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Gas Debate Divides Finger Lakes Region

David Chanatry

The debate over proposals to store natural gas, propane and butane in salt caverns under Seneca Lake has become increasingly vocal, especially after a federal agency approved part of the project last May. Opponents recently organized the biggest rally yet in the Finger Lakes village of Watkins Glen.

As the members of the Schuyler County Legislature left their most recent meeting, the emotion and passion and anger of opponents of the gas storage projects — and fracking in general — burst into full display.

Dozens of protesters — part of a much larger rally earlier in the evening—had waited for the legislators who refused to reverse an earlier vote supporting the plan to store liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, in underground salt caverns alongside Seneca Lake.

The project is being proposed by Texas-based Crestwood-Midstream. The company also wants to use other salt caverns to increase the amount of natural gas it already-stores there.  It hopes to make the facility a hub for distributing the fuels throughout the northeast.

But the plan has run into strong resistance.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the lakeshore earlier in the evening while the legislators were meeting.

Speakers warned of danger to the region’s tourism and wine industries . They say the project threatens Seneca lake itself, the source of drinking water for 100 thousand people. Steve Churchill is a county legislator in neighboring Seneca County.

"Don’t let her live another day under the threat of  mass industrialization, contamination, and possibly death...it wouldn’t be the first lake that man has killed," he says.

Biologist Sandra Steingraber read a list of demands for the legislature. Last year she spent 10 days in jail for chaining herself to a fence to stop prep work on the project.

"We want this body to resolve not to support any gas storage project on Seneca Lake now or anytime into the future," she said.

But the chairman of the legislature in Schuyler County, where the caverns are located, pushed for the vote of support. Dennis Fagan is a retired environmental engineer. He spoke last year with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.

"Based on based on my background I feel this can be done in an environmentally sound manner," he said. "An increase in our tax base is sorely needed in any area of the state, and I think that this facility can coexist with our tourism industry without having an adverse impact on it."

After a lengthy review, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently gave its approval to the natural gas part of the project. Now only the state DEC stands in the way. Yvonne Taylor of the group Gas Free Seneca had a clear message for Governor Cuomo:

"We have a big, mean neighborhood watch. In the absence of your support this neighborhood will take matter into their own hands to ensure its safety."

Fagan, the legislature chairman, says Taylor and her group are environmental bullies who don’t represent the community.

"The vast majority of my constituents that I have talked to are not in opposition to this project, but they’re the silent majority,"

Different visions of the future competing outside the Schulyer County courthouse.

David Chanatry is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College at www.nyrp-uc.org

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