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative. Tate, who is also a spokesperson for Steingraber, said Steingraber found out about her release through a newspaper.
“She had no prior knowledge [of her release date],” he said. “She saw an article in the newspaper [Wednesday], and that’s how she found out.”
In a letter from jail dated Friday and titled “Why I am in Jail on Earth Day,” Steingraber said she would be taken out of isolation and would join the rest of the inmates Monday. Steingraber said she would be in isolation until the results of her test for tuberculosis are released.
“So, Monday, which is Earth Day, I will emerge from my cell and join the ecosystem of the Chemung County Jail, where the women’s voices are loud and defiant,” she said in her letter.
Steingraber also said the resilience of another female inmate inspired her to continue making her voice heard — even inside the walls of her cell.
“Stingray (not her actual nickname), broke a tooth yesterday,” Steingraber said in her letter. “When she showed it to officer Murphy’s Law (that’s his actual nickname) and said, ‘The other half is in my cell,’ Murphy’s Law replied, ‘So, you think the tooth fairy’s going to come?’ And then he left. But she stood at the iron door and called for pain meds, over and over in a voice that I use for rally speeches. Full oration. Projecting to the rafters. Stingray is six months pregnant. She got her pain meds. Stingray is my inspiration. How can I use my time here … to speak loudly and defiantly about the business plans of a company called Inergy that seeks to turn my Finger Lakes home into a transportation and storage hub for fossil fuel gases?”
In a more recent letter dated Wednesday, Steingraber said she decided to take a stand because she was worried for her children.
“The west shore of Seneca Lake is [my son’s] birthplace, and the sound of green frogs twanging in the night was the theme song for my labor and delivery,” she said in the letter. “So, yes, my course of political action has taken me away from my own children in an attempt to redress this problem on their behalf, and during the first five days, when I was kept in 24-hour lock-up, I had no access to them. But I am convinced the tears of my children now will be less than their tears later — along with the tears of my grandchildren — if we mothers do nothing and allow the oil, coal and gas companies to hurdle us all off the climate cliff.”
Tate said Steingraber chose to go to jail to send a message to authorities.
“I think she felt that she had pursued all reasonable means with respect to regulation and legal means to try and prevent this particular industrialization of the Finger Lakes from threatening Seneca Lake,” Tate said. “She believed a powerful gesture and statement had to be made on behalf of the inhabitants of Seneca Lake.”
Following her release, Steingraber, along with Chipman and Dineen, will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Seneca Lake Harbor Front Park.
Read The Ithacan’s original coverage of the arrests here.