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We Are Seneca Lake: Josh Fox & Fracking Opponents Fight Natural Gas Storage Site in Upstate NY

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Image Credit: Bob Nilsson // WeAreSenacaLake.com

On Wednesday, Josh Fox, director of “Gasland,” the documentary which exposed the harms of the fracking industry, was arrested along with 20 other people after forming a human barricade at a natural gas storage facility in upstate New York. The action was part of a long-standing campaign against plans by Crestwood Midstream to expand gas storage in abandoned salt caverns at Seneca Lake, a drinking water source for 100,000 people. We speak to Fox and air his new documentary short, “We Are Seneca Lake.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a new short film by Josh Fox, director of Gasland, the Academy Award-nominated documentary that exposed the harms of the fracking industry. Fox himself will join us next in our studio, but first, in this video, he explains why he arrested Wednesday along with 20 others who formed a human barricade at a natural gas storage facility in upstate New York, the action part of a long-standing campaign against plans by Crestwood Midstream to expand gas storage in abandoned salt caverns at Seneca Lake, a drinking water source for 100,000 people.

JOSH FOX: When Governor Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in New York state on December 17th, 2014, a lot of fracktivists in New York thought their problems were over. It was a tremendous victory, a precedent for other states, a landmark decision for public health and for the science on fracking.

But not every decision about fracking in New York was being made at the state level. FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, decides about pipelines, storage facilities and other interstate oil and gas infrastructure. Because FERC is in charge of so many projects, they’ve been heavily criticized for having a lack of public input and for simply being a rubber-stamp commission for the oil and gas industry. One of the decisions that FERC has under its control is the fate of Seneca Lake, New York.

Seneca Lake is 600 feet deep, home to nearly a hundred wineries, breweries and distilleries, a tourist destination and drinking water for 100,000 people. Its beauty is breathtaking, its water resource invaluable. But it has one other fairly unique physical feature. Under the lake are salt caverns, where salt has been mined for decades, huge underground hollow expanses. A company called Crestwood is eyeing the salt caverns to stuff natural gas down as a kind of natural storage facility, as a way station, a hub, a port, for fracked gas from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and other places throughout the region.

Sandra Steingraber, one of the founders of New Yorkers Against Fracking and an incredibly influential and outspoken fracking critic, is working with a group called We Are Seneca Lake. Since October, they’ve been blockading the Crestwood facility with protests that are both colorful and imaginative. With over 250 arrests and counting, We Are Seneca Lake is becoming one of the largest environmental civil disobedience protests in New York history.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: We Are Seneca Lake, in doing these themed blockades, have cut their teeth in the anti-fracking movement and have experienced that victory, so hard-won, only to turn around and see that we’re getting fracked through these infrastructure projects that are being decided in places like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in D.C., and local people have no control over that. They see that as, you know, absence of democracy. And so, civil disobedience often is a tool throughout history, that when people have lost their voice and all other legal avenues of redress have been exhausted, that you can turn to this.

JOSH FOX: New York state policy is now no fracking.


JOSH FOX: Fracked gas is bad. But the fracked gas is coming in this way. That’s got to be one hell of a contradiction.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, it is. And, you know, everything that we learned about fracking, that we still carry that knowledge around. And so, we know what compressor stations can do to public health. We know that they’re inherently leaky, that flare stacks make formaldehyde. And so—and we know how to do research now, right? We can get on Crestwood Midstream’s website and look at what they’re telling their investors, which is that they intend—they have chosen this place, the Finger Lakes, to become the hub for the storage of fracked gases throughout the entire Northeast.


SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s not how we see ourselves. So, this—thus, this battle between the past and the future that’s being played out here.

JOSH FOX: So you’re getting everything about the fracking except the drilling, in a way.


JOSH FOX: So this sounds a little bit like—I mean, OK, so you have this giant lake with all these people’s water that depends upon it, all these wineries all around, a microclimate, a tourist location, and then these kind of rickety salt caverns underneath the ground. It sounds like some kind of, you know, Dr. Evil kind of plan, like, “Oh, I know. I’ll put gas and explosive and toxic things underneath this.” It’s kind of—sounds kind of insane to me.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, it sounds insane to us, too, to put so much at risk for—and the risk would all be borne by us, you know? I’m a mom who sends my child to camp every summer at the Hidden Valley 4-H Camp, which is located right near this facility. And so, it’s my job as a mom to make sure my kid isn’t blown up. But more than that—

JOSH FOX: Wait a minute. It’s your job as a mom to make sure your kids don’t get blown up?

SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s how I see it.

JOSH FOX: I know it sounds a little far-fetched, but actually these gas storage facilities do blow up. It was one of the very first things I ever filmed for Gasland in 2008, a gas storage facility in Pennsylvania that burned for three weeks. The clip didn’t make the film, but I’m taking it out of the vault now to show one of the consequences of underground gas storage gone awry.

I stopped in at a gas station and asked some people if they knew where the fire was. They pointed at the paper.

PENNSYLVANIA LOCAL: You’re trying to film the fire?

JOSH FOX: Yeah, I will.

PENNSYLVANIA LOCAL: They’re not going to let you in.

JOSH FOX: They’re not going to let me in?

You’re going to come talk to me? All right.

Hi. How are you doing?

SECURITY GUARD: Good. What’s your problem?

JOSH FOX: Oh, there’s no problem. I was interested in seeing if I could shoot some of the fire.

SECURITY GUARD: This is a secure area.

JOSH FOX: Right.

SECURITY GUARD: And we’re not to let anybody in.

JOSH FOX: But there’s no way to get even photographs in the site or anything like that?


JOSH FOX: All right.

SECURITY GUARD: And I will remind you that the state police are considering activity that doesn’t go through us as a criminal act.

JOSH FOX: You’re writing down my license number?


JOSH FOX: Do you have authority to take my driver’s license number?

SECURITY GUARD: I’m not going to take it. I just asked to see it.

JOSH FOX: Here I am, Minersville, Pennsylvania, northeast. I drove three-and-a-half hours to get here. I thought maybe I could get some pictures.

SECURITY GUARD: You will need to leave the area now. How did you get in, by the way?

JOSH FOX: After the dominion guys told me to get the hell off their mountain, they made sure that I did. They followed me all the way down at 30 miles an hour. For some reason, looking through the rearview mirror, looking through the camera and trying to negotiate my way down this mountain, I realized just how close I was getting to actual power, just how close I was getting to being arrested, just how close I was getting to being threatened, just how close I was getting to something that everybody wanted to hide.

And so I ended up back down at the gas station talking to my newfound friends. Again, none of them wanted to be interviewed for this film, so I ended up taking pictures of a lot of people’s feet. Then finally, they said, “You know what? Down this other mountain, there’s a little pass. There’s a clearing in the forest. From there, you can see the fire.” So, I drove up there.

Now I realize why they were trying to do a press lock on the whole situation. Now I realize what they were so scared of, why they said it would take at least three weeks to put this fire out and that they had employed a special contracting company that had expertise in putting out these kinds of fires. You might remember those ones from Kuwait, the ones you could see from space. Something told me you could probably see this from space.

So that about covers the explosive possibility. But what about the actual stability of the salt caverns themselves? Dr. Steingraber says that’s also a potential problem.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: In the very cavern where they want to store more methane, the shale ceiling has actually collapsed and formed a huge pile of rubble on the bottom. So we believe this is an inherently unsafe situation. We don’t know of any other situation where solution salt mining in interbedded caverns is happening on the shore of a lake that is the source of drinking water for 100,000 people and is also this body of water so vast that it actually controls our whole microclimate here, so the only reason we can grow wine grapes here and do all this amazing agriculture, which is the basis of our economy. And also, it’s so beautiful, right? It brings in all these visitors and tourists. So tourism and wine and agriculture, those are the pillars of our economy. It’s all made possible, in this whole region, the whole Finger Lakes region, because of the unique microclimate that Seneca Lake creates.

JOSH FOX: So has a salt cavern that’s been drilled into ever just collapsed and eaten a whole lake? Well, yeah, actually, a particular incident that happened in Louisiana in a place called Lake Peigneur. Again, salt caverns were being eyed for drilling directly underneath a lake, Lake Peigneur. When the drill bore went awry, it actually popped the bottom of the lake, and it drained down like you were pulling the plug on a bathtub. Eleven barges, tanker trucks and huge sections of Jefferson Island were sucked down into the hole as if they were toy boats going down the drain.

SANDRA STEINGRABER: So, when we drink Seneca Lake water, we literally are Seneca Lake. And so, we’re standing up, not just for this beautiful place, but for our actual—you know, the blood that beats through our heart every moment.

