Letter from Seneca Lake

On March 18, Orion friend and columnist Sandra Steingraber was arrested as she and eleven others attempted to block a facility used to store hydrofracked natural gas; today, she and her colleagues were sentenced to fifteen days in prison. Before being escorted to jail, Sandra read this statement aloud in the courtroom.

Your Honor, I am not a lawyer. I am a biologist and a human being. I am also a mother of a fourteen-year-old and an eleven-year-old. I bring all these identities to your courtroom tonight.

I am guilty of an act of trespass. On March 18, I willfully stood on private property owned by the Inergy company and blocked access to a compressor station site that is being constructed in order to prepare explosive hydrocarbon gases, propane and butane, for storage in abandoned salt caverns that are located beside and beneath Seneca Lake.

In my field of environmental health, the word trespass has meaning. Toxic trespass refers to involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant. It is a contamination without consent. It is my belief, as a biologist, that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass. Inergy has been out of compliance with EPA regulations every quarter for the past three years. In spite of this, Inergy applied for, and has received, from the state of New York a permit to discharge, every day, an additional 44,000 pounds of chloride into Seneca Lake. That’s twenty-two tons a day. That’s 8,000 tons a year. Seneca Lake is a source of drinking water for 100,000 people. Those industrial discharges trespass into the bodies of those who drink it.

Additionally, Inergy’s planned sixty-foot flare stack will release hazardous air pollutants, including ozone precursors, as will the fleets of diesel trucks hauling propane. This kind of air pollution is linked to heart attack and stroke risk, pre-term birth, and asthma in children. Thus does Inergy trespass into our air and lungs. I see this as a real danger to my eleven-year-old son, who has a history of asthma. We live fifteen miles to the east—directly downwind—from this facility.

Inergy’s plans to industrialize the lakeshore will bring 24/7 light and noise pollution into a tranquil community. These forms of trespass also have health consequences, including increased risk for breast cancer and elevated blood pressure.

And because Inergy is building out infrastructure for the storage and transportation of greenhouse gases obtained by fracturing shale, Inergy trespasses into our climate and contributes to its ongoing destabilization at a time when the best science show us that we need to be rapidly moving away from fossil fuels of all kinds.

Lastly, the risk of catastrophic accidents from the storage of liquefied petroleum gases in salt caverns is real. It has happened in at least ten previous occasions. The fourteen-acre sinkhole in Belle Rose, Louisiana, which is now making headlines, was caused by a collapsed salt cavern. It sent crude oil gushing up into surface water and natural gas into groundwater.

As a biologist, I have submitted expert comments and petitions about Inergy’s application for permits to both the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. However, I am hampered in my efforts to judge the structural soundness of the salt caverns because the company that owns them insists that the scientific research that documents the history of these caverns—at least one of which sits on a fault line—is a trade secret.

Your honor, how can geological history become proprietary information? Without access to data, how can any member of the public evaluate the risks we are being compelled to endure by the repurposing of salt caverns into giant underground cigarette lighters?

In closing, my actions were taken to protest the trespass of Inergy into our air, water, bodies, safety, and security. My small, peaceful act of trespass was intended to prevent a much larger, and possibly violent one.

The people of Bellrose, Lousiana, are now facing relocation after the catastrophic collapse of the salt cavern there. Family homes are being abandoned. And the signs on the front lawns of the empty houses read, “No trespassing.”

To bring attention to such hazards for the Finger Lakes—and for the act of protecting water, which is life itself—I trespassed. It was an act of civil disobedience. For that, and because I have deep respect for the rule of law, which Inergy company does not, I am willing to go to jail.

Sandra Steingraber’s column “The Silence of Science” appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Orion. Next year, her daughter will learn to drive on upstate New York roads that will or won’t be filled with fracking trucks. In lieu of letters to jail, Sandra asks supporters to direct their energies toward writing their local media outlets.


  1. Thank you, Sandra, for yet another important stand against the drillers, foulers, and frackers.

  2. Thank you for your courage in standing up to the arm of the greatest threat our human species has yet encountered – our addiction to a fossil fueled economy.

  3. Thank you Sandra for standing up to the GREEDY unenvironmental corrupt corporations. I relate with you as my son and I both have asthma. My health is currently down, but when I get my energy back, I plan on continuing my Advocacy for causes that effect our nation and world. You are a wonderful roll model for everyone especially your kids.

  4. May this courageous act of civil disobedience be the beginning of many more like actions.

  5. Dear Sandra
    Thank you for your courage and integrity in standing up against this kind of offense against nature and life.I have watched the destruction descending on this depleted farming community in NE PA where I live . I am appalled every day.You are so right.

  6. Bless you Sandra for your courage! may this be one step to encourage thousands of us to do the same to save our earth.

  7. Sandra,
    Just as Tim deChristopher is coming out of jail, you are going in—thankfully for a much shorter time. Why must we take such drastic action to be heard—and still, seemingly, be heard mostly by those who are already aware of the dangers?
    Best wishes, and thank you.

  8. Sandra I have read and watched you on the internet with deep respect. We are fighting the same battle here in Australia against coal seam gas mining (fracking) You are a true inspiration.

  9. Your words, Sandra, illuminate your action. Your action dignifies your words. We stand with you in solidarity, respect, and gratitude.

    Tim DeChristopher is out of jail.
    You are serving time in jail.
    Rick Bass and friends await their trial in Montana.

    There will be more acts civil disobedience on behalf of environmental injustices: Each of us taking our turn in the places we call home.

    With love, Terry Tempest Williams

  10. Hurray for you fellow namesake. We need to get the word out to more people everywhere so millions of us can do the same to protect our planet. We don’t. Have much time left to protect ourselves from the money-grubbers called Big Oil. Thanks so much, I will try to help spread the word, your “good word”

Commenting on this item is closed.