EarthJustice + Community: A volley in the LPG battle of Seneca Lake

Protesters linked arms on Sept. 6 to ensure no traffic could get in or out of the Inergy Midstream property in the Town of Reading, Schuyler County.

Protesters linked arms on Sept. 6 to ensure no traffic could get in or out of the Inergy Midstream property in the Town of Reading, Schuyler County. / FILE PHOTO
Written by
G. Jeffrey Aaron


Last week, the fight against plans to create a massive underground liquid petroleum gas storage facility in the Town of Reading, Schuyler County, took a great leap forward.

On Thursday, Deborah Greenberg, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s New York office, and office campaign manager Kathleen Sutcliffe met with representatives of Gas Free Seneca to tour the site of the project and discuss strategies for continuing the struggle against it. That initial meeting was followed later that evening with a reception for the environmental attorneys held at Damiani Wine Cellars in Hector.

The meet-and-greet, said Gas Free Seneca co-founder Yvonne Taylor, was an opportunity to meet the attorneys who will defend Seneca Lake and its surrounding businesses, and the rights of its residents to preserve their property values and community.

“Your Earthjustice team looks forward to putting faces to the people who they will be representing,” Taylor said in a statement. “We are very pleased that so many businesses and organizations are coming together in support of this effort.”

Two weeks ago, Gas Free Seneca announced it had retained the legal services of Earthjustice, one of the country’s leading environmental law firms. The firm, based in San Francisco with nine offices around the country, is no stranger to some of the environmental issues in New York. On Feb. 12, the group jumped back into the fracking debate by praising the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s decision to allow outside health experts time to finish their review of the regulations governing the practice. The DEC’s review was expected to be completed by Feb. 27.

Earthjustice also is representing the Town of Dryden in a court case over whether an oil and gas company should be allowed to overrule local zoning laws limiting industrial oil and gas development. The firm also has sided with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s plans to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to address methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry.

And now, it’s taking aim at Inergy’s plans to store millions of barrels of LPG — or liquid petroleum gas — in depleted salt caverns alongside Seneca Lake.

“We had contacted them before to get them interested and weren’t having a lot of success until the Peter Mantius story that outlined the structural problems with the caverns Inergy wants to use for storage,” said Joseph Campbell, president and co-founder of Gas Free Seneca. “We were offered their legal assistance and thought it would be an ideal marriage.”

At this early stage of the game, it isn’t clear what path Earthjustice will take as it lends its weight to the fight. Goldberg said before any decision is made, her group wants to make sure there is full consideration of the environmental impact the facility will have.

“The Finger Lakes is a special part of New York, and we think it should be preserved as much as possible,” she said. “We will be working with the people most affected and develop a collaborative strategy to persuade the decision-makers this is a really bad idea. Given all the new information that’s come in and the changes and unanswered questions, the draft environmental impact statement should go before the public again.”

As Campbell sees it, the fact the group has sent the lead attorney from its New York City office — instead of one of its associate attorneys — signals how seriously the firm sees the issue.

What started out in February 2011 as the quiet sale of a natural gas storage facility to Inergy Midstream has blossomed into a loud battle between the Missouri-based company and local environmental groups. The opposition has held protest marches in Watkins Glen, vigorously challenged environmental impact statements related to the project and successfully fought for the completion of arisk assessment study on the project.

Last fall, opponents even chained themselves to the facility’s entrance gates to make their points known. But as the fight moves forward, Inergy continues the preparations for what it hopes will be the eventualconstruction of the facility. Campbell and his supporters, meanwhile, hope for the opposite and are gearing for an extended showdown in the courtroom.

“Earthjustice is representing us for free, which is good because fundraising for us has been a struggle,” he said. “But we are still raising funds because of the impending litigation. We’re going to need expert witnesses, and they don’t come cheap.”

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