JOSH FOX: What we’re seeing is a whole new frontier of environmental activism in America. Civil disobedience protests against critical oil and gas infrastructure, like the Keystone XL pipeline, the Constitution pipeline and now the gas storage facility at Seneca Lake, are gathering more and more popularity, as environmentalists are calling not only for the banning of fracking or tar sands oil, but also for the banning of the infrastructure that transports them, so that they can make their way towards a renewable energy economy.

I made my decision to join the Seneca Lake protests not only because Seneca Lake is beautiful, and not only because these were fellow fracktivists in New York state, but also because, in the same way that I joined the civil disobedience action in front of the White House for Keystone XL, I felt that this is a nationally symbolic moment. We can’t sacrifice any more Seneca Lakes. Time’s up for the fossil fuel industry. We can’t lock ourselves in to decades more of fossil fuel expansion, whether that be pipelines, power plants, storage facilities, fracked gas wells, tar sands fields, deepwater drilling. We have to start to bind these fights together. So I’m very grateful to Dr. Sandra Steingraber and the whole We Are Seneca Lake crew. I really hope you join us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s We Are Seneca Lake, a new short film by Josh Fox, director of Gasland and Gasland 2. And we welcome Josh Fox back to Democracy Now! Josh, we only have a few minutes. This is astounding to see. Back in 2008, this fire, you believe, could—

JOSH FOX: This was a fire that nobody reported on. This was something that burned for three-and-a -half weeks. And these kinds of things, I think, are routine. When you’re talking about gas storage, you’re stuffing huge amounts of methane into underground formations. These are not steel tanks. These are actual geologic formations. And this is what people in Seneca Lake—one of the reasons people in Seneca Lake are incredibly concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, place it for us, for a global audience.

JOSH FOX: OK, so the Finger Lakes region of New York state has five Finger Lakes. There are hundreds of wineries, distilleries, breweries. It’s an incredibly beautiful area. Seneca Lake itself is in central upstate New York. It’s the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. And famously, as we now know, New York has banned fracking, which is an incredible victory for both the people’s movement against fracking and the science on the subject.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were an essential part of that, with your film, Gasland.

JOSH FOX: Well, I think that Gasland helped educate people quite a bit, but it is—

AMY GOODMAN: Fracking being?

JOSH FOX: Fracking being the injection of high-pressure water and chemicals and sand to break apart rock formations underneath the ground to release oil and gas that’s trapped there. Fracked gas is, you know, a huge environmental issue right now, as well as fracked oil. And New York has banned this practice because it contaminates water supplies and air, and creates a public health crisis. But here in New York state, we still have tons of infrastructure projects—pipelines, compressor stations, power plants.

So, the Seneca Lake gas storage facility fits in with a national crisis right now, when you have the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a five-member body, basically usurping state and local authority and saying, “It’s totally OK. Let’s build a huge liquified natural gas storage facility here. Let’s take over this port,” like in Cove Point, Maryland, for example. FERC is not accountable, really, to democracy. Nobody really knows who these people are. They’re not famous. They’re not senators. They’re not the president. And yet they are controlling all of these oil and gas infrastructure projects. And you’re seeing people be incredibly frustrated and put themselves in harm’s way, again, in Seneca Lake, now almost 300 arrests over the course of six months.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were one of 20 this week that got arrested?

JOSH FOX: One of 20—one of 20 this week, blockading the front gate. Because when people feel that they don’t have representation in a democracy—this is civil disobedience, obviously, nonviolent civil disobedience, one of the last recourses that you can have to appeal to a higher sense of justice. And people are putting themselves in harm’s way because they sense that the harm is greater if they don’t.

And that’s motivated both by the local issue, I think, of Seneca Lake, and how beautiful and important it is for the microclimate and for drinking water, but also because of climate change. We can ban fracked extraction in New York state, but unless we start to take on the pipelines, the power plants, the basic infrastructure that delivers oil and gas that creates carbon, we’re going to be in deep trouble with climate change and lock ourselves into decades more of fossil fuels.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Josh Fox, for being with us, director of Gasland, the documentary which first exposed the harms of the fracking industry, nominated for an Academy Award, also made Gasland 2, as well as this documentary, We Are Seneca Lake.

That does it for our broadcast. We have a job opening for video production fellowships beginning July 1st. Go to democracynow.org for more information.

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