Many people have claimed to have played a pivotal role in getting New York governor Andrew Cuomo to “ban” fracking, and although the “ban” is more of an extension of a temporary moratorium, it took the hard work of many thousands of activists, both sung and unsung.
One person who can rightly claim to have done more than her fair share is Vera Scroggins, retiree, citizen journalist and dedicated “Northeast Pennsylvania frack tour” operator. As a member of Shaleshock Media Alliance, she has posted countless hours of videotaped interviews, fracking operations footage, hearings, meetings, rallies and protests, often accompanied by her own sometimes-amusing commentary.
And with fellow Pennsylvanians, she has brought hundreds of people from their home state, neighboring New York and Ohio, and all over the country and the world to see for themselves what the gas and oil industry don’t want them to see: what it’s like to live in a frack zone. Visitors witness dirty air, poisoned water, heavy traffic, and other unpleasant accompaniments to heavy industrialization – and go home armed with this knowledge, determined to keep frackers from invading their own communities.
On Wednesday, February 25, Scroggins was once again in court in Montrose, Pennsylvania. It was her fourth appearance in front of “judge” Kenneth W. Seamans, whose own land is leased for fracking, yet who has not recused himself from the case. He also officially retired in December, but says he is following up on cases he began.
Two Trumped-up Charges
Issue one was a contempt charge. Houston, Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas, one of the three remaining huge fracking corporations operating in Susquehanna County, claimed that on January 16 Scroggins violated the injunction imposed upon her (at Cabot’s behest) by Seamans last year. The injunction essentially forces her to keep at least 100 feet away from sites where Cabot is operating. (At first she was barred from nearly half the county, including schools, the library and health-care providers; later the injunction was made somewhat less restrictive.)
What really happened: On January 16, Scroggins was hosting two French journalists and a fellow Susquehanna County resident on a tour. She parked in the private driveway of a friend, some 700 feet away from the access road controlled by Cabot. She chatted with her friend in his driveway as the journalists walked on the public road up to the gate of the Cabot fracking operation, took some photos, and returned to meet Scroggins in the friend’s driveway. Today, she and two witnesses stated this under oath, and they introduced photos in evidence.
What Cabot claimed: Scroggins both parked and walked on its access road, from which she is barred. An out-of-state (NYS) gas worker, Jordan Huffman, was called as a witness. He stated that she did as Cabot claimed. He had no photos to document the claim (because it was false), and instead showed a photo he took of Scroggins at the neighbor’s property.
Scroggins has steadfastly obeyed the injunction, despite its blatant idiocy and unfairness. “I don’t take people onto the sites,” she explains. “I show them the sites from the public roads, and they take photos and videos. And we never go where landowners don’t want us. Besides, Cabot has had security posted on their driveways for the past two to three years, and we couldn’t get in if we tried.”
Cabot desperately wants to stop Scroggins and fellow activists in Susquehanna County from showing the frack sites because exposure of the contamination the corporation has caused is bad publicity. “We’ve shown legislators, journalists, farmers and all sorts of people what is happening next to our homes, on school property and on farms,” Scroggins says. “Most people are just stunned, and they go home and fight to keep it from their counties, states and countries. Some have even banned it, like in New York. Lots of New Yorkers have been on our citizen gas tours. They saw the damages to our water, air and roads. They’re horrified by it, and by the industrialization.”
Yet Seamans decided to “teach her a lesson” and follow his corporate friends’ wishes. He ignored Scroggins and the sworn witnesses who insisted she did not violate the injunction, and chose instead to believe the industry worker. He seemed to indicate he’d impose some fines on Scroggins, “somewhere between $300 and $1,000, maybe per day . . . ” (His pronouncement was incomprehensible.)
Scroggins says that if there are fines imposed, she will not pay them and will go to jail instead.
Fellow Pennsylvanian Alex Lotorto, who is the shale-gas program coordinator for Energy Justice Network, helped Scroggins arrange the January 16 tour. Lotorto points out that Seamans “has a gas lease on his property. And he has ignored attorney-client privilege in the case, forcing the ACLU and other attorneys to turn over their e-mails with Vera.”
Scroggins was represented by an ACLU attorney from Pittsburgh, Vic Walczak, for this charge, with a cocounsel new to the case this past weekend, Sheila Dugan, an attorney from Milanville, Pennsylvania.
Issue two was Cabot’s request to make permanent the injunction restricting Vera Scroggins’s freedom of movement in her own county and keeping her from nearing Cabot sites. Although Scroggins had indicated last fall that she’d agree to the restrictions imposed, she later had a change of heart and refused to sign settlement documents. Cabot argued her signature wasn’t needed; Seamans (surprise!) agreed with the corporation.
Scroggins’s attorney for this case, Jerry Kinchy, who is admitted to both New York and Pennsylvania bars, argued that she needed the opportunity to present her side, which is what happened on February 25. (Kinchy, by the way, has also been working with New York journalist and antifracking activist Jeremy Alderson and some of the people following his lead in defending Seneca Lake from invasion by the Houston, Texas-based Crestwood Midstream fossil-fuel infrastructure corporation.)
Can This Be Legal?
Seamans ordered Scroggins’s ACLU attorneys to hand over their email correspondence with her. He said he’d then review these private emails between Scroggins and her counsel and see what he thought about allowing any of it into testimony. He’ll schedule another hearing for this before passing his next judgment.
Scroggins is not sure when this might be. Seamans will “let her know.”
“He can decide whatever he wants,” says Scroggins, “and part of the sentencing could be that I have to pay Cabot’s court costs.” She laughs: “I almost hope he does charge me for their expenses – they’ll be waiting a long time.”
The fossil-fuel pushers who should be prosecuted along with the bankers who brought the global economy to its knees are out free, pillaging communities across Pennsylvania and elsewhere. (At least if the unflinching Scroggins does go to jail she’d be likely to meet people of a higher caliber.)
After “passing judgment” on Scroggins February 25, Kenneth Seamans had the temerity to call out to the corporate lawyers representing Cabot, “You’re buying lunch, right?”
Such judicial-corporate collusion, like the legislative-corporate cronyism and regulatory agency-corporate chumminess, is no longer even something to be hidden; it’s right out in the open.
Lotorto says, “It was absolutely disgusting watching corruption unfold in the courtroom. I’m ashamed that so many Northeast Pennsylvanians have allowed themselves to be corrupted by these companies. In the end, they can celebrate this judgment day, but theirs will come.”
Scroggins wasn’t wasting time feeling sorry for herself. She was busy planning the next day’s tour, for four German TV folks coming up from Washington DC.